HR: the movie

Another of my early blogs (rerun to buy me time to get on top of the new book)

A recent Twitter exchange prompted a suggestion that HR should have its own movie. Technically it already has but for some reason, it failed to capture the imagination. So conversation rapidly turned to what a movie with HR in a starring role might look like. I’m willing to option the rights to these crackers for a very reasonable price. If you have any further suggestions then please leave them in the comments box.

Plot 1 – The Facilitator

Tom Smith is the best at what he does. A superspy, trained to kill – deadly in close quarters combat and one of the world’s greatest marksmen -yet Tom has a number of challenging behaviours that make him an unpopular member of the team.  What we need is a brave HR pro willing to coach, a seasoned veteran of away days ready to talk tough to the world’s toughest man and to facilitate tricky conversations with colleagues. Under pressure.

Plot 2 – Performance Gridiron

A ragtag High School football team made up of misfits and a star quarterback (who will doubtless be emotionally damaged by something that happened in his past, probably his father being a previous talented footballer whose career ending injury turned him to drink) , is crying out for an online Performance Management system. Will they get the system implemented in time to see them through to the play offs? Will they be able to make the most of the data whilst still retaining an understanding of the people dynamics? Will it integrate fully with their current systems to provide an effective single solution for the team?

Plot 3 – Final Decision

Tommy was a family man, trying to get by by living honestly in the tough neighbourhood he was raised in .After his release from prison for a crime he didn’t commit – or possibly did commit (but under a level of duress that makes us all feel sorry for him) – one question remains:  who’ll administer his CRB check? Who will decide whether Tommy gets one more chance at rebuilding his life. The final decision rests with HR.

Plot 5 – Critical Impact 

An asteroid is plummeting towards earth. If it hits it is likely we will be destroyed as a species. The US government is our only hope, because in these situations apparently all of the other governments just give up. We know we need the best of the best of the best of the best. We know that these men (and possibly one attractive woman) live on the fringes of acceptability. We know they have an unparalleled skill set and they are our only hope. But the real question is: who will choose the tools that will establish as to whether they are a good cultural fit for our organisation? Who is the best of the best at choosing the best of the best of the best

Plot 6 – The Lord of The  Admins: A long road home

This 79 hour movie trilogy (148 hours in the special edition, 273 hours in the HR Director’s cut – sorry, restructure) features a loose group of heroes facing an unimaginable evil that threatens to plunge their world into darkness forever. The story is told from the point of view of a payroll administrator, chronicling their arduous attempts to get payoll to reconcile whilst fighting off Orcs, and dealing with tax code queries that only they can resolve.

Plot 7 – Finding Nemo (thanks to Ryan Cheyne)

Nemo is the one genuine talent in a large monolithic corporation. A fish with plenty of potential to grow, but currently swimming in an ocean of mediocrity. The film features the endeavours of Marvin the HR professional and his many adventures with talent grids and forced ranking to finally find Nemo – and plaice him on a high potential programme. If you swim with the shoal it’s hard to stand out. If you swim with the sharks you better take care!

If you haven’t seen the best actual workplace films some clips are below

Up in the air – contains moderate swearing – but incredible messaging

Office Space  – really, well worth a watch

HR as a wartime consigliere

In the last Blog I wrote about Star Wars – and in my first I wrote about Jaws. The plan is to keep struggling through films (and other things) until I end up scraping the bottom of the media barrel, so feel free to stop reading when I start producing articles with titles like

  • lessons for OD from Kevin Costner’s epic ‘Waterworld’
  • how could Bill and Ted improve their team dynamics?
  • What was Garfield’s learning journey between Garfield 1 and Garfield 2?
  • Alien vs Predator – when is conflict beneficial?
  • Herbie – is it ever right to go bananas? 
Until then I’ll work through some more recognisable territory, so I’m moving on to The Godfather. 
Fascinating factoids
  • The Godfather was written by Mario Puzo, who also wrote the screenplay to Superman – but you wouldn’t know it from the contrasting tone
  • Francis Ford Coppola managed to find parts in the film for his {deep breath} sister, mother, father, two sons and his daughter. The musical play in The Godfather Part II was written by his grandfather
Get on with it…it isn’t a movie blog…

In both the book and the film there is an interesting and key role in the Mafia family – described as consigliori in the book, but as consigliere in the film series. No matter the name, the role is pivotal in the organisation, providing challenge and counsel to the Head of the Family. They are  a trusted advisor who is able to debate decisions and challenge behaviour in a way that isn’t expected in the rest of the organisation. They are closer to the thoughts, plans and motivations of the Head of the Family than anyone else.
You’ll notice on the org chart below that it sits off to the side of the organisation – a direct report  – but operating at a different level to an Underboss (let’s call the ‘underboss’ a ‘Head of Department’). You’ll also notice that, in a business where decisions are genuinely life and death, the org chart doesn’t look that dissimilar to most companies
Hey, look at my Mafia Org Chart!

