Don’t let HR stunt your growth

If we hire people who are conventional, play it safe and avoid risk, it might be fine; but differentiation is the key to competitive strategy – and maybe survival.



I was talking with a guy the other day and it turned out that he was looking for work. He had been doing his own thing for a while and wanted to get into a more reliable source of income.


He had been looking for months and had put in 250 applications without any success. I thought the guy must be a dill, so I asked him for his CV, which he gave me.


I would have to admit that I can’t recall seeing such an outstanding CV. Apart from his academic qualifications, which were impressive (three degrees including a PhD), he had coal-face experience at incredibly interesting levels including consulting on oil rigs off the coast of Africa. I still thought that there must be something wrong, so I checked his references – which were outstanding.


So, I had a chat with the guy and he said the problem was that he didn’t seem to be able to tick all the boxes for the different jobs. I said quite confidently that no one can tick all the boxes and suitability for work is not to do with ticking boxes but with the quality of the individual. “Tell that to the HR people” was his reply.


I got really interested in why this guy couldn’t get a job, and so I contacted a friend of mine who is an executive at Centrelink. I started to tell him the story and he cut me short. “I have sat in on so many meetings and do you know, what has developed is a tick a box process of evaluating individuals for work. HR has run amuck. Do you remember the craze about ISO 9000 and the belief that if everyone could tick the boxes for quality assurance they would be a fantastic company?


“Of course people soon discovered that it was just as easy to go bankrupt with quality assurance as it was without it. Well, that is where recruitment is heading. It has nothing to do with the quality of the individual but everything to do with whether the applicant can tick all the boxes.”


The conversation continued and when he discovered that this guy had a doctorate he exclaimed “For heaven’s sake tell him not to mention that because he will frighten everyone off; no one wants a doctor in the house, they will feel intimidated”.


“So, this guy is going to find it difficult to get a job?” was my next question. “Unfortunately, unless he does his homework on all of these issues which are important to HR, it is going to be tough, particularly if he is really smart. Many people feel very challenged by very smart people.”


Well, that’s the story folks. What have we come to? What makes the difference in an organisation is having smart people. They might not be your conventional tick-a-box, predictable and reliable company person who knows the rules and plays by them. They might unsettle some people and come up with ideas that are against the conventional wisdom. I wonder how Bill Gates would have gone trying to get a job after he dropped out of his MBA course at Stanford.


Growth is an elusive concept and particularly so in an economic climate where the gurus are saying that the world is coming to an end. Conventional wisdom will not make the next step up. Innovation, left field ideas and smart people who can help organisations along this path will make the difference between those organisations that successfully negotiate tough times and come out the other end the stronger, with compelling and different ideas, and those who play it safe.


One of the more successful CEOs in modern times is a guy called Larry Bossidy. He was the CEO of Allied Signal. He believed that his most important role was to recruit good people and he spent an enormous amount of time in this process. He would go to great pains to get to know individuals and work through their values with them, who they were and what they believed they could achieve in life.


He was never challenged by people smarter than himself because he saw that their future and that of the company depended upon the extent to which they could develop their smartness and intellect in the employment of the business.


Things are tough at the moment, and perhaps we ought not think too much about growing next month or next year. Sustainable growth will depend upon how we position ourselves today for the future; not just next year but the next decade.


We can kick against the wind for so long, but if we continue to ignore innovative thinking, brilliance, integrity and ability to solve difficult problems by different approaches, there is a real chance that we will come smack bang against the unforgiving dictates of the market.


If we are conventional, play it safe and avoid risk, it might be fine; but differentiation is the key to competitive strategy and the only way we can really differentiate is through our people. So when you get your next recommendation from HR, just have a look at the people who missed out. There might be someone with a PhD who is very smart and who could bring a lot to your company.




Louis Coutts left law and became a successful entrepreneur. His blog examines the mistakes, follies and strokes of genius that create bigger, better businesses. Click here to find out more.

To read more Louis Coutts blogs, click here .



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