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Human resources is more than a department, it is every company’s most important asset.

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-9-34-15-pmNIKE makes great running shoes, but it’s not what makes it a great company. World-class aircraft engines aren’t what make GE a world-class organization. And warm, comfortable fleece isn’t what makes Patagonia so amazing.

Spend time inside a lot of great companies, as I have, and you will find something that is usually common to each of them: great people driven by a strong and clear organizational culture. Focused and inspired, they share a common purpose and get up each day inspired to do their part in delivering on their ‘role in the story.’ From the C-suite to the loading dock, regardless of role, responsibility, level in the organization or title, everyone understands why the organization exists and embraces this core purpose and promise as their own.

Unfortunately, the opposite is equally true. Companies that don’t have a strong purpose-led culture, struggle. Their people are not as unified, not as inspired, not as focused. They may have a breakthrough product or technology, but they are often growing on a shaky foundation. When they hit a speed bump or face a competitive challenge, they lack the institutional resilience to respond. Just ask someone that used to work at Blackberry.

Instinctively, I guess I always got this, but certainly not to the degree I do now. I also didn’t fully get the critical role of HR. For most of my early career I thought of HR as sort of a backroom function. People who would get involved when you were hired or did something wrong (I, of course, never did), explained healthcare and insurance benefits, and what the vacation policies were – all of which are important, but are by no means what their real impact is and should be. Make no mistake: for the vast majority of companies today, it is all about their ‘human resources!’

In his groundbreaking book Good to Great, Jim Collins states very clearly, “Great vision  without great people is irrelevant.” And a company of great people is created by a clear, purpose-led culture.

While the CEO should be the leader of defining a company’s culture, the head of HR needs to own it and can play an incredibly important, evangelistic role in activating it, reaffirming it, and making sure it remains front and center in the daily lives of everyone who works there. It is the company’s culture that informs everything it is and does,  and determines who should be on the team and who might be more successful somewhere else.

Look, the truth is, most companies are defined by their people, not their products. That is what makes the role of HR more important than ever.

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