Sunday, May 27, 2007

If you hang around in HR for too long...

This post is about a question that has been in my mind for the last few years. The issue is something like this: After your MBA in HR (especially if you have graduated from a reputed management institute) you can expect to be the Head of HR of a somewhat large firm in about 15-20 years, assuming a reasonably successful career. Of course, not everyone becomes (or even wants to become) a Head of HR. But in general, this kind of a time frame seems reasonable. Now, the question is 'what would you do after that'. Many people would look forward to working for at least 15 years more. So what are your 'career options' at that stage ? If we define career as 'pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement where one takes up positions of increasing responsibility/complexity/contribution', the challenge is to find such positions/work that would enable the senior HR professional to continue to grow and contribute.

It is interesting to look at this issue from the organization's perspective also. Do organizations have many HR jobs that would require a level of expertise which would take more than 20 years to develop (Quick question : In the last 2 years, how many HR jobs have you come across for which the person specification indicated more than 20 years of experience?)? May be, not too many positions exist within most organizations that require such a level of expertise/such a senior profile.

Now, let us come back to our senior HR professional. We have seen 'solutions' found by particular individuals. They include, inter alia, moving into larger firms, moving into regional/global roles, starting one's own firm, HR consulting, becoming an OD/Leadership Development specialist, teaching and branching into a totally different fields. Some people also become CEOs/Heads of other functions, though they constitute only a very small percentage of the population that we are talking about. Of course, there is always the possibility of 'retirement on the job' where one stagnates, disengages and still continues on the job. If we look at solutions 'within the organizations' (like moving into larger firms, moving into regional/global roles etc.), it would be interesting to examine if they really solve the problem (by providing positions of increasing responsibility/complexity/contribution) as compared to merely changing the context (by providing a different sort of mandate/experience).

Some combinations of the above solutions/options might lead to something very similar to 'portfolio living' that Charles Handy talks about. We also need to differentiate between the solution(s) found by a particular individual (or individuals) and the career options available to bulk of the population that we are talking about. So where does this leave our senior HR professional. In some cases this could lead to some sort of a 'career crisis'. It is interesting to note that this career crisis might also coincide with a larger midlife crisis which brings in additional dimensions.

Any thoughts/comments?


1. The title of this post does not in any way imply that a long stint/career HR would necessarily mean 'hanging around in HR'. There are many possibilities for 'progressive achievement/ contribution' including those hinted at by the 'solutions' mentioned in the post. I have used the term 'hanging around' (though it has a negative connotation) for rhetorical purpose - to highlight the risk of stagnation and to stimulate discussion. It would be interesting to read this post along with the next post on 'Thought leadership in HR in India'. It can be readily inferred that the thought leaders does not hang around in the field as they redefine the boundaries and bring in new perspectives which would in turn mean that they rise above the constraints imposed by the current definition/understanding of the field.

2. It would be interesting to look at the senior HR positions in organizations and examine if the essential requirement for the position is that of a leader or that of a manager. To keep matters simple, let us go by the distinction that 'leaders focus on 'doing the right things' while managers focus on 'doing things right' (i.e. leaders focus mainly on effectiveness while managers focus mainly on efficiency).

If we look the senior HR jobs in MNCs in India (that are headquartered outside India), we might find that in many cases the 'right things' (the deliverable/tasks for the senior HR positions at a country level) gets decided at the global level and the key expectation from the HR position at the country level is to get those 'right things' done right/efficiently. The logic here is that an aggregate of local optima might not lead to a global optimum. So the key expectation from such senior HR positions is to carry out a predefined set of tasks efficiently and to keep customizations to a minimum. Thus the ideal profile would be someone who would 'completely merge into the system' and get things done without asking too many questions.

So the requirement is essentially that of a manager. If a 'leader profile' gets hired into the position, she/he might get frustrated and leave (or she/he might get forced to operate just like a manager). If the senior position is supposed to manage 'deep-specialists' (see an earlier post on 'deep-specialist' positions here) it could result in additional difficulties as 'deep-specialists' tend to respond more favorably to leading as opposed to managing. Mercifully not too many deep-specialist positions seem to exist in those contexts (see here).

3. See a related post here

Monday, May 7, 2007

Of problems, paradoxes, koans and wisdom

This post was triggered by a comment on one of my previous posts (see making problems disappear ). The comment also contained a request that I discuss 'other problem solving methods that I know'. I must admit that while I do have a basic understanding about the problem solving methods (that can be used to solve the problems that can be solved in the usual meaning of the term 'solve'), I don't really have any thing special to say on that matter at this point. So what I am trying to do in this post is to talk about a couple of ideas related to problems and problem solving and link them to the basic theme for this blog - 'simplicity at the other side of complexity'.

A few months ago, I had written a post called U-curve and simplicity at the other side of complexity which mentioned that many phenomena follow a pattern that resembles a 'U' - shaped curve over a period of time. They start in one state (i.e. in a particular manner), then move towards the other end (i.e. the opposite manner/state) and then they come back to the original state at a higher level/plane. I feel that something similar might be involved in the case of many of the complex problems. It works something like this. The first stage is when one does not recognise that a problem exists. Here one does not (have to) do anything/exists in blissful ignorance. In the next stage the pendulum swings to the other side and the existence of the problem is recognised. This is also accompanied by a powerful desire (bordering on compulsion) to find a neat solution to the problem immediately. In the case of complex problems often these attempts to find a neat solution fails and this makes the pendulum swing to the other side. In this phase, the existence of a paradox (and not just a problem) is recognised and the nature of attempts to resolve the problem shifts from traditional problem solving to methods similar to making problems disappear. It is interesting to note that one of the definitions of wisdom is 'the understanding of paradoxes'. This in turn leads to approaches like wisdom-level consulting.

I have always been fascinated by Zen- especially the koans in Zen. Initially, I used to think of koans just as 'impossible problems' that are used to break the logical mind. Only recently I came to know that each koan has a more or less unique solution. The critical point here is that these 'solutions' make sense only at a particular state of awareness, which is reached by working on the koan for a long time. Of course, in this context, what is important is the 'achievement of the particular state of awareness' and not the koan or it solution per se.