People Operations

“You don’t build a business, you build people. And then people build the business”.

Zig Ziglar

I have just finished the book (and looking at diving back into some passages to read again)  “Work Rules” by Lazlo Bock, head of people operations at Google. The reason I began reading this book has been a strong belief of mine that the hiring, supporting, growing and retention of people is a core skill that an agile organization needs. I began really turning this idea over in my head more and more as I read several books that emphasized people over product. And as I have been slowly rebuilding an organization, it has reinforced how important really understanding how critical a focus on the marketing, hiring, onboarding, growth and retention really are. It’s the lifeblood of what you probably do.]

Let’s be honest. Products have a shelf-life (anyone remember Friendster?) that is measured in brief flashes of time.But for an organization to create longevity, people make this happen. This is an organization’s largest investment. This is what allows you to continue to innovate and grow.

So isn’t this just “Human Resources”?

I consider the idea of people operations much more than standard enterprise human approach towards management of hiring and employee policies, employee benefits, etc.

I like to think of this idea as “HR on steroids”. A group whose focus transcends above the idea of management of employees and related items to one that is focused on how we market our jobs, create and celebrate culture, how we hire, onboard, grow, retain and appreciate and reward our people. It’s that next level which begins to consider even more than hiring/firing/benefits and paperwork to one that creates and measures programs that enhance the employee experience and organizational culture to strive to create a place that people seek to be a part and see the personal investment in them when they join.

For us to evolve and change, continue to attract the right people making cultural contributions as we grow and providing them with the employee experience, the nurturing and the vision of being part of something more than a job, people operations is what helps us make this happen today and pivot as we change and grow. A focus on the individual and the group, their work experience, their growth, their concerns, their restlessness and the culture by a group that’s primary mission is to continuously improve. That’s a pretty powerful concept to me.  Someone who works in an agile manner, performs experiments to help better the work experience for its people (and is unafraid to fail), uses data to help understand how needs within the culture are changing, keeps up on trends to enhance the workplace and has the ability to broker ideas for the enhancement of the employee experience. They spend their time not only supporting the people they have today but looking at ways to grow leaders from within, enhance the company culture and cultivate a shared vision for the work community and find ways to reinforce the values upon which you are built (in effect helping an organization “walk the walk”).

So what are some things I can do to move in this direction?

  1. Make friends. If you have a current human resources group, build a partnership. Understand and respect what they do. Understand their constraints and guidelines that they may be bound to uphold. Don’t throw stones at what you do not understand. This partnership can allow you to possibly create a local extension to your own group that understands the processes, the players and the scope of what they have to get done as well.
  2. STOP REFERRING TO PEOPLE AS RESOURCES! Again, my particular pet peeve but I hear this more from organizations that are working directly with the people being referenced (“Say, Bob; do you think we have enough resources on the team for us to get our scrum on”?). I understand that this is a conditioned thing that many (including myself and I have to police my own speech) of us learned from years of experience with software projects or operational context. This is not mandatory, but asking “do we have the right people in the right seats” rings a more sincere question than “do we have the right resources in positions”.
  3. Just do it. (Take a tip from Nike). Start starting. Determine if you can make this kind of commitment. Maybe you can, maybe you cannot. Maybe you are unable to create dedicated focus of a person or group to this. Leverage passionate people you have through “tribes” and find ways and incentives to provide them the time and tools to help create a focus on the people you have today and the people you will be fortunate to have a shared experience with in the future.
  4. Reflect. Determine ways in which you can collect information/suggestions/ideas  from employees and use this information to see how you can add value, enhance your culture and improve the overall work experience. Try things. Do amazing things. Fail at things. As long as your goal is to create a focus on the people to enhance the company culture, the employee experience and create value that will assist in the caring for, growth and support of the people who work for the organization, I think everything will be fine. Use data to allow yourself to examine programs and phase them out, change them, enhance them or drop them over time as needed.Don’t implement ideas blindly and in a vacuum. Measure them in a manner that will allow you to determine if they are beneficial. Test waters by doing pilots as opposed to “turning the ship at once”.

