HR with oomph: 14 human resources high-flyers explain how to be powerful, strong and confident

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More oomph

Personnel Today is challenging HR to have more oomph. Over the next few pages, we’ll show you what oomph is, where it is lacking and how to get it – to raise the bar in the profession and to spark debate.

Oomph is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the quality of being exciting and energetic”. In practice, someone who possesses oomph exudes power, strength and confidence. If this doesn’t sound like most HR departments you know – including, perhaps, your own – this special issue will show you what to do about it.

To kick things off, we asked 14 HR high-flyers, all prime examples of HR people with oomph, for their thoughts on the subject and the following questions in particular:

What is oomph?

  • Who has got it, and why?
  • How do you get it?
  • What it isn’t
  • Where (currently, and in future) will we find HR people with oomph? Is it nature or nurture?

The results show an astonishing consensus of opinion. Our panel feels strongly that over-reliance on process and procedures is never going to produce HR with oomph. HR, if it is to truly have oomph, must understand the business as a whole and have keen commercial awareness. To achieve this, front-line business experience is invaluable. If you have never worked outside HR, it may be time to consider spending time in another department to give yourself the necessary broad view of your organisation.

Without this sense of perspective, HR will never have the power, strength and confidence – the oomph – to merit the active role on the board the profession wants and deserves.

HR is a profession and a potentially great career, not just a job. It may be an old cliché, but all successful businesses know that people are their most valuable asset and it is HR’s role to make the most of that asset.

Nick Holley, director, HR Centre of Excellence at Henley Management College, says: “We should be showing the best talent in the business that HR, when it has oomph, is the place where they can have the widest, deepest and most long-term impact.”

Work Group chairman Simon Howard agrees: “All great HR people could have succeeded in any commercial function, but they chose HR because they believed they could make a difference and add value though their work with people rather than their adherence to policy and procedures.”

Read the opinions of some of the UK’s best-known and most respected HR people with oomph. We also asked senior executives outside HR for their views.

Let us know what you think ‘HR with oomph’ means – we’d love to hear your definition. E-mail personneltoday@rbi.co.uk.

Who’s got oomph?

  • “Personnel Today’s number-one HR Power Player, McDonald’s’ David Fairhurst, is a perfect example of oomph – attacking the anti-service culture in this country and showing how McDonald’s helps people to get up the ladder in the labour market, benefiting the company and its employees.” Duncan Brown, director HR services, PricewaterhouseCoopers
  • “A few people I feel had and have oomph include Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and General Patton. Closer to home would be Andy Kemp at Rentokil, Tony Woodley at the T&G/Unite, Richard Wells at Gate Gourmet, Neil Roden at RBS and David Fairhurst at McDonald’s. There are no doubt many more out there – for example, HR at the AA is certainly delivered with oomph.” Bruce Warman, coach with Praesta and industry consultant
  • “There are some clear oomph achievers: Clare Chapman, Angela O’Connor, Neil Roden, David Fairhurst, Vance Kearney and Bev Shears all have a clear and realistic vision pragmatism about what is do-able and clear know-how of how to do it. They all have good business acumen, have delivered successfully, and see that HR’s value is about bottom line and not HR for HR’s sake.” Martin Tiplady, HR director, Metropolitan Police Service
  • “Someone who definitely has oomph is Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho. His oomph is sometimes mistaken for arrogance, but people with oomph have the courage of their convictions and can motivate others to follow them. He also has charisma, something that oomphatics have bags of.” Wendy Dean, HR director, ANC Express
  • “It’s another vote for Mourinho, who has been remarkably successful as a football coach. He has forged teams, speaks about success rather than failure, changes things when they are going wrong, demands performance until the last seconds of a match, is liked by his players, is enthusiastic and makes a difference.” Alan Warner, director of people and property, Hertfordshire County Council
  • “When I think about oomph I think of Vance Kearney, Lynda Gratton and Martin Tiplady – all different in personality and style but similar in enthusiasm, energy and focus.” Angela O’Connor, chief people officer, National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA)

HR’s high-flyers

Alan Warner, corporate director, people and property, Hertfordshire County Council: “Oomph is the ability to turn the ordinary into something special to walk into a difficult situation, grab it by the scruff of the neck and get a result to inspire colleagues to go the extra mile.

