How to become an HR guru


Is there a management book inside you? Are you about to hit the conference circuit to talk though your latest theories?

Every profession needs its cheerleaders and for HR and the business world, they come in the guise of management gurus. These industry experts diagnose what’s wrong with our businesses and then later tell us how to fix it, ideally rallying the troops in the process.

A-list gurus are particularly skilful at tapping into the zeitgeist and have the gift of saying the right thing at the right time.

In 1982, Tom Peters became an instant guru following the publication of the co-written In Search of Excellence, which eulogised America’s most successful companies. Hailed as one of the best business books of all time, it arrived just as the US was reeling from the twin evils of record unemployment levels and fierce competition from Japan.

More recently, business strategy guru Don Tapscott came up with the ‘network generation’ and ‘N-gen mentality’ to explain the mindset – “exceptionally curious, self-reliant, contrarian”, he said – of a new generation of workers at the height of the new economy boom. Naturally, workshops and consultancy work followed these timely observations.

But is there a guru inside all of us waiting to get out? Perhaps you could be on the verge of a six-figure advance for your first management book and poised to carve out a lucrative niche on the conference circuit.

If you think you have the ideas and vision to be up there with the best of them, follow our essential 10-step guide on how to win at the guru game and make it big.

But first, a word of warning: avoid the term guru. Gurus prefer not to use it. “I’m not sure what a guru is,” says Dave Ulrich, professor of business administration at the School of Business at the University of Michigan – currently on sabbatical, but arguably HR’s best known guru. So from here on in we’ll refer to them as MSACs (our catch-all term for management speaker, academic and consultant).

1. Write a bestseller

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find MSAC stardom without producing what John Purcell, professor of human resource management at the School of Management, University of Bath, calls the “airport book” (airports represent a key market for publishers of HR and management books as global executives frequently snap up the most hyped books which will, in theory at least, last the length of a long-haul flight).

But first you need to come up with the breakthrough idea. It needn’t be particularly complex, but it should present a new take on an old concept in an interesting way. It should also be inspirational and authoritative while keeping a steady eye on the future. US economist Stephen Roach, for instance, ‘dressed up’ mass redundancy with the apparently more palatable ‘downsizing’. On a similar theme Michael Hammer and James Champy’s quest for greater organisational efficiency led to ‘business process re-engineering’ (Reengineering the Corporation) – something businesses have always done.

“You need to provide leading-edge insight, a new model or a new idea that is practical and relevant for business today and you need to think about where business is going and what HR should be doing in 10 years time – you need to be ahead of your time,” says Richard Chiumento, director of multi-disciplinary HR consultancy, Chiumento. Perennial hot topics include managing change, the role of HR departments and leadership.

Once you have one book to your credit you probably need to repeat the formula several times over. “I argue that a reputable thought-leader needs at least three books to show that the first was not a fluke,” says Dave Ulrich.

Key advice:

Stuff the pages with data tables, charts and graphs

2. Dream up a clever title

As sales of self-help management books continue to plummet from a record high in the late 1990s, it means everything about your book has to work harder if it is to fly off the newsstand shelves. Steal a march on the thousands of other would-be gurus jostling for position by having the most compelling title which, by the way, also speaks volumes about your message.

A cross-section of hooks in recent times has included the historical (Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer); the biblical (Moses: CEO) and the kindergarten: (Polar Bear Pirates and Their Quest to Reach Fat City).

While Bob Garvey, principle lecturer in human resources management and organisational behaviour at Sheffield Hallam University, acknowledges that “the slightly offbeat does have appeal”, it probably pays to rein in the wider excesses of this particular trait. If the unorthodox doesn’t work for you, try key words that indicate a quest (‘in pursuit of’), radical shake-up (‘revolution’), breakthrough (‘pointing the way’), or a grand design (‘blueprint for’).

Key advice:

Remember: there’s a thin line between something that is quirky, but credible, and something that’s just plain stupid.

3. Invent a catchphase

As well as the clever book title, you need to include a few buzzwords and memorable phrases. For instance, Lynda Gratton, associate professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, gave us “People search for meaning in their work”, while one of many take-home points from Henry Mintzberg, professor of management studies at McGill University, Montreal, is “You can’t create a leader in a classroom”. Much closer to home, though, is Dave Ulrich’s “HR must be an agent of continuous transformation”.

Think up new words or fuse them to lend weight to your theories, such as ‘admintrivia’ (Tom Peters), ‘boundaryless(ness)’ (Dave Ulrich), ‘strategic architecture’ (Gary Hamel, professor of strategic and international management at London Business School) or ‘rightsizing’ which replaced downsizing when reaction to it became completely jaundiced.

“New ideas often mean new ways of thinking and a vocabulary to go with it,” explains Ulrich.

Key advice:

‘Ring-fence’ your smartest phrases and most innovative concepts through copy-righting and/or register ring them as trademarks.

