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Spider sense

Published on Friday, 29 Mar 2013
Illustration: Bay Leung
Joachim Stempfle
Hugh MacDonald
Illustration: Bay Leung

Comic-book hero’s most famous quote holds one of the keys to successful HR partnerships

What could Roman statesman Cicero, ancient Chinese philosopher Han Feizi and Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee teach today’s human resource (HR) professionals about creating influence, cementing relationships and understanding their role in the workplace?

Apparently pretty much everything, according to Hugh MacDonald, a Canadian with more than 30 years of experience in the HR industry as an executive, professional trainer, international speaker and author.

During the 32nd Annual Conference and Exhibition held by the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) last year, MacDonald used quotations from the three iconic men to impart valuable lessons on partnerships between HR consultants and business clients.

He started with one of his own creations, a triangular relationship model that is at the core of his HR consultancy, MyHRdepartment. On the three corners of the triangle are the business partner, the HR professional and the HR toolkit.

“This model helped me understand that not every HR partner can work with every client, not every HR partner has the same tools, and not every toolkit will work with every client,” he said. “It is a reminder of the need to match people to the right clients, and to find people with the right toolkits.”

This is where one of Han Feizi’s famous musings comes to mind: Those who attempt to advise the powerful must first be careful to observe them and understand their needs and preferences.

To help him follow these wise words, MacDonald has developed his own eight-step consulting model, which starts with listening. “Your client has a problem and an opinion on what is going on. Unfortunately, he’s almost always wrong,” he said.

It is essential to find out WRGO – what’s really going on? “What’s really going on is usually a lot different to what the boss says. What’s really going on may be that people are very unhappy about something, something about which the boss is oblivious. Talk to people to find the real issue,” MacDonald said.

He then emphasised the importance of analysing the processes in operation at a workplace. “How are they broken? If they’re not broken, how can they be improved? Do the people in the workspace have the capabilities, attributes and skills necessary to get things done? How are people actually rewarded in a larger sense?” he said.

“You can’t focus on one of these things. You have to look at how they’re linked together because there is no one great way to organise workers, structure and organisation,” he added.

Afterwards, he recommended going back to the client with a number of suitable of options and to make a recommendation. “Developing a joint recommendation by making your client think it’s his idea is always a good idea. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit,” he said.

To make sure a job has been successfully completed, part of the execution stage is to follow up. MacDonald backed this up with one of Cicero’s most famous quotes: Advice is judged by results, not by intentions.

“You have to ask: was the recommendation successfully executed and did it solve the problem?” MacDonald said. “There’s no point being there if you can’t actually make things better. That’s why the toolkit is so important.”

His final point focused on the modern icon Stan Lee with a maxim lifted straight from the pages of the Spiderman comic book: With great power comes great responsibility.

“You’re an HR partner. You have a lot of power and that power has to be executed with a sense of responsibility. That is why it’s important that you’re able to influence your business partner,” he said.

Influencing requires the development of trust, and MacDonald brought up another ancient philosophical great, Aristotle, and his three means of persuasion – ethos, logos and pathos – as a way to achieve this.

“Ethos means character. Your client will respect you if you have the right character. Do you have credentials? Do you have experience? You need to think about how you can give yourself more ethos,” he said.

“Next is logos – that’s the logic. Whatever the business is, you’ve got to be knowledgeable in it. It’s hard for you to be taken seriously as a business partner unless you have knowledge of their business.

“Finally, pathos – emotion. If you want to influence people, you have to find some way to their heart. To do this you have to say the right things and use the right words.”

A change of thinking

HR professionals can’t change global “megatrends” – ageing workforces, mass migration, digitalisation, internationalisation, a shift in generational values – but they have to change the way they deal with them because of their impact on the workplace.

“Whether businesses are ready to deal with these changes or not will determine whether they’ll be sustainably successful and whether they’ll be able to attract and retain employees in the future,” said Joachim Stempfle, chairman of HR management consultancy Atrain Group, at the HKIHRM’s 32nd Annual Conference and Exhibition.

He stressed that every company needs a clear talent-acquisition strategy in which target groups have been clearly defined. “Which people are most important for you to drive your business? When you find them, how do you approach them? Are you committed to build talent? Are you hiring for potential versus performance?” he asked.

HR professionals should be ready to embrace “social” recruiting as a replacement for traditional recruiting channels, he added. “Companies need to build internal talent scouts that create long-term relationships based on their talent pools.”

Another consequence of the rising dominance of social media is that the traditional ways of building a brand are now dead, he said. “It’s not about propaganda anymore. It’s about what people in your company are saying. Every employee is now a messenger who builds the brand.”

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