You get oomph by having a determination to do your best, seeking constant improvement, and by learning from others. It isn’t complacency, safety, over-intellectualising, following the crowd, or taking no for an answer.

Weeble characteristics

To find HR people with oomph, we need to redefine what is required. Find out if people have common sense. Discuss problems and solutions. Check out their Weeble characteristics (‘Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down’). Find out their attitude to the prospect of failure. Do they learn from their mistakes?

We should try and catch them young before they get too many bad habits, but given the right leadership, more mature people will no doubt grab the opportunity and space to operate with oomph.

On the nature versus nurture debate, I’m inclined to say it is a bit of both. You have to have a character that is driven, but the nurture bit is about how people are encouraged always to concentrate on what success looks like from different points of view. Raw talent isn’t enough sometimes – assistance in using that talent will deliver oomph.”

Martin Tiplady, HR director, Metropolitan Police Service: Oomph is feistiness and confidence about what HR can do. It isn’t about being a subordinate function – although it is a support one – or one that is interested in soft skills. HR should be business-focused and target the bottom line. It’s OK to be hard-nosed and robust as long as this is aligned with quality management through which good leadership vision and skills can be enhanced.

Operational experience

So how do you get it? Get operational experience. All those with oomph have been operators. They understand that the reason a business exists is to make a profit or provide a public service, with HR helping to lead the way on boosting profit and adding value rather than cost.

Oomph isn’t about the best policies, the largest department or the best ads. It’s about designing systems and processes that help the business achieve, while keeping costs down.

As for bringing in new people with oomph, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) can help by promoting HR as a career that requires the best business acumen applied to better people policies. I believe HR with oomph can be nurtured. I didn’t set out to be an HR director – I fell into it. I was an operator, but a specific experience exposed a particular gift that someone spotted and nurtured.

John Maxted, chief executive, Digby Morgan: “Oomph means many things: maverick, proactive, confident, energetic, enthusiastic, powerful, entrepreneurial, alternative, engaging, driven, challenging, interested in others, charismatic, resilient, and intuitive.

Walk the talk

Few people have all of those attributes, but those who do have oomph – something that puts an HR professional at the top of the tree regarding their future career. Oomph isn’t a propensity to bullshit or spout empty words. It’s the ability to walk the talk.

I come down on the side of nature versus nurture. I believe that while personal attributes, including oomph, can be polished, it’s a gut thing that you can’t learn. It can be developed, but you’re either born with it or you’re not. On the flip side, those with oomph can have it knocked out of them. Oomph needs the right environment to thrive, and more often than not that’s in smaller, more entrepreneurial organisations where people feel they can fully express themselves.

HR hasn’t always been regarded a hotbed of oomph, perhaps because it’s been too process-driven almost too apologetic. The good news is that this is changing. As HR consolidates its position in the boardroom and becomes aligned with the business and its commercial realities, the demand for talented individuals with oomph will boom.

Taking this to its natural conclusion, anyone who has succeeded in anything – sport, entertainment, wherever – will have oodles of oomph – and it’s a prerequisite for that success.”

Bruce Warman, coach with Praesta and industry consultant: “Oomph is changing the way the business operates to get better results. It means stepping outside the HR comfort zone and taking responsibility for fixing critical operational issues.

Getting results

Oomph isn’t just being at the top table without getting results, or relying on structures, policies, bureaucracy, controlling, guarding turf, staying outside the team, or not picking up the baton. The best place to find HR people with oomph is to look for people doing non-HR jobs and getting great results. Maybe they were in HR, but they need to flourish in the line and be enticed back into HR.

My two best personnel managers at Vauxhall were at the IBC plant in Luton and the Ellesmere Port Plant – big HR jobs with major financial consequences if things went wrong.

Both men had previous experience in other areas such as production and quality, and were highly thought of. I got them into HR and they loved it, because they knew how to change the organisation. They had a record of doing it and simply carried on.

Like most things in life, oomph is the result of both nature and nurture, but I believe the right sort of nurture can inject some oomph into the most unlikely candidate, so it’s worth trying.”

