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Innovate HR: Be the Talk of the Town

March 2, 2012

I’m not sure I’ve ever used the term rock star when referring to employees at an organization where I’ve worked.  I’m also fairly certain the words ninja or guru have not flowed from my lips.  It’s not that I haven’t worked with some awesomely talented people – I’ve just tended to shy away from describing them with overused superlatives that start out as verbal-shorthand to convey a concept but then quickly morph into a cliché.

Interestingly enough, we don’t often talk about HR leaders who are rock stars (there, I’ve used the phrase).   Is it because many toil in relative obscurity?  Is it because we don’t recognize the game-changers at the forefront of Human Resources innovation and excellence while they’re changing-the-game?   Perhaps it’s because the practitioners (whether at the CHRO level or any stopping point along their professional journey) are just too busy doing.  Sometimes, until they leave the day-to-day profession to become a consultant or author, we don’t even put them on our radar screen.

Which is a shame.


I had the pleasure of seeing a true HR trailblazer at Transform HR earlier this week – Libby Sartain.  Over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to go to dinner with Libby on several occasions and get to know her on a personal level, but I was thrilled to attend her session on “The New Consumer of Work” and listen to her share her experiences and insight.  (for a good recap, read Matt Stollack’s post).

Afterwards, some fellow attendees and I were chatting and we all mentioned how much we enjoyed Libby’s session. “Things we all need to pay attention to now,” said one.  “True,” we all agreed.  We talked about how there are many organizations and HR professionals just now catching on and catching up to some of these ideas. 

And then we discussed the most intriguing aspect of this – how Libby and her HR team were at the forefront of many of these ideas, concepts and innovative ways of thinking about work and the experience we create. Libby led her teams through this HR innovation 20 years ago – during her tenure at Southwest Airlines (1988 – 2001) and then again at Yahoo (2001 – 2008).  Two organizations that, or so I always thought, got it right by effectively branding across all lines of their business for both consumers and employees.


In 2004 the SHRM Annual Conference was held in New Orleans and, as is the tradition, Monday evening was the night when vendors hosted receptions, parties and events.  That year I started my Monday night by attending a cocktail reception/book-signing and ended the evening on a riverboat cruise complete with faux-gaming tables, several jazz combos and multiple open bars.  Sandwiched in between, I attended a reception hosted by Yahoo.  There was groovy decor, a jazz band presiding over a dance floor, and an attentive wait staff serving a huge throng of hungry thirsty HR folks.  As my pal Tony and I stood in the cocktail line talking with our fellow conference goers, there was somewhat of a buzz – and not one entirely attributable to the free flowing drinks.  Rather, there were a number of party attendees awaiting the arrival of Yahoo’s CHRO – Libby.  “I hope I get a chance to talk to her,” said one.  “I wonder if she’s going to get up on stage and say anything?” pondered another.

These people weren’t waiting for David Bowie or Aretha Franklin or Bono to make an entrance and take the stage.  They were waiting for an HR Leader.



HR professionals often get a bad rap.  List the clichés here:  HR is slow to innovate.  HR doesn’t understand business.  HR says “no” more than finding ways to say “yes.” 

But deep down most everyone in HR has the burning desire to destroy those clichés.

So let’s do it.  Let’s change the game.  Let’s be the trailblazers.  Let’s innovate within our organizations and within our profession.

Let’s be the HR Leaders whose arrival is anticipated and who people can’t wait to see up on stage.   

And if, when we do this, someone wants to assume the honorific “Rock Star” they can go right ahead.  I just intend to be called Chrissie Hynde.


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