Margaret Boros knows the human resources field isnt universally admired in this age of high-concept management. In fact, she points out, her discipline is engulfed in its own wrenching internal debate about its place in the corporate pecking order. Theres this big discussion going on in HR: Does the internal HR function add value or not? Theyre so paranoid about it; its almost like theyre trying to convince themselves, she says.
But that applies more to what she calls the old HR, a kind of grim, in-house corporate scold, robotically issuing lists of dos and donts divorced from the peculiar operating demands of that business.
If you expect HR to take [all the] responsibility for people, then I think youve lost something. You just cant palm it off on someone else, like HR is supposed to be the conscience of the company, she says. New age HR should instead empower owners and managers with the tools and the insights they need to take full account of people issues themselves. To be truly successful, the HR function doesnt come from the HR department, it comes from the management. Its a management style.
With that in mind, Boros recently left much-admired Manco Inc., as director of partner resources, equivalent of HR director, to launch her Rocky River-based consulting practice, People Matters. We hated to lose Margaret, says Mancos Jack Kahl, but we knew that she needed to follow her lifelong dream to become an entrepreneur.
A veteran of National City Bank, where she dealt with executive compensation, and of Akron-based tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone, where she tried to persuade unionized rubber workers to see the company as their partner, Boros is quick to point out that neither she nor her discipline have all the answers.
People want quick fixes, she says. They think theres an answer, or theres one solution thats going to fit everybody. But I dont have the secrets to success. Its not like Manco had this big secret. I mean, Jack Kahl is their secret. If you can become that charismatic, youll become a successful company, she says, breaking into laughter.
But the flip side for most charismatic leadersand heres where she can helpcarries the seeds of a systemic management problem for their companies: Entrepreneurs generally tend not to understand how most people arent like them. They think that were all alike. But what entrepreneurs cant forget is that most people arent like them. Most people are followers, and we need to know what to follow. You know how Christ called us sheep? Its truewe are sheep. Thats not bad, we just have to understand who we are. And thats why [employees] need some structure, and why they need to know how theyre doing.
Some companies, she knows, institute good policies simply to shield themselves from exposure to lawsuits. Thats one mentality. But how about if you say, I want to put in good practices because it will actually make a difference in my business? Rather than expensively suffering through high employee turnover, she asks, Why not be an employer of choice?
If management can come to appreciate contradiction and paradox in its approach to dealing with employees, it might be able to arrive at a more visionary way of constructing the work environment. I think its possible, she says. But maybe Im still in my delusionary stage. Then again, on the evidence of one early client, she may be on to something.
She was very responsive to my wanting to reflect our culture, says Tom Marshall, owner of Andrews Moving & Storage, a $35-million company in Brecksville which retained Boros to help advise on adding a modicum of structure to its employee policies. Id love to be like some of these companies that throw the book away, he says, citing Southwest Airlines and its radically unorthodox chairman Herb Kelleher. You can create a culture like that, but youve still got to let [employees] know what harassment is, he says. The balance he tried to strike in the employees manual was to keep it light, and have the fine print buried in the closet if we need it. In the end, he says, she helped us understand us better.
Perhaps its that role of corporate shrink thats the most fitting metaphor for the kind of enlightened employee relations she espouses. A senior VP of Wal-Mart once told me that what he has found is that a company is a lot like a person, and that you dont understand a person until you can understand its past. So to really help a company transform itself or move forward, is to help them understand their past.
Three issues every company should address
Despite Margaret Boross insistence that one size does not fit all when it comes to instituting enlightened HR policies, she says there are at least three issues which just about any company should comprehensively address.
The first is coming to an understanding of what the company expects of its employees. I think thats absolutely critical. Somehow, you have to come to some common agreement about what your expectations are and communicate that to each person.
Next comes compensation. "That'll drive people crazy. If you don't have a good compensation system in place that really reflects the values of your company," she says, you're in trouble. "You really have to make a decision as a company: how you want to pay, and why do you pay what you do, and what's the reason for paying it? Do you want to pay the market, could you care less about market, do you want to pay more?"
Finally, there's the crucial issue of giving performance feedback to employees. "Having that communication with your employees, to tell people how they're doing, is pretty critical," she says. "Sometimes, small or entrepreneurial companies are so busy moving so fast that they just assume that everybody's on the same page, and everyone's not on the same page."
Problems with employees typically don't stem from bad intentions, she says. "I really believe that everyone wants to do a good job. Everyone wants to enjoy their job, wants to feel like they're contributing. So give them the structure that allows them to do that."