Wendy Dean, HR director, ANC Express: Oomph is the ability to demonstrate considerable energy and drive at all times. People with oomph ignite the people around them. They have sparkle, create a positive atmosphere and can make life fun. Oomphatic people are successful in whatever they choose to do.

Energy to inspire

Oomph comes from within – it cannot be simulated successfully. I believe oomph equals energy and enthusiasm squared.

Oomphatic people are born with the characteristic that is then nurtured during childhood. Success in later life feeds the oomph factor – you could have a number of siblings all with identical upbringing, but only one may have oomph.

Oomph isn’t complacency or a façade of self-promotion.

The only way we will find people in HR with oomph is to look for the characteristic. We can teach people about HR, but we can’t make oomph. Oomph is natural – it’s up to organisations to find people with this and develop it further.

Our chief executive Michael Holt believes that a successful organisation identifies its values and is able to motivate its people by living and breathing these values. If you have people with oomph, you can contain and hone their innate enthusiasm. To sum up:

Oomphatic Organisations Make People Happy

Rick Brown, vice-president HR functional excellence, Shell International: To me oomph conjures up a combination of high energy and resilience, a sense of urgency and courage or edge. It suggests the energy to keep going when all around is madness and it is tempting to give up and the sense of urgency that moves to action and results rather than studying and analysing the issues to death.

Have an edge

Having edge means being able to say no and to hold the mirror up to line managers who have got it wrong – to be the custodians of the principles, ethics and values of the organisation.

HR managers who have oomph are the most effective. They are automatically part of strategy discussions – they don’t need to wait to be invited.

How to get it is a difficult one, the problem being there isn’t a single ‘it’ to get. Edge without energy and a desire to drive to results becomes a blocker. Energy without experience can become wasteful action for action’s sake. You get oomph by experience, understanding the business, and understanding change management – these will help you have the self-confidence to perform.

Oomph isn’t just blind energy and action. I’ve seen keen HR people rushing around enthusiastically, but with no strategy or clear goal. Oomph isn’t being awkward.

We find HR people with oomph in companies that understand the value good HR can add. If chief executives demand that HR proves its value with lots of metrics, I think they’ve missed the point. If they need proof then they don’t understand that the real differentiator in business is people. Great managers want to be made better managers and leaders by their HR professionals, to be surprised by the value they can add and ideas they can have. If your chief executive is not like that, coach them, then find a better chief or company.

Simon Howard, chairman, Work Group: “‘I’m astonished at how many HR candidates flounder when asked what their company’s share price is,’ a head-hunter confided to me recently. ‘I pop it in after they’ve said how well they’re engaged with business needs, which makes their ignorance all the more embarrassing.’ Although it’s unfair to damn a profession on the basis of one question, the tale works as shorthand to describe HR’s perceived lack of commercial awareness.

Commercial model

The terminology may have changed over the years, but there have always been two schools of thought and practice in the profession – with one far more prone to oomph than the other.

Members of the first school have tended to model themselves (perhaps unwittingly) on the finance function. Theirs is a world of process and procedure, and by doing things right they excel in their roles – but complain that they are not at the top table. That’s not surprising, because finance will always be the pre-eminent top-table ‘policy and procedures’ department, so, logically, HR reports to it. In this scenario, the chief executive can at least be confident that HR minimises risks, but will rarely take a personal interest in it.

The other school has never modelled itself on finance, identifying more with commercial functions such as sales and marketing. Here, people are specialists who focus on getting and developing talent, just as other colleagues focus on getting and developing customers.

In this scenario the chief executive will see HR as being a key contributor to competitive advantage, and so will frequently take a personal interest in the department – and make it part of the top team.

The two approaches have little in common and attract different personalities: one manages cost, the other adds value one makes the rules, the other breaks them one is an introvert, the other an extrovert.

Ultimately that’s the choice: being feted for adding value, or respected for process and procedure being famous, or being a functionary above all, for adding oomph, or not.”

David Fairhurst, senior vice-president and chief people officer, McDonald’s Restaurants: “Oomph is the ability to do three things simultaneously: get the basics right, continuously improve and make big, bold moves.

