6 Common Traits of Superior, 21st-Century HR Organizations

Dec 30, 2013 Posted by

The latest issue of Harvard Business Review boasts three, count ‘em, three articles about human resources at very different (but wildly successful) companies. One piece focuses on design firm IDEO’s “culture of helping.” The second article looks at asset management firm BlackRock’s superior talent strategy. The third piece, authored by Netflix’s former chief talent officer Patty McCord, profiles the “common sense HR” approach at Netflix, where executives abandoned policies in favor of requiring employees to essentially behave as adults. I have to chuckle, of course — not at Netflix, but at the fact that what the company has done is so out-of-the-box compared with the status quo.

canstockphoto11991917It’s interesting to note, too, that the Netflix article has generated over 100 comments, while the other two have only drawn a handful. I wonder if executives are looking for something better than what they have?

HR has been a maligned enterprise over the past couple decades, so it is wonderful to see stories about what great HR can truly be. But what is so very interesting about all three of these HBR articles is that they’re not really about what HR does, but what leaders do. So why then do organizations even bother with HR? These three companies have HR teams, so what do the HR teams in these organizations do differently than HR teams in other organizations?

A few common elements jumped out at me as I read through each story:

HR Manages By Walking Around 

In fact, author Patty McCord — who tells of her time from start-up to success at Netflix — got her ideas from speaking with employees and leaders. Here’s more from McCord:


HR Listens With an Open Mind

At Netflix, the stories that McCord tells could easily have been different had she not been willing to throw out convention and really listen. For example, we all struggle with employees who just can’t do the job, so we put policies around how to “manage them out” — but the policies don’t make sense because we know they can’t do the job. Instead of putting the leader and the employee through the trauma of “performance improvement,” Netflix sweetened the severance packages, allowing those who didn’t have the skills or fit to leave with help and dignity.

HR Focuses on Principles, Not Policies

The IDEO article explains the company’s culture of helping, stating that the collaborative environment that employees cherish and guard is the critical spark of creativity. The company also provides new employees “The Little Book of IDEO,” with a map of organizational values.

HR Provides Clarity of Purpose

McCord talks a lot about aligning messages with behaviors, recognizing that when these are misaligned, employees are confused and less productive.

HR is a Trusted Advisor to the Executive Team

Okay, I’m inferring a bit here because it really doesn’t say that in the articles, but the paradigm shifts described don’t happen without a lot of dialogue and reflection. And as HR is tuned in to the employees, it is logical that they represent the employees’ effectively.

HR Focuses on Leadership

There is no inference here. All three articles state categorically that the secret to their success is leaders who are on board, well trained, aligned with the values, and effective at developing their teams.

Thinking about this in summary, I’m guessing that if one were to draw a pie chart of the blocks of time that HR spends on the above strategies, and the amount of time spent on policies, enforcement and program management, these three companies would have the biggest piece of the pie on strategy.

What do you think the allocation would be for most organizations’ HR teams?

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