4. Forge critical relationships

The real passport to HR MSAC acceptance is for a major organisation to sign up to your thinking. Corporate America, UK and Europe spend vast sums on consultancy and advice and the reward for a bit of customised, personal attention can be huge. Expert opinion agrees on the relative importance of this. “Once you build a name for yourself in an organisation then you can live off that for quite a long time,” says Bob Garvey.

Dave Ulrich also points out that many people volunteer to present to the HR executive programme at Michigan University. But, he says, a general rule for acceptance is that they have to name at least three companies who have used their ideas. “Ideas in the abstract are often creative but they get honed through rigorous application,” he says.

Key advice:

If your theories are flawed, know when to come clean or “leave at just the right time so the mud doesn’t stick,” says Garvey.

5. Seek celebrity endorsement

Get other gurus, sorry MSACs, and leading business figures to rubber-stamp what you are doing. Allan Leighton, former chief executive of Asda and chairman of Royal Mail is reportedly lined up to write the foreward to the book currently being written by his HR director – Confronting Mismanagement – which is due to be published next year.

“As a general principle, if you are going to be taken seriously, it can’t be just you blowing your trumpet – it has to be endorsed,” says Richard Chiumento.

It can also be beneficial to strategically align yourself with a leading MSAC or have them influence your thinking.

“I personally have a few people who have a history and projected future of good ideas that impact my thinking,” says Dave Ulrich. “I like to stay connected to them since I learn from them.”

Key advice:

Get another guru to name check you.

6. Gatecrash the conference circuit

Presenting at a conference or seminar can be an effective way of spreading the good word as not everyone has the time or the inclination to wade through the latest collection of must-read management tomes. A-list speakers are likely to command anything from several hundred thousand dollars (Michael Porter) to a reputed $1m per gig (Tom Peters). But even for beginners, a few thousand pounds for an hour’s work (45-minute talk/15-minute Q&A) is not to be sniffed at. What’s more, as the conference season never closes – 10-20 speaking engagements can significantly boost your earnings. These events are also great opportunities to shift some more copies of your book, which will ultimately increase your stock/boost your fees, etc. Refrain from a one-size-fits-all approach and tailor your message to the target audience. “Having a honed message and repeating it [ad infinitum] is important as well,” says Dave Ulrich. “It takes time to get the message.”

Key advice:

Best not follow the example of US consultants Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema, authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders in the 1990s. Business Week accused the two of Secretly buying additional copies to boost sales and inflate their speaking fees.

7. Gain some extra kudos

The ultimate accolade for any MSAC is to be named ‘Business Person of the Year’, or similar, and have your name and picture splash-ed across the covers of Time, Fortune, Forbes, Business Week, Newsweek, and The Economist magazines. Just as it is used in the movies as a device to signify a Hollywood star’s meteoric rise to fame, so too it works in real-life. If you can’t get a cover, the next best thing is to get signed up to write a regular column.

Key advice:

Make sure Annie Liebovitz does the photo shoot.

8. Get in the limelight

Any self-respecting conference organiser ultimately wants more bums on seats, so is therefore looking for keynote and masterclass speakers who, as well as having a vision, double as entertainers. And some of the most successful gurus are great showmen that can match the best of Vaudeville or Broadway. Unless you present with panache and style it’s unlikely that people will listen and even the most incisive of observations will fall on deaf ears.

“Quality thinkers who open their thinking to others will be good presenters,” says Dave Ulrich.

Key advice:

Think positive: “Tomorrow Matthew, I’m going to be Dave Ulrich/Tom Peters/ Michael Hammer” (delete as applicable).

9. Turn yourself into a brand

It pays to have some kind of gimmick to help you become instantly recognisable. Tom Peters! did it simply by using an exclamation mark to distinguish himself. It also helps to be a bit eccentric. Garvey recalls Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter (The Change Masters/Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow) coming on stage at The Sunderland Empire with her skirt tucked into her knickers. Peters also famously posed in jacket and pink boxer shorts for the cover of his book. Is there a theme at work here?

Key advice:

Find a PR agency to manage your brand, says Chiumento. “It Might be too much for some HR professionals to absorb, but it’s a crowded market-place and if you are serious you need a PR agency to act on your behalf.”

10. Become more industrious

Success breeds success and the more you do, the more opportunities to do even more will come your way, especially once you’ve done the essential three books and made your name on the conference circuit. Training DVDs, videos/CD-Roms, paid-for-columns and other branded products are all part of the stock-in-trade of the celebrity MSAC. You may even be asked to dispense advice on TV, think: Trouble at the Top, The Confidence Lab and John Harvey-Jones’ Troubleshooter.

As demand for your services increases, a sure-fire way of ensuring there is enough to go round is to set up a consultancy where you can have some ‘disciples’ to proselytize your theories. Make sure you call your consultancy something dynamic, fresh or ‘cutting edge’. Gary Hamel’s Strategos and Don Tapscott’s Digital4Sight are prime examples.

Key advice:

Durability is important. “This means not having [just] one idea or one impact, but doing what you do in a variety of different settings,” says Dave Ulrich.

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