Apple of my eye

Nobody does this better than Steve Jobs at Apple. Take an Apple Mac out of the box, switch it on, and you can be working just minutes later. At the same time the Mac just keeps getting better and better – slimmer, faster, and more beautiful to look at year-on-year. And then, seemingly from nowhere, Jobs launched the iPod and transformed the way we listen to music. That’s oomph!

To get oomph, therefore, I think you need three things: the discipline to deliver the basics the curiosity to be constantly looking for a better way and the ability to inspire the step-change, ‘iPodic’ moves in the organisation. Oomph isn’t complacent and comfortable – it’s restless and challenging.

The great news is that oomph is everywhere in HR. You only need to look at the shortlist of finalists for the Personnel Today Awards to see that there’s oomph in every sector, in every shape and size of organisation. The secret, however, is to stick at it through thick and thin. Steve Jobs has had tough times as well as good. But by working hard at his oomph, he’s become as iconic as his products.”

Nick Holley, director, HR Centre of Excellence, Henley Management College: “Oomph is about impact and making a difference. It’s about mastering IQ (intelligence) and EQ (emotions) – the former to understand what the business needs and translate this into action the latter to be able to influence line managers to help them with problems. Without IQ you have nothing valuable to say, but without oomph no-one’s going to listen.

IQ and EQ

I’ve met very few HR people with oomph, and those who have it have usually had experience outside HR. I don’t know if you can acquire oomph. Some people have it, but very few develop it without a lot of hard work. It won’t happen by going on an oomph course. It’s about having a real desire to make a difference to the business and the courage to take some risks. Oomph gives HR the credibility to challenge, and without oomph HR will never be a true business partner.

It reminds me of the joke: how many Californians does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to really want to change. How many HR people really want to change?

Oomph isn’t: being the guardian of the corporate ‘no’ e-mailing the business about the latest HR fad or blindly taking the accepted wisdom and not challenging it. It’s about just asking when, where, how and who, and also about asking why.

With the increase in the value of intangibles on the balance sheet, shouldn’t we be looking for people who have deep commercial understanding and real oomph and then developing their HR skills?

Sally Jacobson, HR director, London & Quadrant Housing Group: “Oomph is to do with energy, charisma, attitude and style. It’s hard to say who has got it, except that all successful people have it at some time, and some have it most of the time.

Don’t over-do it

It needs nurturing and keeping alive, but there is a tipping point beyond which oomph could be distinctly irritating. It may come with confidence and being on top of your game. A positive mental attitude is required, as is a desire to achieve. Oomph is not cynical or whinging it is genuine. We find oomph when we empower and enthuse people about what a great career HR is, not just what a good job it is. We need to grow our own and talk more about the profession. And we need to focus on how it adds to the corporation’s success, not dwell on the Cinderella ‘poor me’ approach taken by some of our colleagues.”

For more from Sally Jacobson

Peter Cheese, human performance practice global managing director, Accenture: “If HR professionals are not being strategic, they’re in the wrong job. But the issue of whether HR is still the junior member of the table, and whether it has sharp enough elbows to get itself heard, is one element of having oomph that is far from resolved.

Credibility

A recent US survey of HR directors found that less than 3% of respondents had experience of finance, and this can be a major shortcoming. Understanding the financial side of your business and the constraints under which it operates, and relating these to the HR function, is a vital part of the job.

The HR language is one of its biggest obstacles in becoming credible to the business community as a whole. The cross-flow of DNA between the business and HR – and back again – is a significant trend and we would like more people to experience different sides of the business, particularly finance.

Although HR directors and finance directors tend to look at things in different ways, they also share much in common when it comes to relating HR issues to business performance.

HR’s lack of reliable data can make it easy prey for the finance department. HR has all sorts of data, but it isn’t always as well-managed as other departments’. If the HR department says the business has 133,000 employees and the finance department says it has only 131,000, who is the chief executive likely to believe?”

Duncan Brown, director HR services, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC): “HR professionals with oomph help to create a broader purpose in and beyond an organisation – a cause beyond just making money, which inspires them personally and their employees to commit to their work.

