My grandmother was a kick-ass lady. She raised six (!) children through a world-war. A war when she leaned in (without your book or a choice Sheryl). A war during which she and her children were denied access to the air raid shelters, because she was openly unsupportive of the Nazis. Instead of a karma reward, she lost my grandfather to a stroke way too early in her life, but just kept on trucking. “I’m sorry for you kids these days, you have it so much harder. I never had time for a depression, there was simply too much to do”, was all she had to say about all that… If you aren’t impressed yet, she had another superpower. She united a seriously dysfunctional clan of a family. Think Game of Thrones mixed with Pretty Little Liars. Yet everybody respected her because she listened to all members of her family on equal terms, never judged and was always open to talk. Always. That’s not a mean feat in such a big and complicated family full of egos. Yes, she had clear views on topics, but she did not try to make them yours. She simply united warring parties at one table in kitchen the size of your broom closet, served them a killer dish of home-made potato dumplings and pork chops until it felt like family again. The other day Pepper and I made the very same dumplings with our kids and I had to think of the valuable lessons I had learned from my “Omi”. Lessons that influenced me not just as a man, partner and father, but as an entrepreneur and as the notorious killer of HR.
Listen up HR peeps, here comes Granny:
Omi was the center, not the top of the family.
You have enemies? Great! That means you stood for something. – Churchill
Look at our organisational charts. They are still either functional or hierarchical. They go from top to bottom. They have no center. Not natural nor artificial. Simply none.
Omi was the center of the family as clearly as the planets revolve around the sun. My grandmother’s foremost quality was her smile framed by piercing blue eyes and an unrelentless positive attitude. I guess the latter being a side-effect of having survived the third Reich. It was this positive warmth that kept people in her orbit by choice. Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t above dishing out a spanking. Actually, if you knew my aunt and uncles you would wonder why she wasn’t in spanking mode 24/7. How little she had to revert to authority and rules only serves to demonstrate her greatness. Her power was implicit. She believed in all of her flock, all evidence to the contrary. She embraced and accepted into her fold the likes of my dad, because she trusted her children’s judgement. She cared and provided for her rat pack in a way that engendered undying loyalty. The kind that had her kids come visit her not because they felt obliged, but because they loved to see her. Loved to talk with her. If not wiser, you always walked away more positiv from meeting my Grandmother.
Now bear with me and try to translate this to HR. A group of people whose positive power is so pervasive in an enterprise, people voluntarily seek their feedback and guidance. A group of people who make sure that there are as few rules and as many positive relationships as possible. A group of people who champion liberty and responsible maturity out of experiencing the opposite, enabling these qualities for others not because of elitist philosophy but experience that it is the best remedy to tyranny and hardship.
Does that sound about as far away as possible from the HR function you know?
There is something essential in the lesson I learned from my Grandmother that has influenced ‘The Way’ to democratic Entrepreneurship. The notion of mortality. When you love those around you and you accept that your time is limited, you act in a different way. I wish anyone who doubts our approach to ‘Kill HR’ would have been present at my Grandmother’s funeral. It was a small, private affair (as small as possible anyway with the closest German equivalent to small Arab family gathering). I vividly remember the words of the priest’s eulogy recounting that when he last spoke with her she told him she was ‘full of live’. Set this into the context of a German pun. “Satt sein”, “being full” can mean “being fed up”, as much as “being well fed”. My grandmother meant to say she was “well fed” with live. She had seen her children establish lives more safe and prosperous than her own. She had said farewell to loved ones and welcomed many grandchildren. Her life’s purpose truly was fulfilled. It was ok to go gently into that good night. As we stood in the little chapel, it would have become clear to anyone that the qualities of my grandmother were alive and kicking amongst all attendees. If the vessel was gone, the message remained. If anything her departure had re-enforced everyone’s commitment to them.
What we call ‘the Obi-Wan’ effect in the context of ‘The Way’s’ management had its birth in this very intimate moment. The best HR is the one not needed. When we embrace HR’s role as such a mortal one and see it as an opportunity to inspire a legacy, we change our mindset. The same is true for the concept of management in service of self-governing teams, by the way. When we approach HR and Management not as a function (person), but as a set of behaviours (enabled and lived values), we act differently. When we are clear on what we stand for, what we stand against and who we stand with, our role becomes implicitly clear. Maybe our position is argued over, disagreed with or embraced – but clear. But it takes guts! Guts to go to a Managing Director and establish that clarity. Nothing great ever came without a fight. It takes guts and endurance to convince a rat-pack organisation that you are serious and won’t be swayed in your way. Just like refusing to seek shelter during an air-raid because you stand up for the right thing.
Does that sound like any HR function or Manager you know?