And that relates to HR how…

There are a couple of interesting things about the role

i) I think it is a role that HR/OD  should be looking to fill. Helping to run the commercial business – whilst providing support,counsel and challenging thinking at the very top. If we aren’t at the top table we are letting it be lonely at the top

ii) I think the requirements for key roles, including that of HR, change depending on the environment

But yesterday you were all about consistency?

In yesterday’s blog I suggested that HR needed to be brave and consistently principled when making and acting on difficult decisions. I genuinely believe that, but the fact is sometimes there is a different skill set required to deliver in difficult times. People have different strengths that suit different environments and challenges. 

In the first film the consiglieri of the Corleone family, their most trusted advisor, Tom Hagen, is demoted temporarily when a war breaks out between New York’s crime families. The reason given is this

“things are going to get rough, and I need a wartime consiglieri.” Michael Corleone

So the key reflections are…

are we consiglieri? Are we running our department – or playing a key role in the running the business? Do we have that level of trust and credibility with the most senior people in the organisation?

are we peacetime or wartime consiglieri? Are we at our best when the chips are down – or when we have time and space to think? Neither is necessarily better, but understanding which one you lean towards can help you do two things: i) reflect on where you need to strengthen your skills  ii) be aware of how much or little help you may be able to offer in different situations

do you notice changing requirements? if the dynamic of your business changes have you stopped and thought whether the team you needed yesterday is still the team you need for today? And tomorrow?

All done?

Well, very quickly,for those of you searching for work/life balance -, the Mafia had a good guiding rule on that too


Return of the HR Jedi

Ok… if you haven’t seen Star Wars then please just read my Blog on Jaws, if you haven’t seen Jaws then please read my Blog on Job Hunting. If you don’t have an awareness of any of these things then: congratulations on getting a job, why don’t you sit down this weekend and watch Jaws and Star Wars?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, Stephen Tovey posted this blog. It’s well worth a read.

Stephen admitted to taking liberties with the consequences of my argument (I suggested Darth Vader was a bad hire due to high turnover and workplace bullying) and I will be really badly paraphrasing Stephen to make my counterpoint..

Obi-Wan: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Go on then paraphrase him badly…

The substance of Stephen’s point was that sometimes HR are, at times, too fluffy (I agree) and not commercially focused enough (I concur) and need to do more dirty work (bang on). However, he also suggested that in times of economic turbulence or specific challenges we needed to be a bit more like Darth Vader and start swinging our lightsabers about – and stop worrying about culture and engagement for a bit – whilst we deal death to those in our care, to ensure the survival of the Empire.

The suggestion he makes is that making difficult decisions on people is somehow a ‘dark side’ thing, a sinister way of operating.

I think it should be the way we go about our business normally – principled, focused on outcomes, aware of the impact on people and prepared to make difficult calls. This is a Jedi thing – making tough calls for the best, it isn’t an evil thing.

Let me geek out to prove my point… 

Need to hide Luke and Leia from their Dad and lie about their identities?  Jedi can do that
Need to cut your former prodigy Annakin in half after an epic battle in a lava pit? Jedi are up for that
Need to coach some people into thinking these aren’t the droids they are looking for? Jedi are all over that
Need to blow up an entire Death Star full of people? Jedis get medals for it

But you never question that they are the good guys.

The point is that making difficult decisions and carrying out unpalatable actions isn’t being evil, they are practical requirements that can be consistent with with principle. HR isn’t just about being caring and mindful of people’s feelings, it is about action and tough decisions – but there is no reason that actions can’t be carried out in a caring and mindful way.

Yes, we might have to make people redundant, but managing that process with dignity is what ensures we can remain true to ourselves – it is possible to carry out a necessary evil without necessarily becoming evil.

Just because you have to make tough choices doesn’t mean you ignore what you believe about the way a business should behave – because if you start to do that, even for a second – if you think that culture and engagement is getting in the way of real work…well…

Yoda:  A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice. 

