The HR Expert-Generalist

AdobeStock_91768118In one of my regular recent blog reads, The HR Capitalist Kris Dunn, recently wrote about how Warren Buffet’s most trusted business partner, Charlie Munger, attributes his success managing Berkshire Hatheway’s stock market portfolio by “knowing a little about everything.”  Basically, being a generalist.

Here is the article about Munger from The Hustle.

Dunn, being an HR Blogger, of course related Munger’s successful philosophy to the HR Generalist function compared to the HR Specialist.

Dunn’s definition of an HR Generalist is the following:

HR Generalist – a HR pro at any level who is in charge of a client group of employees -meaning they provide HR services to a location, a business unit, a functional area or geographical area.  As part of this role, they provide counsel, service and insight across the HR Body of Knowledge – comp, benefits, recruiting, employee relations, legal, etc.

An HR Generalist can exist at the individual contributor level or manage people, as well as exist at the HR Rep, HR Manager, Director, VP and CHRO level.

As Dunn noted in his post, many attribute HR Generalists as more of an entry level HR position. It’s not. As he defines it, it exists at the individual contributor, Manager, Director, VP, and CHRO levels.

Back to Munger, his work-ethic theory is known as expert-generalism which is the opposite of the Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hour rule.  What Munger does is to focus “on studying widely and deeply in many fields, including microeconomics, psychology, law, mathematics, biology, and engineering, and applied insights from them to investing.” rather than just focusing all of his time on investment theory.

The originator of the term expert-generalist, Orit Gandish, chairman of Bain & Co defines the term the following way:

Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:

  1. Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
  2. Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.

In addition,

Research shows EG’s have:

Hmm, sounds like the world could use a few more EG’s.

I enjoyed both Dunn’s and The Hustle’s articles because I’ve had the most success in my career as a Generalist. First as an award-winning General Manager for Macy’s (The Bon Marche’) and as an HR Director and HR Consultant.

As a matter of fact, at Macy’s (The Bon Marche’), I regularly told my Department Managers that I expect them to be the experts/specialists in their area of responsibility because I joked told them that there was no way that I could know as much as they did – I was the General Manager.

I literally said the same thing as Munger,  “I have to know a little bit about everything” in the store. This meant knowing a little (but enough) about each department’s assortment, staffing, employee capabilities, and merchandising; customer service performance; current and upcoming sales events; sales and profit performance; local and national economy; store operations; capital improvements; customer, community, regional & corporate relationships; etc.

The philosophy worked (*self promotion alert!*) because my store earned the Store of the Year award twice during my 13 year stint as a General Manager.

Dang! I just remembered how hard (but rewarding) it was to be a General Manager!

I’ve also always proudly worn the moniker “HR Generalist” when I transitioned from running a Department Store to doing HR. But I often felt a little uncertainty reading articles and blogs touting how the future of HR is specialization.

After researching and writing this post, I now officially call myself an HR Expert-Generalist. I like it.

Dunn closed his post with the following wise and comforting words:

If you’re an HR generalist at any level, be proud.  You’re a trusted adviser that understands that the world is gray, and you also know how important you are in helping those in your client group navigate all the complexity and chaos that comes with managing a workforce.

Simply put, HR Generalists are the most important cog in the HR world.  Be proud, because you are irreplaceable.  

As always, it’s nice having a little confirmation bias every once and a while!

Oh, and just I added “HR Expert-Generalist” to my LinkedIn profile headline.

My HR Journey

How I ended up in HR

I was at a tech industry HR event in Boulder a few months ago and we were all asked to talk about our “HR Journey” – what was it that led us to choose HR as a career. Or what was it that led HR to choose us?

The exercise required that we had to get up in front of everybody and tell our story. We didn’t have much, if any, time to prepare as we didn’t even know we were going to do this exercise. The first “drafts” of our stories were a little rough but then we were allowed to get up again and tell our stories again, and this time they were more polished.

I enjoyed the exercise because it forced me to really think quickly of a story that led me to choose HR as a career. My mind was blank but it came to me as I was walking up to the front of the room to tell my story. Funny how the mind works.