Lesson learned? Become the center by leaving the circle. We need to understand that just like a great mother lives and acts independently to raise her kids to live and act independently, HR needs to do likewise. If the organisation shall be more safe and prosperous as a legacy, we need to embrace our mortality as HR. Get a business canvas: put “100% Self-Government” down as core purpose of your being. Fill in the blanks. Now go get yourself some undying loyalties and enemies. Stand up for something. Live it. Compromise on the how, never on the what.
Omi valued action over words.
Be the change that you wish to see in the world! -Gandhi
To call my love life turbulent is like saying the Hulk has minor anger management issues. In total desperation for game-changing life advise I turned to my Grandmother. I laid out to her exactly what had been said by whom when and expected a verdict from the mighty Oracle. My Grandmother’s feedback: ‘You think too much about what is said.You should pay more attention to what’s being done. As a matter of fact, forget what anyone is saying. Just watch what they are doing.’
There you have it. A lot of things suddenly made sense…
And hey – there’s a simple transfer to be made here to organisational ecology. I really wish I had a € for every-time an organisation knowingly tramples on the very values it espouses on the Culture/Recruiting part of its website.
Sample Problem: ’This manager repeatedly yells at his team-members and some people are already looking for other jobs.’
Sample Excuse. uhmmm…we have no successors, and he gets the numbers. Give him another chance. People don’t leave so quickly in this economic climate.’
People forget that Glassdoor and Kununu exist for a reason and that the worst precedent you let slip, sets the bar for your culture. No one out there says: they are a great company who hold their leaders accountable to their behaviour, it says so on their website. Those 15 negative reviews on Glassdoor are a fluke.
Above I said that organisational charts have no center. Not natural nor artificial. Simply none. That’s only half the truth. Organisations have values. Embodied in behaviour they create the unique culture. Usually there are values written down, but those aren’t the ones I mean. I mean the ones the organisation really lives. In the above example that value would be: ‘We let ourselves be blackmailed by Divas, because we are too chick-shit to risk a hit in performance to put our money where our mouth is.’ Some companies explicitly evoke the ‘No asshole’ Rule for such cases. No asshole is worth compromising what could be a great team.
People forget that watching what organisations do is so much easier these days in a networked world. We don’t have to listen to what they say and take them on their words anymore. If HR is to become the bearer of the new world of work, we must do the same. We must live it! Take the case of eBay. When the top-management already knew they’d bow to lunatic investors like Icahn and his money-grabbing schemes to split PayPal off from eBay, the internal communications and HR department was busy rolling out a big “Better together” campaign. Now, you cannot tell me that the VP of HR was so blind or sidelined in the board, that she had no clue of the things to come (at least that’s what I hope for Beth Axelrod). That means you take your people for idiots. And then you wonder why change initiatives are greeted with cynicism and there are abysmal engagement scores. Examples like this abound. People stop listening, they watch the actions.
The hardest part when we partner with people to fundamentally change the game is to overcome years of cynicism, broken promises and internal propaganda – words. How do we do that? Action. It speaks so much louder than words. Say nothing. Just do something. People will make that action go viral soon enough, trust me. A CEO who gives up his office to sit with his team? One Tweet, a thousand retweets. A Manager who fires a known superstar bully in her team. That lady gains respect and emotional capital, because people build up trust again! The team will return that courageous move in improved performance 9 times out of 10.
Our awesome advisor Dan Walker, the former Chief Talent Officer at Apple during the Steve Jobs era nailed it. He told us a story where he sat in a C-level meeting with his peers and told them the performance reviews at Apple were abolished. They added no value, stole people’s time and served no purpose. His peers were shocked. This was an established ritual. What would take its place? Nothing, he answered. Nothing is better than to continue non-sense. But he was open to any better alternative that would espouse the Apple commitment to integrated Design and enable creating insanely great product. There were none. The performance reviews were gone. Well, hold on. Not quite. Before they were gone, the C-Level raised a stink of course. To which Dan answered: Would you like me to call Steve? Because this is aligned with him 100%.
Then they were gone. HR had drawn a line in the sand. Its actions (or its stand against non-sensical actions) spoke louder than a revamp, an iteration or a new brochure on performance management. It simply freed up time to actually perform.
Lesson learned? Be critical what actions you take versus the words that you speak. As HR that means a whole lot. We ARE the custodians of culture. So, take stock, be honest with yourself. If you don’t know. Go out, wander around the organisation and ask people. Especially people you don’t know and who have no business kissing your ass. To effect meaningful change, you have to assess where you stand with words vs. action and then start taking decisive and consistent action! If not anywhere else do it internally. Get commitment: Let your crew vote for you as a leader. Free up time. Abolish performance management in your team. Demonstrate honesty: Make your salary transparent. Demand responsible action: Let your people take as many holidays as they like and work whenever wherever. Be an entrepreneur: Insist everybody draw up their on ‘Business Model You’ Canvas to demonstrate their contribution to the Customer. Be the future of work: Don’t order, create choices. Treat your team like partners and make all work contributions voluntary!
