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Hey, We’re High Tech, Too!

When I tell people I work in Huntsville, I usually get a glassy-eyed stare in return. I mean, really, I work in Alabama. How great could that really be, right? Cotton fields… Relatively low population density… Who cares? :-)

madison countyThe other day I ran across this study and wanted to share. Just click on the image to view it larger. The gist of it is that the top three fastest growing technology jobs areas are all centered right in Silicon Valley. No big surprise, right? But number four on the list is my own hometown of Huntsville! Pretty cool to see.

With the concentration of NASA, Redstone Arsenal, and the various other government contracting firms in the area, we are not what people think about when they think of Alabama.

In a 2011 study, Huntsville came in as the “4th geekiest city in the US” based on the number of math/science-based jobs and the average educational level of the people in the city.

What’s the point?

I’m using a familiar place to illustrate the example, but I get a few key lessons from this kind of thing.

  1. Don’t assume you know everything about a place unless you’re familiar with it. I live just outside Huntsville and didn’t even know this stuff until recently. 
  2. Know the place you’re recruiting for, because it helps when you have to relocate someone to the local area. Some people are drawn to cities with more people, others prefer a more rural existence (rural recruiting), and some don’t much care either way. 
  3. Now I have an idea of why it’s hard to find good engineering talent when we have openings. Lots of competition!

Have you ever been surprised by a place you had to recruit for?

76% of CEOs Value Relationship with HR

I was reading a white paper recently that touched on the role between HR and the CEO, and it was something I have experienced personally and never took the time to put into words. There are a few key roles that the head of HR plays when it comes to the CEO, and I have listed a few below. But first, a quote:

75% of CEOs say their relationship with the head of HR is close and trustful and 76% hail it as one of their most valued.

Most valued. Wow. That’s both an opportunity and responsibility that many HR professionals should not take lightly.

Informal coach

In terms of feedback, HR takes on the role of informal executive coach to the CEO. They will provide input on things that might not be at the forefront of the CEO’s thoughts and help them to get their message across in a way that is “comfortable” for the parties involved.

“Safe” performance improvement feedback

In cases where critical feedback might be necessary, the HR person might have to provide “safe” performance feedback to the executive. In this context, “safe” means direct, private, and confidential. The advice is provided directly to the CEO, it’s in a private location, and the feedback is confidential and will not be repeated.

Personal touch

The one that I’ve seen more of is what my friend likes to call “the office spouse.” I liken it to my relationship with my wife in that when we go somewhere, I look at her helplessly and say, “Who is that guy’s wife again?” and “What did you say happened to their son?” She has those minor details all memorized. Same relationship at work: the CEO expects the HR professional to have the staff information on a personal level close at hand, among other things. In addition, HR acts as a representative of the staff. The CEO can also ask (this ties back in with the two points above) how staff will receive/comprehend an announcement about upcoming changes, whether good or bad.

The relationship between the executive leadership and HR is an interesting one with many facets. I think this is an area for HR to be strategic to a certain extent. The relationship is a very personal one, and just like any friendship there can’t be more taking than giving; however, it can be an excellent way to facilitate necessary discussions in a safe way.

Have you ever had a one-on-one relationship with a CEO? What do you remember most about it? 

Asking the Right Interview Questions

Last week I was driving to do some face to face interviews for a key position. With five hours on the road, I had a little time to think about what made the “perfect” personality, skill set, etc. for the opening. Then I started backing into the interview questions I wanted to ask. While we had asked mainly about background and experience during the phone interview, I wanted more of an idea of how people fit during the face to face (and final) interview.

Funny enough, I was listening to a podcast for a portion of the drive, and the speaker was talking about some of their hiring practices. He said that when he’s hiring for a “doer” position, which ours definitely was, he asks a specific question to delve into the person’s background of doing things. Basically, he says, “What have you done?” and takes the conversation from there with follow ups, etc.

If I had to critique most people I’ve seen interview in the past, they don’t do a good enough job of the follow up questions. They have their favorite questions and they are sticking to that list no matter what the person says. However, if you really want to dig deeper, uncover half truths, and establish an actual baseline for what the person can actually do, then you need to listen carefully to their responses, then ask an additional question.

It doesn’t have to be complex, maybe just a “tell me more about that” or “and then how did it turn out” or “what did your manager think about what you did?” Those questions aren’t on any preparation website, so it’s hard to study for them. You should get a good picture of what the person is actually capable of from those sorts of interactions.

I’m also now a big believer in asking situational type questions to determine how a person will respond. We haven’t done much of that in the past, but this time around I asked a dozen questions based on what an average day/week would look like, and the answers steered us to the right person.

How do you decide what questions to ask in an interview? Is it time to change?

