When HR Works: What Can Happen When a Team Is Cohesive & Strategic

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Aug 15, 2013

I still have several friends from my first civilian HR job, which was back in the early 1980s.

It is incredible to me how many of us stay connected over 20 years after the organization was sold, and the name (and culture) changed forever. The organization was Thalhimers Department Store, headquartered in Richmond VA, during a time when the flagship downtown store was a destination for a classy shopping experience.

Shortly before I joined, the organization was sold to a large retail holding company, in an effort to generate capital for expansion. In the early 1990s, the holding company sold Thalhimers to the May Company (now Macy’s), shedding the most profitable division in hopes that the holding company would survive. It didn’t.

So the classy downtown atmosphere is gone now, and shopping happens in Macy’s in suburban malls.

Working with an incredible HR team

But that’s not why I’m writing this. What is incredible to me is that the Thalhimers HR team was the most cohesive and strategic HR of which I’ve been a part – and that was in the 1980s.

We were on the cutting edge of OD, learning, compensation, employee relations, recruiting – basically every aspect of HR. But what was even more remarkable is that our HR team didn’t fall prey to silos that affected every HR department I have seen since. Why is that?

Margaretta Noonan, CEO of NoonanWorks, and I worked together back then and continue to stay in touch. We’re both external consultants now, and have been commiserating about why we seemed to work so well together back before Personnel “evolved” to what it is today.

It’s been a while, but I do remember that we were very clear on our individual roles, we were encouraged to build relationships with each other and with the business, we had an HR Director who had the ear of the CEO, a CEO who truly believed HR was a key element of business success.

A leadership mantra that worked

Margaretta recently sent an email with the above picture. The No. 2 pencil is inscribed with “Everyone sells at Thalhimers.” We all had them, used them and we clearly understood the message.

We may have been in HR, but we spent the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the stores selling (well, actually helping the professionals sell – they wouldn’t let us touch the register). We spent a night in a store twice a year counting inventory.

Looking back, it was the last time I have been part of an HR team that worked strategically and together on a singular, critical focus … growing revenue and maintaining costs. Sourcing sales associates was really difficult when paying minimum wage, but we strategized together how to source and engage.

Even though I was in compensation, I worked the job fairs and knew that when I encountered a good salesperson in another store, I needed to actively recruit. Our OD&T department was embedded in the business with register training, product knowledge, and professional skills, and we profited by their business intelligence from that close relationship.

Our Store Personnel Managers (yep, it was a long time ago) looked to the “specialists” and actively invited our participation and visibility in the stores. Business leaders were held accountable for talent management through a systematic business review process (yes, it is a business process.)

Some lessons I can’t forget

Can HR exist today in complex organizations without falling prey to the silo mentality? Perhaps there are some lessons from our Thalhimer days.

  • Know the business. Not just theoretically, but know the day-to-day challenges that the associates encounter. When you’re in a stock room counting linens beside a sales associate, you get a very clear picture of “employee engagement.”
  • Bring it back. Talk about the challenges you encounter with the associates, and work together to strategically analyze and improve.
  • Be clear on roles. HR folks embedded in the field are generalists, and those in specialty HR roles have a deeper understanding of the various parts of HR. But those specialists need exposure to the business, and the generalists need to provide that. In turn, generalists need to understand and respect the role and challenges of those embedded in the business. They have important information to share.
  • Of course, it helps to have supportive executive leadership, but a cohesive HR strategy can go a long way toward generating support.

What is your mantra? “Everyone sells at Thalhimers” worked very well.

Maybe focusing on the business rather than HR will help to break down the silos and get everyone working toward the same “mantra.”

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

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