Bravery

Bravery in today’s business climate of speed and cost efficiency is essential, to stand up and say the people agenda is critical, and you can’t take shortcuts to culture change. My favourite cabinet secretary did not make himself popular with Blair’s government by pointing out how you have to take your staff with you. But I think he has been proved right with the semi-admission of the failure of the top-down, target-driven reform approach in the Civil Service. Angela O’Connor has always been someone who personifies that drive and fearless approach.

Bags of personal energy gives oomph, but I think there is also a kind of never-satisfied, continuous improvement-type energy that you see in someone like Neil Roden of RBS. An attitude of: “So what if we win HR awards, we’re still not good enough.”

Charisma is also important – in management and in HR. I think the advent of detailed competency frameworks, plus political correctness, has squeezed out a lot of individual characters.

I hear lots of HR directors moaning about the lack of talent coming into the profession, but I lecture students and visit careers fairs, and I see huge enthusiasm and potential, every bit equal to the bright graduates and trainee accountants coming into PwC. The question is: how do prospective HR professionals get the roles and experience to prepare them for a senior specialist or business partner/HR director role? Many of the functional reorganisations that have taken place recently may have successfully cut HR costs, but they have also removed any clear career track up into HR roles.”

Angela O’Connor, chief people officer, National Policing Improvement Agency: “Oomph is the quality that some people have they put colour back into what can be a monochrome world. This can be demonstrated by how they operate, their personality and style of interaction and the impact they have on others.

Commitment

People who have oomph love the service they are in and are committed to what they do. Oomph is not the preserve of those who seek to promote themselves it belongs to those who concentrate their energy into the business. It is not about loudness, brashness or insensitivity: it is about direct, honest, authentic people who are not afraid to speak their minds. People with oomph are not crowd-pleasers.

To get oomph, work with and for people who believe that there is a place for emotion in business and who understand that human beings add something special to organisations that cannot be achieved by technology or systems. Oomph is likely to exist in any organisation that is not scared of honesty or creativity, where an ethical and authentic approach to business is seen as mission critical.

Oomph can be nurtured there are some wonderful leaders who develop oomph by allowing freedom of expression and the development of an ethos that respects people as individuals and not just balance-sheet statistics.”

Liane Hornsey, HR director, Google: “I’ve kept my ideas short as oomph also requires brevity. Oomph is simply pace, energy and the desire to achieve regardless of perceived barriers. It’s also having real really clear goals and going for them. To get it, know what you want to achieve and believe you can.

Nature and nurture

Oomph isn’t waiting for others, sticking to rules or finding reasons for not doing it. Is it nature or nurture? I think it’s both. Some people have natural oomph others can learn it. We need more HR people from commercial backgrounds, people who have a record of pacy achievement and who are respected.”

How to improve HR’s status and oomph

“While some chief executives want to be joined at the hip to the HR director, others want to keep them at arm’s length, not least because HR jargon can send a chief executive to sleep in minutes,” says the managing director of a London headhunting firm.

“But if there are stark differences in how the profession is viewed – some chief executives see it as a key strategic function, while others dismiss it as little more than a back-office process – there is one thing that all outstanding HR directors have in common: the best of the breed are always careful to talk about the business as a whole, never solely about HR.”

Personnel Today asked a range of senior executives what they thought HR needs to do to improve its status and oomph. Questions are below, with the responses on the right.

  • How would you define oomph?
  • Do you think HR has oomph and, if not, how can it get it?
  • What can HR learn about oomph from other areas of the business – sales, marketing, IT and finance?
  • Does HR need to learn the language of business if it is truly to have organisational oomph, and does it have a tendency to spout its own lingo too much?
  • Would a stronger grasp of finance give HR more business credibility?
  • If you had the job of securing a budget rise for HR from a sceptical boardroom, how would you do it?

What executives outside HR think

Simon Hargraves, commercial director, sandwich chain Pret A Manger

“If HR is central to the planning and execution of the operational and commercial strategy of a business, and if your people are your best asset, HR will have oomph.

If there are sufficient resources and strength to support daily operations, as well as plan for the future, and to act as partners with commercial and operational teams, that too is oomph.

Your questions suggest that all other parts of the business, such as sales, have oomph, but this is not the case. A business will have oomph only if the various functions work together and stimulate the ideas, best practice and direction of each function.

