Oomph – n. sexually attractive (Oxford Dictionary of English).
“Is that a pay rise in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” Maybe Mae West (pictured, right) would not have put it quite like that, but no-one was left in any doubt about what she regarded as a bit of oomph and it’s highly unlikely that she would have gone looking for it in HR. If she had, they would probably have had her up on a disciplinary for sexual harassment. Political correctness has a lot to answer for it has sapped any oomph HR might have had, along with its funny bone.
Whichever way you look at it, oomph tends to be associated with strong, macho types, regardless of sex.
Gill Rider, the new director-general of leadership and people strategy at the Cabinet Office, seemed determined to declare her own macho credentials by saying she was “a hard-nosed business woman”, rather than “pink and fluffy” (Personnel Today, 17 July). When we start to see a half-decent performance from new civil service departments, such as those replacing the Home Office, and when the National School for Government starts teaching civil servants how to get sustainable results, then maybe she will live up to her billing.
Maybe oomph really is all about ‘sexual politics’, and if so, we need to be able to distinguish the real thing from those HR directors who could be accused of being all fur and no knickers: the ones who use their own PR hype to mask a failure to perform.
One business that has a history of parading its HR credentials in public is DIY retailer B&Q, and when times were good, no-one probed too deeply to see whether there was any substance to the claims. Now, after a much more turbulent period that saw profits slump by 50% in 2005 and a decidedly flaccid 2.9% drop in like-for-like sales in its 2006-07 figures, B&Q is, surprisingly, winning awards from Gallup Q12 for employee engagement. Such peacock plumage might impress some HR people, but it’s certainly not impressing anyone in the boardroom, because ‘HR is still failing to be recognised’, according to a Deloitte survey (Personnel Today, 19 June).
Employee engagement surveys have become the Viagra of failing HR departments these days, and saying your engagement survey response rate is bigger than mine is just a game played by little boys. Real HR oomph is about what you have between your ears, not your legs. You don’t have to be hard-nosed, or hard-anything-ed, to have oomph, but you do have to have a maturity that understands how organisations really work and be clearly demonstrating that you are making them work better.
Grown-ups know only too well that organisational politics are messy and susceptible to hype rather than substance, particularly in matters relating to people.
Oomph, therefore, is all about integrity and having the courage of your convictions to do what is right for the organisation, in the bad times as well as the good.
Ironically, the main ingredients for real HR success are more often associated with ‘feminine’ traits, such as intuition, insight and perceptiveness, than they are with testosterone. You have to read people very well and know how to make CEOs who say they are committed to engagement and learning actually mean it. Ask them what a 1% improvement in either looks like in terms of the bottom line, and then convince them how HR can make it happen in a clear, observable way.
So, as a man who has worked in HR for many years, I have to ask myself: do I still have the sort of oomph that would have satisfied the demands of a Mae West? I don’t know, but I have plenty of HR stories that would keep her laughing for a very long time.