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Organizational Plumbers

I am utterly delighted to have contributed this very blog post to a just-released eBook called Humane Resources. This project is an anthology of HR blogs from more than 50 authors, compiled and produced by David D’Souza  out of the U.K. who blogs at 101 Half Connected Things. The eBook is currently available for purchase in the Amazon Kindle store for $2.99 – every cent of which will go to charity (including OCD Action and Cancer Research UK), AND will be available free next week. It is a wide-ranging, entertaining, intelligent, and contradictory mash-up that represents the breadth, diversity and paradox that characterize Human Resources today. I love it, and I hope that you’ll check it out, tell us what you think, or even write a review on Amazon. I’m so proud and grateful to be part of this international collaboration – many thanks to David and my fellow contributors!

Organizational Plumbers

I just bought and moved into my first home. Yeah. It’s both incredible and terrifying to own something bigger and more expensive than a Coach purse. During a particularly sleepless night this week, I lay awake staring at the ceiling, and my thoughts turned to the multitude of hidden things that could go wrong in a house every day, and how destructive and expensive those things could be. And this, of course, made me think of HR.

Although the HR profession, and the HR blogging community, spends a great deal of time talking about driving innovation, transforming our organizations or leveraging Big Data, a lot of HR practitioners are more like the plumbers than the architects of our organizations. That is, day-to-day they spend the majority of their time responding to calls, e-mails or drop-ins that sound a little like this:

“A pipe burst; help me plug the hole and clean up the mess”

“My toilet backed up and I have sewage in my basement! Come fix it.”

“My sink leaked and ruined all the cupboards. Get over here asap!”

Conflicts, disability, performance issues, absenteeism, resignations, even substance abuse…the list goes on and on. And no one calls until there’s a problem; until the water stops running or something explodes. At which point it needs attention right. that. minute.

Working Behind the Walls

We all have days like these, but for a great many HR folks, this is the job. They don’t have time to ponder the adoption of a new strategic direction, because they are up to their ankles in organizational sewage, working on a clog. I’ve been there at various points in my career, and it’s a tough gig. You’re the behind-the-scenes clean-up crew, and yet people wonder what the heck you do all day. It’s thankless, totally devoid of glamour, but demands full attention to get the wheels of an organization’s business moving again.

In a perfect world, these urgent three-alarm people issues would be categorized, analyzed for pattern and root cause, and the underlying, systemic issues creating them could be addressed as a form of organizational ‘preventative maintenance’. But few organizations get within throwing distance of perfect, and this is often not the case. But for HR professionals trapped in the flooded trenches, the plumbing metaphor might just offer a path forward.

Advancing ‘Organizational Preventative Maintenance’

Moving from being an organizational plumber to a strategic advisor and influencer is no small feat, which is why it is best approached with oodles of patience and a sly, incremental mindset. To begin to edge out from behind the scenes and get ahead of the clogs and leaks, one must be keenly focused on opportunities to drive internal conversations about patterns amongst the problems. Whether it is high turnover of key employees, disability claims, or conflicts emanating from a particular group, drawing attention to the underlying commonalities between some recurring urgent issues is the first step towards being seen as something other than a fixer of messes.

In the aftermath of ‘people emergencies’, a savvy organizational plumber must exploit the opening to provoke further dialogue and exploration of underlying similarities between past situations. Help organizational leaders to connect the dots- ask questions that will solicit reflection on root cause. This may be met with resistance, impatience or dismissal and seem to go nowhere, but the savvy organizational plumber will stick with it. Data will help, even if it’s plain old exit interview responses and demographic analyses you can do in a spreadsheet. Just keep hammering away; be willing to be annoying.

Seek larger opportunities to change the organizational mindset and discourse on people problems and opportunities. Organizational structure changes, large or novel projects, new management team members, or even organizational crises- all of these can provide an opening to further influence the conversation. Start small; this is not the point at which you want to present a grand vision of transforming your organization’s talent strategy. Rather, sell small solutions that you are confident will provide value in order to build your credibility and provide incentive for managers and employees to consider a new approach.

All Hail the Organizational Plumber!

Of course, an organizational plumber has to do all this while still keeping the water running. But even small changes can add up over time, and preventing a few crises a month can mean major progress.  Given the choice, it’s true that most of us would like to be, and be seen, as organizational architects than plumbers- but we can’t let our visions of what ideal HR should be get in the way of improving the HR reality we find ourselves in.

All hail to the organizational plumbers in each of us, who toil without thanks to keep the water running and the drains clear!

Photo credit: Terry Johnston via Flickr Creative Commons

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Adam #

    Excellent article! I run an employee benefit firm…groups 10-100 size. From my experience, unfortunately, many of the HR directors don’t want to change. I’m not sure if it’s an age issue, a lack of collaboration / vision planning set with C-Suite, working ON business vs IN business….all I know is we have tried to help by paying for access to 3rd party HR professionals & access to a killer HR SaaS on boarding/terminating, benefits enrollment and it even integrates with their payroll company. Do you think they want to use these platforms? Of course not. They’d rather do payroll by hand on Quickbooks! Really? Are you serious? I’m not kidding btw. I find the younger generation taking our advise and more willing to change….the companies that are ran by older folks just don’t wanna change. I also find that many of the HR staff isn’t too fast to change gears to improve their administrative tasks /issues. Don’t get it.

    At any rate, thanks for the excellent post.

    October 30, 2013

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