HR is not allowed to spout jargon in our company. The HR team speaks and helps evolve the company language. It acts as an internal consultant on specialist people issues.

In any profit-making company, each department has to grasp the rules of finance to be seen as an equal function – and HR is no exception.

In our company a sceptical boardroom would be unlikely. HR plays a key role in planning and delivering performance-related pay, management development, skill development, training, rota planning, succession planning, plus a myriad other roles.”

Rebecca Jones, managing director, workplace communications consultancy CHA

“HR is developing more clout, particularly in organisations that realise the strategic power of their people and go beyond trotting out ‘people are our most important asset’. HR has a history of being undervalued, but any company is a collection of people HR, therefore, has the power to make or break an organisation.

Oomph is vision, influence and skills. Vision because it’s not about the day-to-day but about the future and how the organisation can best use its people to achieve its strategy. Without it HR won’t have the ear of the board, senior management or stakeholders.

It’s about having the skills to deliver and drive a meaningful HR strategy that makes a positive difference to the business.

HR professionals need to work with the different parts of the business and learn new tricks from marketing and sales departments, which are used to selling their functions on a daily basis.

Anyone involved in business needs to talk the language. Business is simply about the ‘how’ of the strategy – how you’re going to meet your objectives – and the ‘what’ – what are you actually going to do to achieve this. The rest is unnecessary and over-complicated jargon.

A stronger grasp of finance would boost clout. It’s about three key figures – the money in (turnover), the money out (costs) and money left over (profit). The same language applies when talking about people: the money in is the contribution staff are making to the business the money out is the costs associated with this and the money left over is the profit. If HR can help towards making profit, and can put a figure to this, it will earn the clout it craves.

By proving the value of what it brings to the business, HR can convert any sceptic.”

Richard Alberg, senior vice-president, global recruitment and retention specialist Kenexa

“Some HR functions have oomph, but many do not. Some have energy, passion and activity, but this is focused on actions that many regard as either relatively unimportant or non-core, such as recruitment administration or payroll. Oomph is when managers feel the function helps them achieve their business goals. If an HR function can work out how its activities align to the organisation’s targets and can create key performance indicators with associated rewards based on this, there is a far greater chance of achieving oomph.

Too often, HR sees reasons why something cannot be done. Focusing on ‘how could we’ as opposed to ‘why we can’t’ is also part of delivering oomph.

HR is becoming increasingly specialist, and while this results in domain expertise, it can also result in the function moving away from the rest of the organisation. Since few senior HR people have experience in other functions, they can lack understanding and credibility when communicating with colleagues.

Senior managers are used to evaluating options financially and communicating with financially literate peers. If HR people are financially illiterate, senior executives will not take them seriously. To win any argument, HR must point out how its activities align to the organisation’s strategy and how success in these areas can be measured.”

Tracey Durrant, managing director, specialist office support recruiter Crone Corkill

“Good HR departments play a key role in driving the success of the business by working in partnership with line managers – it’s about maximising business performance through people. You can do that only if you understand what makes the business tick.

The role of HR is so complex, and achieving clout can be a challenge, so it’s important that HR departments don’t get too process-oriented, which can get in the way of aligning HR to the business goals.

Any budget holder in a business has to develop the ability to use financial information with the same degree of confidence as any other functional head, not least so that they can present the clear financial case for HR initiatives, produce meaningful budgets, and demonstrate a return on investment.”

Anne Marie Forsyth, chief executive, CCA, the professional body for customer contact centres

“HR has traditionally been viewed as a service to the business rather than business itself. This is borne out by the number of companies that fail to have HR represented on the board, denying it real influence. But there is increasing recognition in today’s service economy that people are a company’s best asset, and this provides HR with a tremendous opportunity to present its knowledge as a must-have for successful organisations.

HR with oomph includes the ability to plan ahead rather than simply fire-fight today’s resourcing issues. This means having influence and great channels of communication with all other departments. In particular, an understanding of the organisation’s true aims with regard to customers is vital.

Business language is very much a financial language, and all parts of the business – including HR – need to be able to translate this language to be understood and taken seriously. HR departments today need to be part of the entire financial planning process, particularly in businesses with high staff ratios.”

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