So here’s my story…

I started my career right out of college working for a Pacific Northwest based retail department store called The Bon Marche’ (which is now part of Macy’s). I worked my way up the ladder until I reached my desired goal of being a Store Manager. I loved being a Store Manager and in my 13 years as one, I earned the Store/Store Manager of the Year award twice along with a record number of performance awards during my tenure.

I learned that I loved building consistent high-performing cultures filled with employees who loved doing what they did in a tough, low-paying work environment. In retail, HR is a very important and vital element. It was what I enjoyed the most and I was very good at it and thought I’d do it for the rest of my career.

But there was a particular incident that occurred that led me to seriously consider leaving and focusing on HR as my next career direction.

It was Sept or Oct and a young pregnant woman came in for an interview for the Holiday season. As a Store Manager I always enjoyed participating in the interviewing and hiring process. She interviewed well, I saw that she had potential, and I decided to hire her. I didn’t care that she was pregnant. I only cared that she was smart, enthusiastic, and cared for customers. She would be a great addition to the store team.

Years later, she reached out to me via Facebook and told me how much she appreciated me hiring her that day. I had changed the direction of her life. Nobody else in town would hire her because she was pregnant. To make matters worse, she was single and pregnant and her life was a mess. I had no idea at the time but my believing in her and hiring her gave her new hope.

My team at the store was just that, a team that cared about each other and helped each other. The team took her in and she became part of the store family. She was surrounded by people who cared and she responded by giving us everything she had and became fantastic sales associate.

I’m very proud of the teams I build and how they always cared for and loved each other. That is what I enjoyed most about my job. Building strong high performing cultures of people that loved (or at least liked) their work.  That is why I went into HR so I can help leadership build strong, high-performing teams.

Today, this woman owns her own retail business, has her life together, and is doing very well.  She is also is the proud mom of a beautiful daughter.

Bottom line, the main reason I moved into HR was to use my talent and skills to help organizations create positive, high-performing cultures where people really enjoy coming to work. We spend huge amounts of our time at work and I believe our workplaces should be happy and supportive places where we enjoy being every day.

The ability to create and provide a high-performing culture where people want to be, directly helps accomplish the importance of business goals in any organization. The overall company performance improves, productivity increases, and financial performance improves – all of which produces greater shareholder value.

I want to be able to be a positive influence on employees and, by extension, their families by creating a positive work culture where the employee is happy and feels like they are accomplishing meaningful work.

Frankly, it’s the right thing to do.  And I’m glad I’m able to do it.

I Fired Santa.

“He’s doing it again, Rich, and customers and employees are irritated with him” said Tina, my department manager.

“Are you serious?” I said  “I just had another talk with him a couple days ago and he promised me he would stop! I will talk to him again.”

Being the long time retail anchor in downtown Missoula, it was up to us to provide the “official” Santa Clause for the community.  Every parent wants to have a picture of their little one with St. Nick.

Up until then, I had no problem because I just simply hired the gentleman who had been doing it for the past decade, but this year he was no longer physically able to play the roll.  I had to find a new Santa and I hit the jackpot – I thought – when I discovered a professional birthday clown/Santa Clause looking for work!  He had experience, could tie balloon animals, and had his own Santa suit!

We set up his chair, the camera, and backdrop along a main aisle.  We ran an ad in the Missoulain and posted his hours throughout the store.  Now I could focus my attention and concentrate on executing the store’s Holiday sales, profit, credit, and customer service strategies.

Instead, we quickly discovered our new Santa had a very odd personality – one that my customers and employees found very irritating. Irritating enough to complain and avoid him.

He would make a strange comment or crack an awkward joke to everybody who walked by him – nothing inappropriate but strange.  It got to the point where my employees would take another longer route in order to avoid having to walk by him when they saw he didn’t have a kid on his lap.