In difficult times we can’t abandon our principles, we may have to apply them in a different way, but principles can’t be seen as temporary things. HR’s rush to be seen as a commercial contributor shouldn’t be an excuse for us turning evil, just a wake up call that it is no use being good without being brave.

In the words of Jon Stewart (who links tenuously to Star Wars, but is brilliantly quotable)


“if we can’t practice our principles when we’re being tested, our principles are not principles. They are hobbies”

And if you ever did wonder about how Darth Vader fits in the management structure on the Death Star…

Training a Great White Shark

About 3 years ago I started writing a book. That book was never published for a variety of reasons, chiefly that I only ever wrote 6 pages and it wasn’t very good. It was going to be on lessons for business from the movies – and then suddenly everyone was writing about business lessons from the movies, so I stopped and left my notes in an electronic dusty corner. 


Recently, with some time on my hands,  I have started reading some great blogs and one of them is by a gentleman called Neil Morrison (or @neilmorrison is his cryptic twitter handle). I’m looking for my next opportunity and he generously tweeted my CV (if he reads this ‘thanks!). 


Whilst following him I noticed that people referred to him as NeMo AND Finding Nemo is a film AND has sharks in. Now, if ever there was a sign that I should revisit some of my thoughts on Jaws and business, that seems like one. Non sequitur? Probably, but then the Blog title should be a hint. 


“They innocently assumed that they could get a shark trainer somewhere, who, with enough money, could get a great white shark to perform a few simple stunts…” Carl Gottlieb”

Some common facts that people know about Jaws and might volunteer in a pub quiz. 

What most people don’t know is some of the more detailed story behind the production – and that is awesome.The producers of the film, David Zanuck and Richard Brown were fresh from the success of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and confident in the extreme and looking for their next win.  They purchased the rights to the book of Jaws with a somewhat sketchy understanding of what filming it involved. 

As the planning process progressed, it was explained to them that their original plan of training a great white shark to do stunts was a nonstarter- and if they had found a shark of the proportions mentioned in the book (25 feet) there was unlikely to be anyone in the world likely to fancy attempting to train it  -‘shark whisperer’ is a profession with limited progression opportunities. 

So, they got innovative and created a mechanical shark for some shots  – and for some of the longer shots in the film what you are watching is genuine footage of sharks;  filmed off the coast of Australia with a 4ft 9” ex -jockey, placed in a scaled down shark cage to create the illusion of a giant shark in the footage.
Despite these problems the film was an incredible success, if you adjust for inflation it is in the Top10 highest grossing movies ever made, and success from such a poorly thought out start holds some interesting business lessons
  1. Some things simply can’t be bent to your will – it didn’t matter how much resource Zanuck and Brown had – they were never going to successfully train a Great White to do stunts. Abandoning your plans – and sometimes gracefully walking away from people – can be the best path to progress
  2. Money is, sometimes, not enough motivation – a film studio with millions available to it can recognise that, sometimes, money alone will not be enough to motivate people (here’s some cash, swim out towards that fin..). Identify where are you paying people more simply because you are putting them into an unattractive environment – and fix the environment.
  3. Judging success and people on output only is too simplistic – if Jaws had bombed – and I told you the producers assumed they could train a shark to do stunts – you would have assumed they were raging idiots. Luck always plays a part in success – and the big wins and black swans simply don’t average out over time. Remember that when your annual performance appraisals come around…
  4. People can innovate under pressure when committed to a purpose we have spent millions on rights to a book and it turns out we know nothing about sharks. We still have to make this happen… Sometimes we think of innovation as being i) crushed by pressure ii) about ‘big ideas’. Pragmatism is an underrated little brother to innovation. A big, hairy audacious goal with some pragmatists committed to it – and a blank sheet of paper – can occasionally work wonders
  5. A good story can compensate for plenty of goofs – if I can engage with you and help you believe in what I’m telling you, then you stop looking for holes and start having fun. Wilful suspension of disbelief works in business too – if someone points out that your idea, metaphorically, looks like a cheap rubber shark, then you haven’t shared your vision well enough
  6. Doing the same thing again doesn’t represent progress  people get tired and results  get worse through simply following the motions – Jaws 4: The Revenge holds a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the worst rated films of all time.
    Tired business models = uninspired people = uninspired result

  7. Never attempt more than 3 bullet points on your blog – oops

    And if you think you are smarter than Zanuck and Brown, because you wouldn’t try to train a shark – try and work out if you would have known it was such a bad idea if they hadn’t had such success with Jaws…