Again, I have just been deeply inspired through introduction to several ideas, stories and concepts to determine how I can make a deeper investment in people operations which in turn, I feel, is a deeper investment in the organization. These ideas are not anything new. Google, Ideo, Hubspot, Menlo Park, Zappos all maintain a core focus group for their people. They know that the culture they create within their organization allows them to evaluate potential employees, hire the right people to be value add to their organization and create something bigger than a job to paycheck ratio as why they continue to work for a given organization. I am personally ready to selflessly invest in the people I work with today and the people that will enhance the culture in the future. Are you ready?

A friend of mine (who knows how passionate I am about growing a new work environment in my industry) sent me the follow adage which seemed to fit the ideas behind this post.

CFO says to  CEO:  “What if we invest in our people and they leave”?

CEO replies to CFO: “What if we don’t invest in them and they stay”?



I don’t know

“Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you”. – Eckhart Tolle

These three words are perhaps some of the most feared words in the business world.

No one wants to utter them. They conjure up visions of looking foolish, unprepared or incompetent. They bring about fear for most and raise personal insecurities as to if we truly know what we are doing or merely found out to be a fraud.

But what if I said they are perhaps the three most honest words in business that can be used? If spoken in a void, without any plan of action towards knowing accompanying them; they can often result in negative consequence. But is unknowing itself an inherently bad thing? I would argue it can be a valid answer dependent on how it is communicated.

I hold a high amount of respect for persons brave enough to use this phrase (I especially take note of it when interviewing someone to see how they handle the “not knowing” situation).

It takes a lot of guts to admit that you just do not have the answer. It is a phrase that exposes us personally and the limits of what we may or may not know to others. People will try all sorts of things to avoid using this phrase as “not knowing” is typically uncomfortable for most.

How many times have you sat and listened to someone dancing around a question, exploring the obvious or never really landing on an actual answer. It’s perhaps an even more painful thing to witness as we often delude ourselves that we are smart enough to sound smart. Sometimes a 2 minute response turns quickly into a 30 minute diatribe that in the end never really answers the question. Why do we do that to ourselves and others?

Wouldn’t we be better served to simply say “I don’t know the answer to that Bob, but let me look into it or talk with people XYZ and I will see if I can get you an answer immediately” (and then ACTUALLY do that). Would that not set an honest and open dialogue that shows that although someone might not know the answer, they are motivated to get a proper response. Wouldn’t “old Bob-O” see us as someone who is someone he can count on to get him information?

So, what about the opposite intentional use of “not knowing”? Using “I don’t know” as an passive-aggressive avoidance mechanism (which is among one of my pet peeves up there with “It’s not my job”). When someone utters this phrase like a “get out of jail free card” that absolves them of responsibility based on lack of knowledge. Do I still carry the same respect? No, I really don’t.

So how do we know the difference? For me, if not knowing is coupled with a plan of action, a desire to gain knowledge or flash of desire in a person to learn, that’s the difference for me personally. “I don’t know” … (but/however/but I will speak with/but let me do X to find out) is unknowing with a plan to gain knowledge. This shows me that someone seeks to grow and gain this new knowledge, even if just long enough to give guidance.

If the response is a flat “I don’t know” (insert a blank stare and chirping crickets here) that says to me “I don’t know the answer and honestly I don’t care to know the answer” as it carries no plan to gain some knowledge. With things like the internet, the ability to find similarities, contact others or abstract details we have a wealth of knowledge available to us. Just phoning a friend or colleague can sometimes lead us to at least a simple answer.

How comfortable are you “not knowing”? Do you follow-up a lack of knowledge with a plan of action to gain insight and relay information?

“Do not fear lack of knowledge. Fear false knowledge” – Leo Tolstoy