When I was younger, I lived in Northern Ireland. My uncle ran a fruit and vegetable distribution business but his real passion was golf and he was a member of a well-known local links course in Donegal, called Buncrana. As Secretary, he helped run it as an unpaid volunteer and as part of the arrangement, he got the free use of a small house beside one of the fairways.
One weekend, when I was about 12 years old, my parents, sisters and I were invited down to stay with him and his family. From the front porch, on Saturday evening, we watched many of the golfers go by and right at the end of the day, as it was starting to get dark, my uncle suggested that my father go out on the tee next to the house and hit a few golf balls. My father had never held a golf club in his hands in his life, so my uncle took a club from the bag, set the ball up on the tee and took a few practice air swings to show my father what to do.
The hole was a par three, about 150 yards long, so my father waved the club around and gave the ball a good wallop. The ball took off into the dusk and from where we were standing, we could see that bounced up near the green but then we lost track of it. My father asked my uncle. “What happens now?” and my uncle said “Now you walk to where the ball landed and hit it again.”
We wandered down the fairway searching for the ball but couldn’t find it. I walked over to the flag on the green and looked in the hole - and there was the ball. So, incredibly, the first time my father hit a golf ball, he managed to accomplish every golfer’s dream, a hole-in-one. My uncle couldn’t stop jumping and leaping. My father asked them what was so excited about and h kept shouting “you hit a hole-in-one, you hit hole-in-one, I have been playing golf for 30 years and never managed that”. My father just couldn’t figure out why it was such a big deal, all he said was “Well, I thought that was the point of the game, to put the ball in the hole”.
My father died about 10 years ago and in the rest of his life, he never hit another golf ball. He must be the only person who ever played golf who’s had nothing but holes in one.
The point here is that even knowing nothing or, at best, very little about the game of golf, he figured out very quickly that the essence of the game was to put the ball in the hole. You would think that would be very obvious to anybody playing golf but not so. They get distracted with details about the loft on the irons, the new club they’re trying out, the type of ball they are playing, or the direction of the setting sun.
These are all complete distractions and in the end, have little to do with the essence of the game, of putting the ball in the hole. If they genuinely wanted to do that -in the fewest shots-they would spend all their time practising there putting chipping because that’s where most of the scoring happens. But typically they don’t - they spend most of their practice time hitting long – and very satisfying - drives on the range because that’s what often impresses their playing partners.
So what has this all to do with the human resources profession?
Many times we hear commentators say that HR professionals really need to know the “details of their business”. There is no question that this is so but the real question is “to what extent do you need to know the business and in what kind of detail?
In organizations, it is easy to get bogged down in the weeds - for example, of which language is best for any software application, what is the right thickness for a turbine blade, or how much chromium should be in stainless steel - but at the end of the day, these are largely the minutiae – important minutiae to be sure – but not what the business is really about.
Speaking from my experience as a CEO in a number of organizations, senior executives very much need people who understand all this stuff – but they also need someone by their side who keeps their objectivity and, when discussions start to head off down a blind alley, can bring them back on track and remind them about the business they are really in.
Running an organization is a complicated activity, there are an infinite number of variables, options, many decisions to make and it is easy to get lost in the detail. HR people offer a distinct advantage here because they are not involved in the daily warp and woof of the product, design or marketing details that absorb, and often divert, so many people. HR professionals can stand back, be objective, really keep in mind what the business is all about and bring the “forest” rather than the “trees” perspective.
I will give you a specific example from my experience.
When I was hired as President of the Globe and Mail and the publisher offered me the job, the first question I asked him was “why me? I know nothing about the business”. His answer really surprised me. He said “that is exactly what I want, someone who knows nothing about the newspaper business”.
My answer was “This has to be the first job in my life that I’m over qualified for, so I’ll take it”.
When I started there and met with him to talk more about my role and priorities, he told me that in his experience, new employees brought “fresh eyes” to situations that other, longer term, employees who took many things for granted because they had begun to accept aspects of corporate wisdom that weren’t necessarily valid. It was “out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom” but there certainly was an element of that.
This novel view disappeared very shortly – he believed it took about three months for them to lose that advantage and after that they started to accept things as they were. He asked me to come back after 90 days to meet with him and the other senior managers and give them my thoughts and views on what I figured needed to be done.
I came to two conclusions. First, printing newspapers was not a core competency; we used the presses for little more than three hours per night, six days a week. My view was that people spent more time on their hobbies than we did printing newspapers. My second observation was that the selling price of the newspaper was too low. At that point in time, the early 1990s, all newspapers sold for about 25 cents per copy. When you considered all the costs of editorial, paper, ink, distribution etc. the actual cost of producing each newspaper was close for $2.
When I said this, the reaction from the team was that because we were a newspaper, we needed to print; and advertising had subsidized the cost of circulation over 150 years, so I didn’t understand the business. My simplistic comment was that while that might have been so, it could not continue for ever. The publisher asked me what I thought we should do and I said “One, get out of printing and, two, increase the price of a newspaper”.
To his credit, he didn’t dismiss these crazy ideas out of hand. He just said, they seemed revolutionary but asked me to look at them in more detail and come back with a plan, which I did, three months later.
He, the team and the Thomson Organization bought into those plans and we implemented them. For the rest of the time I spent in the newspaper industry, I was constantly quizzed at conferences and meetings about how we could run a newspaper without printing, it was almost like “how can you be a cowboy, if you don’t have a horse” (we contracted out the printing, by the way, we didn’t drop it); and forever more, I was known in the industry as the person who doubled the price of the Globe and Mail overnight.
There was of course a lot of planning that went in to make this all happen but the key point in this whole discussion is that you do not need to know how offset presses work or how golf balls fly through the air to know what is important in your business. You need to be an expert more in WHAT your business does, and less in the arcane detail of HOW it does it; to stay somewhat detached to allow the “fresh eyes” to see better; and to quickly spot the start of divergence from the organisation’s core strategy and raise the warning flags.
The critical part of it is to be able to distil down to its essence what your business is. For example, what business are railways in? In Europe, the answer would be “we move people from place to place, quickly, in comfort and on time”. Maybe in some countries, you might add “cheaply” as well although not in England. If you ask the question in the United States, the answer probably is “we move freight cheaply and accurately”.
In neither case is the answer “we run a railway”.
This kind of perspective and grounding really adds value at the executive level but how many senior HR people can clearly summarize the business they are in, say, in 15 to 20 words?
Take a theoretical one for an airline “We deliver passengers, in comfort, directly to their destination, on time”. As a customer, this sounds good to me – but how many airlines actually do ALL of this? This kind of simple statement is easily understood and if there are any moves to do something different, it shows up right away. (Personally, I’d want to add “and we guarantee one take off and one landing per flight” - but that’s just me.)
So try it for yourself. Really think hard about your organisation, your product or service that you provide and what is the purpose of it, what are you actually doing, what makes you different? Stay away from the Dilbert speak, rent-a-mission words and try to come up with a one line, say, 10 or 12 word statement about what your business is and what distinguishes it?
If you can and you can keep it in the front of your mind and you can use it to keep your organization on track when all kinds of discussions about problems are going on, you will add great value at the senior table.