I sat down with him in my office, with him in full costume, and had a “fierce conversation”  letting him know that I had received complaints and that he needs to concentrate more on being jolly and less on being irritating. He initially resisted but after I gave him several examples of his irritating behavior, he agreed that he would  try to do better.

This was Santa’s first warning.

I noticed an improvement in his behavior but that only lasted two days. He reverted back into his old irritating ways and the complaints started again.  I sat down with him again, again with him in full costume, and we had our second “fierce conversation” where I told him that he needs to alter his behavior quickly. He’s driving customers away and irritating my team causing a reduction in their productivity.  The critical Christmas season is short and I can’t afford to have Santa hurting my business.

This was Santa’s second warning.

Again, it took another two days before his behavior to reverted back to his irritating ways which led to the conversation at the beginning of this post.  Well, I had had enough and sat Santa Clause down in my office for the final time, again him in full costume, and said the words “I’m sorry, Santa, but I am going to have to let you go.  It’s just not working out.”

I had just fired Santa.

So now I had no Santa.  Now what?  Well, all I know is that the General Manager of the store (me) would mysteriously disappear whenever Santa showed up to for his shift…

You gotta do what you gotta do to make things right.

This story points out that we occasionally have to do some very uncomfortable disciplinary action on employees or independent contractors.   I sure could have avoided dealing with the situation, he was Santa after all.  And he was only going to be in the store for a couple more weeks.

You have to have the courage to do what’s right.

Even if it’s firing Santa.

You Must Take Control of Your Career

I read a post over at TLNT a while back that reminded me of my experience with my previous career at Macy’s (formally The Bon Marche).  It’s about workplace loyalty and how it can work in the job market today.

A point she made personally resonated with me:

If you’re an employee and believe that your loyalty will be remembered by your employer when it’s time for the tough decisions, my question to you is, “why on earth would you place your career decisions entirely in the hands of someone else?” Not only will working at one place for too long make you stale, you’re giving up the control of managing your own career.

What if your manager retires, transfers or gets a new gig outside of the company? So much for all of those years of loyalty. Do you think your manager is going to present a succession plan for you on their way out the door? Avoid being naive and recognize the excess of “dog eat dog” attitudes in Corporate America.

I spent 22 years working for The Bon Marche’/Macy’s.  Twenty of those years  for The Bon Marche’ which was reorganized and converted to Macy’s where I remained for two years.  I worked my way steadily up the ranks during my twenty years at The Bon Marche’ where there was a core group of executive and regional management who I knew well and who knew me and what I was capable of accomplishing.

We had a long and positive professional history that I was proud to have developed and count on when it came to my performance and career decisions.

When the company reorganized and converted to Macy’s, they closed the Seattle corporate office and laid off all the executive management.  They also restructured the regions and brought in “new blood” and expanded the regional management staff.

My entire 20 year history of accomplishments, skills, and knowledge was immediately wiped out and meant nothing to the newly reorganized company.

Rather than being relied on and trusted to run and operate my store as I was trained to do – and was very good at – I was being told how to run my store by group of people who never ran a store.  I gave it my best but eventually realized I was no longer a good fit in the reorganized company.

I was miserable and dreaded going to work every day. My experience, knowledge, skills, abilities, and creativity were no longer valued or even considered.  I had to leave and move on.

I made the mistake of thinking my work history, accomplishments, and loyalty to the company would benefit and help my continued career with newly organized Macy’s.  It didn’t.

So, I left and took my KSA’s to Denver and am loving my current job as Director of HR, IR/PR  at a uranium mining company.

I learned a valuable life lesson.

You need to have complete control over your career. It is your responsibility, not your employer’s.   Network in your profession and in your industry.  Network outside of your profession and industry.  Develop relationships with recruiters.  Grow your knowledge in your profession and industry.  Periodically look at job openings to see what is out there and what they are paying.

You’re not being disloyal to your company, you are being responsible and taking control of yourself, your family, and your career.

As the author of the blog post I linked to above says:

Do you think your loyalty will be reciprocated when your company is facing tough times and has to review numbers and headcount for a reduction in force?