Driving Innovation with Event Planning

Event planning? Really? I thought HR was supposed to give up the “party planner” role in the move to strategic partner… Well, let’s hear what the indubitable Sue Meisinger has to say about that:

Open Communication Spurs Innovation

Meisinger then pointed to employee social events as an opportunity to tear down boundaries that many HR professionals seem to miss. She asked the audience to raise their hand if they resented the fact that their organization expected them to organize social events, such as holiday parties and corporate picnics. Dozens of hands shot up in the audience.

“Excuse me while I go on a rant here. You’re looking at this from the wrong perspective, and you shouldn’t resent this opportunity and instead embrace it,” she said. “You need to look at these employee events as strategic opportunities to open communication channels.”

In social settings, people talk and get to know each other, and HR’s role should be to help encourage that interaction and promote the culture where people talk to people, she added.

“Is it more likely that someone from accounting will return a call or consider a suggestion from someone in publications that they barely know, or is it likely that they will listen and pay attention to someone whom they remember meeting and sharing a good time?” Meisinger asked. “HR’s role is to ensure clarity and the organization’s efforts to develop and maintain a culture that encourages and celebrates innovation.” Source: SHRM

Bringing it home

I am the events team lead at work. To be totally honest, I’m not very good at the details part of the event planning. It’s just not an area that I am strong in.

However, I do put effort into determining what events support the culture we want to develop and how to use the events as a way to link diverse groups of employees. There is no substitute for the conversations and camaraderie that develop as a result of the events we have for our staff.

Another element is seeing our senior leaders participating in these events alongside our staff. That opportunity to interact on a personal level increases the trust in our leadership.

So, say what you will, but I’m going to keep putting the effort into developing events that our staff enjoy, because that is one of the things that makes our culture what it is. What are your thoughts on the topic?

Essential HR Skills: Communication, Conflict, and Change

Last week I published part 1 of this series of essential HR skills focusing on Organization, Dealing with “Gray,” and Negotiation. Here’s the followup.

The remainder of the items in our list include the following traits:

  1. Communication
  2. Discrete and Ethical
  3. Dual Focus
  4. Conflict Management and Problem Solving
  5. Change Management


Every job requires some proficiency with communication, but the level of communications necessary to do this job well is pretty substantial. If nothing else, you need to have an “awareness” (for lack of a better term) of the communication going on throughout the organization, as well as a good understanding of how people will receive messages/announcements. I get questions from senior leaders often on “how people will respond” to specific comms. That takes attention, an understanding of how things work within your org (this usually grows with tenure), and knowledge of how people act and react. I can’t stress enough that this can make or break your success in this role. Split testing internal communications is a good way to get started learning how people process and respond to new information.

Discrete and Ethical

You hold the keys to the kingdom with salary information, medical data, investigation records, and other highly sensitive information. Being able to maintain a division between who needs to know xyz information and who doesn’t can be a difficult task, especially when you have friends at work who are not in positions with a “need to know.” This one is easier in my opinion–just keep your mouth shut when dealing with sensitive (or potentially sensitive) information, and you’re good to go.

Dual Focus

I struggle with this one sometimes. Basically you are an advocate for the employees while also being a representative of management. The way I usually get around the questionable topics is this: I’m also an employee, if I didn’t have this information passed to me from the leadership, how would I feel? More often than not, stopping and asking that question of myself and the other management team members is an excellent way to refocus on what is best to share with all staff. Sometimes the answer to that question is a definite “no,” but other times we lean toward “yes” to align with our corporate culture of open and honest communications.

Conflict Management and Problem Solving

I sometimes run into trouble with this one,  because I have a much higher tolerance for stupid behavior than others. People don’t always get along. We understand that. But if they are focusing on things that are irrelevant, I will work with their manager(s) to help reconcile those differences. There are times when those differences can’t be fixed, one party might be belligerent, etc. and in those cases the solution is a more final one, but I have seen plenty of times when someone is frustrated in the heat of the moment only to completely forget the issue a few days later. Knowing how to discern work stress bleeding over into relationships vs. actual, real relationship problems is the key here for me and my staff.

Change Management

Things change more often than they stay the same. There’s always new information to share, new initiatives to begin, and new people to bring on. All of those have the potential to bring stress into the workplace. Two solid pieces on how to avoid or control this: The Double Down Effect and Communication Stealth Tip.

I hope you enjoyed the series! Let me know in the comments if you have another “critical” skill for HR pros. What should make #10 on the list?

How I Fell in Love with Guatemala

This is a report detailing my some of my experiences visiting Guatemala as part of a mission team from 12/28/13 to 1/4/14. This has nothing to do with HR, management, etc. But hopefully you’ll enjoy it anyway. If not, you know where the “delete” button is. :-)

I’ll start off by saying that it’s very difficult to put into words what this experience was like and how much it meant to me. It will be a long time before I realize all the impacts of my trip to Guatemala. For now I’ve just laid out a timeline of events, because that’s much easier to write at this point in time.