Be the change you wish to see in the world. My Grandmother understood that.
(…and my love life totally benefited from it :-)
Omi was practical and helpful.
Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face. – Mike Tyson
When I had my first child, a wonderful daughter – I was as freaked out as the next father. 25 and burdened with the responsibility for a new life. AAAHHHHHHH!!!! I was out of my depth and felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. So I turned to my Grandmother – remember, mother of 7 – and asked her what I absolutely need to be aware of as a newly minted father. Omi thought for a moment – during which I totally expected trumpets and a choir, while I received gnosis – then said: ‘Keep the diapers at arms length on the baby’s changing table.’
The trumpets crashed, the choir died.
‘I have heard of so many babies falling off the changing tables and their heads are still so delicate. Just make sure you can always have one hand on the baby so she does not roll off. The move quite quickly, you know.’
I was stunned. This was totally not the kind of ground-breaking parenthood advise I had wished for. Fortunately it was exactly the advise I needed. It wasn’t a theoretical paper on playground behaviour, or moving from authority to partnership parenting. It wasn’t a lecture on bi-lingual speech development or anything of the sort – it was sound practical advise. As simple as it was timeless and applicable.
A similar thing happened to me when I spoke with our wonderful advisor Clovis da Silva Bojikian, the Guru of RH of Ricardo Semler’s SEMCO Group – the world’s first truly democratic company. When he visited us in Berlin to help usher in the next step for our company, I asked him what it took to create large scale organisational democracy like SEMCO. I mean, we’d done it for companies between 100 and 600, but he had succeeded to scale it to 8000 people! Which basically means you cracked the code and you might as well do it for 800.000. So, expecting his answer my trumpets hesitantly began playing, the choir began a careful crescendo, when Clovis said: ‘You will do the right thing, Heiko. I believe in you and your team.’
My trumpet players quit their job permanently and the choir now works for the Boston Consulting Group.
He went on to tell me that it takes time to go your own way and that the worst I could do would be to try and copy SEMCO. The found their answers in their context in a time before Internet, before even Brazil was a democracy. Those answers would mean nothing to us. They had begun handing over responsibility to workers for the cafeteria food they complained about, for the colour of their overalls. What, Clovis asked, should I advise you? To make the lunch menu democratic? Maybe the food isn’t an issue so much outside Brazil. Maybe the overalls are regulated by some ISO norm in Europe. Who knows… But he did break it down to three simple rules he had followed:
- Create choices
- Be transparent
- Keep it small
In our apple Juice and tomato juice analogy (for a different blog entry) this means that at different times in your organisational development, these three design elements can mean vastly different things. Just like giving choices was different for my Grandma with a 3 year old, a 9 year old and a 16 year old. As a new father the advise to keep the diapers at arm’s length ensured the health of my daughter so I could plan her Stanford application, so she could be the first woman on Mars. But I digress. I understood then, that people like my Grandmother, my parents and Clovis understood the underpinnings of these design principles and offered guidance and practical methods in the early stages of development, whereas they would move to increasingly abstract coaching – sometimes flat out refusing advise – to engender seeking purpose, learning autonomy and developing mastery by myself. That phase might not be much appreciated, which is why it so important for HR to have a clear mission. The mission – the purpose – keeps you on track, not the popularity. Tough missions do not make for popularity contests, but if we cannot grow up to work with purpose, autonomy and mastery within HR, we have no credibility, no business and no experiential grounds to bring it to the teams around us. What my Grandmother, my parents and Clovis taught me was the MVP of life – going for iterating on a minimum viable product, until it stands on its own two feet as a mature responsible, independent adult. That’s mission accomplished.
Lesson learned? Stop making grand plans. Forget the strategic recruitment plan. Forget the immense and useless competency portfolio, forget all the theoretical crap you spend most of your time with. Have a baby (just try something, create mvp products). Keep the diapers at arms length (know the business value creation chain, the exact numbers and how your product can solve issues or add value). Plan your value adding time between the diaper changes (fire fighting and recruiting usually) Change the diapers regularly (find a way to stay informed about the numbers and the non-numerical information by practise Management-By-Walking-Around). Hold hands for the first steps (launch the products in your own team, then with close support and training wheels in the teams around you). Create increasingly more open choices, be increasingly transparent about the how, why and what. Keep it small, family is everything. Have fun. Laugh a lot. Everybody has grand plans before the baby rolls off the changing table.
That’s what my Grandmother taught me.