I always thought Cordelia – the youngest daughter in Shakespeare’s King Lear – would make an excellent HR and talent development manager.
This job description, for example, was simply written for her: “Acts to support the human factor in the company. Proactively and respectfully challenges management and then mentors them.”
Isn’t that exactly what Cordelia did with her father King Lear? First challenging Lear’s demands of undivided loyalty, then patiently standing by his side, despite his highly unreasonable behavior. If another HR manager were in charge, Lear would have been sacked. Under Cordelia’s leadership, he was given a chance to realise the error of his ways and take feasible steps towards personal and professional improvement (albeit too late to avert the play’s tragic ending).
Alas, there are no Cordelias in the office, and, throughout my career, HR has never contributed much to my “human factor” – or, indeed, had any effect on me. In 20 years, I had worked for six companies in four countries, and I had just two meetings with HR outside mandatory inductions: when someone once complained about me and when I once complained about someone. Both meetings were entirely inconsequential.
At one of my old firms, the head of HR was a former shrink, and was meant to help the rest of us make the most of our careers. In reality, he used this training to coerce us into taking the jobs that we did not want to do – or to extract confessions and then snitch to the management. When I just joined the firm, well-wishing colleagues warned me not to admit to any weaknesses. Instead, I spoke about my ambitions, and the type of work that I hoped to do. He listened sympathetically, adopted a kindly grandpa look, nodded a lot, took copious notes – what did he do with these notes? – and ended the meeting with a solemn promise of making my dreams come true.
What followed was more Regan – the evil older sister – than Cordelia. Just like Lear’s middle daughter, the HR shrink sold me out. All the talk of my “development” promptly went out of the window, and the only jobs he sent my way were things that I already knew how to do. He once casually told me that I would never make it to partner. How I wish that someone like Cordelia had delivered the news instead. No doubt she would have done it with tact and wisdom – and would have also known how to deal with the emotional breakdown of truly Lear-esque proportions that ensued.
But, in the absence of Cordelia, your real chance of professional development is never with HR, but with the people you work with. Look for someone who knows what they are doing and who inspires. Someone who is sharp and who believes in their work. Find them, learn from them, ask them for more work, overdeliver, outperform. This is how you learn, and this is how you get ahead.
HR job specs should change. Instead of looking for superheroes with the powers to transform our “human factor”, HR should look for pragmatic, efficient professionals, those who could help us find our way around the company and take our admin burden off. I’ve had one or two HR colleagues like that, and their contribution to the firm was real and highly valuable.
So, realistically, instead of Cordelia, what HR needs is a Viola or Rosalind.
Next time: why the Fool is the ideal chairman to Lear’s chief executive.
Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director.