In the beginning

Back in November I was attending my small group at church and a friend mentioned that the mission team to Guatemala was short by a few people. I looked at my wife and we quickly decided that I would go. I have wanted to for a few years, but one excuse or another would pop up and keep me from committing. On the flip side, I have worked with our team at church to put on the annual holiday auction for the past few years. That annual event funds the feeding center and some of the other ministries within Guatemala, so I definitely had a significant interest in checking out what all the efforts had led to over the years.

Hanging out with my new friend Elsa

Hanging out with my new friend Elsa

I spent the next few weeks puzzling through my brain. Why was I going? What did I have to offer? To be completely honest, the thought of building a home was daunting. My skills are limited to “lift that” and “move this.” I’m not savvy with my hands when it comes to projects like that. I knew I wanted to spend time with the kids and just play and love on them, but what else could I offer? Why was I supposed to be there?

By the time I left, I still didn’t have an answer that satisfied me…

Fast forward to the end of December, and I was stepping onto a plane to head into Guatemala. I had spoken with a few previous visitors to get an idea of what to expect, but it was still a wide open canvas just waiting to be painted.

The plane ride was a quick hop from Huntsville to Atlanta, then a three hour flight from Atlanta to Guatemala.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and spent the evening resting and unpacking at the mission house located in San Pedro las Huertas.

Sunday-staying busy

On Sunday we got up, got ready, and went to a church service. The entire service was in Spanish, but they were very excited to have us there visiting, so they asked a few people to come up and speak to the group. Our music director also got up and sang two songs, which they enjoyed immensely. I speak some Spanish, but I couldn’t keep up with everything being said. However, when the pastor bent his head to pray, I heard, “Gracias” at least a dozen times in his prayer.

That made me stop and think. These people have so little, and yet they are incredibly thankful for the things they do have. It’s a powerful reminder that with all the things we have and take for granted on a daily basis…

I heard a great quote recently that this reminded me of: What if you woke up tomorrow with only the things you were thankful for today? Take a moment to think on that. It’s pretty powerful. I do know that I’m going to be more thankful for everything, even something as simple as being able to drink water from a faucet without risking an illness!

Talking with Jonathan

“Working” with my new amigo, Jonathan

After church we ate and went to the building site to prepare the area for the home we planned to build throughout the week. We dug holes, set posts, and filled them with concrete to dry overnight. As it got dark, the family we were building the house for brought us food and drinks as a “thank you” for our efforts. It was amazing to me that this family was so giving (food for 7-8 guys is a lot), even when they had so little to give.

That night, I walked with a few of the team down to visit Elsa, the sponsored child of one of my good friends from home. Elsa’s eyes were enormous as she opened the small box and marveled at the toys, lip gloss, and other trinkets inside. It was an honor to be able to make that visit on behalf of my friends, and I know she and her family appreciated the gift very much.

Monday-let’s build a house

Monday we started early on the house. We started putting up the walls and roof. When you think “house,” this probably isn’t what comes to mind. This was basically a tin shed with a wood frame. However, by local standards, it was a fairly nice house. After we ate lunch and worked on the roof, I took a few minutes to wander out to the nearby area where the children were playing.

I absolutely love children, and I wanted to spend some time playing with them while I was there. I started swinging them around and letting them jump from the back of the truck into my arms, and it was my favorite few minutes of the entire day. Within minutes, the kids were saying, “Mono! Mono! Mono!” I couldn’t help but laugh, because that’s Spanish for “monkey.” Soon it was time to head back to the mission house, so I had to tell the children that I would be back the next day.

Tuesday-fun with concrete and monkeys

Playing with kids in the squatter's area

Showing the kids how to jump rope like a pro

On Tuesday we had to mix concrete to pour floors for the home. That involved shoveling sand and gravel and then mixing that with cement and water. All in all, it was a tough job, but certainly something that someone with my level of hands-on skills (i.e. zero!) could do without much fuss. After we got the floors poured, some of the guys began building the doors that we would put on after the floors set, so I wandered outside again to see the kids.

As soon as my head popped outside, they started shouting, “Mono!” and ran to me. I was swinging them and laughing, and then one little girl started saying, “Mono loco!” If you know how I act around kids, that’s a pretty fair translation: crazy monkey.

Again, I spent as much time out there playing with kids, learning names, and taking pictures before we headed back for the night.

