HR executive: Success depends on key competencies

Jack Smalley
Jack Smalley

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Waitresses, football coaches and players, medical school professors and mothers all offer examples of the key competencies human resource professionals require to realize success, according to an executive who’s achieved success in his own career.

Integrity ranks chief among those competencies, Jack Smalley said. “Make every decision the one that best protects integrity.”

Smalley, director of human resource learning and development for Employment Express Professionals, led the keynote presentation at the Western Colorado Human Resource fall conference in Grand Junction. Combining stories with advice, Smalley reviewed key competencies he said turn HR leaders into what he called chief people officers — without the need for a super hero cape.

Smalley provides training and consulting for the more than 700 offices of the staffing services franchise. He also speaks at an average of 125 events a year, including the Society for Human Resource Management national conference. He bases his presentations in part on his more than 30-year career in HR management, including work in the oil, chemical and packaging industries.

Out of the many and varied competencies HR professionals bring to their jobs, five rank among the most important, Smalley said: accountability, ownership, influence, consistency and integrity.

Many HR professionals struggle with what he said constitutes the Achilles’ heel of  accountability in that they’re willing to take responsibility for their own actions, but don’t hold others to the same standards.

One result if that the bulk of work often is assigned to the same employees trusted to handle it, while the rest of the staff remains unaccountable, Smalley said. If employees accomplish only the minimum of what’s expected of them, it’s time to increase expectations, he said. “If they’re going to straddle it, let’s raise the bar.”

Employees need clear and measurable standards, but also must be involved in setting goals and responding to what’s become constant organizational change, Smalley said. What’s more, employers deserve honest answers to questions about how changes affect them — even if the news isn’t good.

Ownership reflects the level of engagement and passion people bring to their work and also represents a choice to be great, Smalley said. According to the results of one Gallup poll, though, 67 percent of employees aren’t engaged, costing companies billions in lost productivity.

Smalley said one of the most engaged employees he ever met was a waitress who brought him a sample of a new appetizer and was honest in helping him select the best steak. Her passion for her job was evident in everything she did, Smalley said.

Smalley said he found out the woman’s husband had left her that very morning, but she came to work anyway because she was concerned some of her regular customers might come in and ask for her and she wouldn’t be there to serve them.

“The rest of my career, I would have had a job for that woman,” he said.

Bob Stoops, head football coach at the University of Oklahoma, always has been adamant about accepting blame for when the Sooners lose, Smalley said.

In 2000, Oklahoma went undefeated and won a national championship. The Sooners struggled in subsequent years, though, in part because Stoops wouldn’t hold his assistant coaches to the same high standards, Smalley said. Stoops had high ownership, but low accountability.

Former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong was just the opposite, Smalley said, in holding other cyclists on his team to rigorous standards, but failing to take ownership for his own actions, including the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

HR professionals wield another important competency in their ability to influences others, Smalley said. “We influence each and every day.”

William Osler, a Canadian physician who was among the four founding professors of John Hopkins Hospital, influenced medicine and his medical students — even in making a point in his practical jokes — Smalley said.

During one class in which he emphasized the importance of attention to details, Osler convinced students the taste of urine could help them in diagnosing their ailments of their patients, Smalley said. Osler demonstrated by dipping a finger in a bottle of urine and touching a finger to his tongue, Smalley said. Osler passed the bottle around the class and each student in turn repeated the process of tasting the urine. Afterward, Osler made his point in informing the students that had they been paying attention to details as he instructed, they would have realized he dipped one finger in the urine and put another finger to his mouth.

Successful HR professionals also must be consistent not only in the way they relate to employees, but also in their own preparations to take advantage of opportunities in their careers, Smalley said.

Citing another example from sports, Smalley said NFL quarterback Tom Brady made a habit early in his career of preparing to play even though he was a backup at the time and nobody expected him to ever take the field, much less excel. “He practiced like he was the starting quarterback.”

The New England Patriots didn’t draft Brady until the sixth round and he started his first rookie season as the fourth-string quarterback. Brady became a starter three games into the next season when Drew Bledsoe was injured. Brady led the Patriots to a Super Bowl title and was named MVP.

Brady subsequently won three more Super Bowl titles and two more Super Bowl MVP awards in leading his team to more division titles than any other quarterback in NFL history.

“Consistency ensures growth and opportunity,” Smalley said.

Consistency also means continually striving to improve, especially after making mistakes, Smalley said. “Super hero leaders are not defined by their mistakes, but by how they act after a mistake.”

Smalley said one of his most important messages to HR professionals is to protect the integrity it takes a lifetime to establish, but only a second to lose.

As for the greatest example of the greatest super heroes, Smalley cited mothers. They nurture and mentor their children, but also allow them to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, he said.

Smalley said he learned leadership from his own mother, who worked 12 hours a day seven days a week and still would come home and ask family members what they wanted her to prepare for dinner.

He said he regrets now he hadn’t been just as giving at that time. “I never asked Mom what she wanted for dinner.”