Wednesday-concrete and sponsored kids

Taking a moment to speak with teammate Casandra and her buddy Carla

Taking a moment to speak with teammate Casandra and her buddy Carla

On Wednesday, we couldn’t return to the house as the floors were setting, so we went to the feeding center. Over the past few years mission teams have built a feeding center on the side of a mountain at San Cristobal el Bajo. This feeding center provides one meal, a vitamin, and a bible verse each day to over fifty children. For many of those kids, that is the only meal they will receive all day. The feeding center kitchen had a dirt floor, and to improve the conditions and make it more sanitary, the team mixed and poured a concrete floor in the cooking area. My only regret was that the feeding center was closed for the new year/holiday, so we didn’t get to see the children who normally visited the facility.

Thursday-house dedication and lots of hugs

home finish

Dedicating the new home for the family

On Thursday we returned to the home to put on the doors and dedicate the home. After that special occasion was celebrated, we all had a chance to go out and help with Vacation Bible School for the children living in the squatter’s area. As we helped the children make their crafts, one of the boys brought his and gave it to me as a gift. It was incredibly thoughtful and I will treasure it! It was our last time to see the kids before we would leave on Saturday, so we gave extra hugs and said our tearful farewells.

That afternoon, we made several home visits to sponsored children. It was especially exciting for me, because I got to meet with Cesar, our sponsored child. He is currently in his “career” level classes in school, and despite the language barrier I was absolutely thrilled to get a photo taken with him. As I was leaving, his mother handed me a few old photos of Cesar. The translator asked if I needed to return them, but she just smiled and told me to keep the photos. That small token of appreciation was so special!

Cesar and his family

Cesar and his family

Later, we stopped by another home to visit other sponsored children. I was able to deliver yet another gift on behalf of our friends, and it was such a neat experience to see Francisco Javier get excited about the small toys and other goodies in his box.

Friday-the “rest” day and youth night

Friday was our “off” day, after spending several days mixing concrete, pouring floors, doing construction, and going nonstop. We got to visit some interesting places around town, but for me the entire day was overshadowed by the upcoming departure. That night we hosted a youth group meeting for the local church and did some fun/funny skits and songs for them.

Saturday-regretfully heading home

Playing with kids

Spending time with the children at the squatter’s area

On Saturday morning we packed up and hit the road to head to the airport in Antigua. There were many hugs and kind words spoken, and I will not forget thinking about how we were heading back home and the others were heading back to the village to rest up for another day of ministering to the local children. Amazing.

This experience is difficult to describe in a few words, so I tried to give an account of the trip with some solid detail. However, I still can’t convey the lifechanging impact of the visit. I am anxious to return, and I hope to one day bring my family with me to visit the amazing people in Guatemala. Hope you enjoyed the story!

Essential HR Skills: Organization, Focus, and Negotiation

Recently I ran across an old article on “essential” HR skills. It was an interesting read, and I wanted to break it down and show how it’s true (and, in some ways, maybe not so much). Today we’ll tackle the first half of them. Here’s the original list:

  1. Organization
  2. Multitasking
  3. Dealing with Gray
  4. Negotiation
  5. Communication
  6. Discrete and Ethical
  7. Dual Focus
  8. Conflict Management and Problem Solving
  9. Change Management

Source: HR.BLR

Now I’d like to break these down individually and give some perspective on which ones are critical for the role of the HR professional. I’m framing this through the lens of a generalist, because that’s what I (and most of us, if I had to guess) do on a daily basis.


This is one of my weakest areas, but it’s also truly important to being great in this role. You’re balancing 50 priorities in different focus areas, and that doesn’t come easily. How do you know what is more important between a pending lawsuit that needs a response, 401k nondiscrimination testing, and handling a discrimination investigation? Whew. Be organized or be gone.


This one is on every list you’ll ever see for a “critical skill.” However, I think it’s less about multitasking and more about being able to shift focus quickly. Multitasking sounds like you’re trying to do 5 things at once. And in the end, that will just leave you with 5 things done in a so-so manner. Shifting focus at a moment’s notice to be able to handle a fast-moving priority IS an important skill. Multitasking can drop your IQ further than smoking marijuana, in case you were curious.

Dealing with Gray

Everything is not black and white, even in the world of policy creation and enforcement. You won’t think of everything, and that requires some level of discernment and backbone to make your job possible. If you are only interested in creating policies, adding amendments, and closing loopholes instead of using your brain, then this probably isn’t the profession for you. We have to work in the muddy areas frequently in this field, and it’s just part of the job description.


From handling compensation discussions to recruiting great candidates to working out your budget for the year, negotiation is something you need to work on if you plan to be successful in the HR field. In fact, I’d say the better you are at negotiating, the higher up the ladder of the profession you will go. The best and brightest HR pros I’ve run into over the years were not only unafraid of negotiating with vendors and management, they actually enjoyed the challenge! So put your negotiator hat on, because you have some work ahead of you…

Coming soon… Part 2: communication, discrete and ethical, dual focus, conflict management and problem solving, and change management

That’s all for today. We’ll cover the last half later this week!

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