Growing Old in H.R. - One
I've worked in Human Resources for over 20 years, and at one time we were responsible for maintaining the "heart" of the organization. More recently we've been led to believe that our main corporate contribution is to downsize employees and reduce medical costs. In return, we were promised an influential "seat at the executive table." Turning 50 years old has made me wonder if H.R. has lost its way.
Mid-life discontent - with a single plan of rebellion
When my half-century milestone arrived, my wife gave me a poster entitled Life's Little Secrets that hangs on my office wall. It purports sound advice like: "Wave at kids on school buses", "Watch one sunrise each year" and "Never refuse homemade brownies." My favorite is: "Send lots of Valentine Cards. Sign them from someone who thinks you're grand." With mortality quickly gaining ground, I pondered what would happen if I actually sent cards to co-workers on this special day. Might it be a step in returning H.R. to its original task of renewing the heart of the people? I chose to do more than reflect.
A week before Valentine's Day, when I got home I grabbed a box of my kid's "Barney Valentine cards." This is the kind that has 50 small cards of a purple dinosaur with one special card for the teacher. My MBA wife said: "What are you doing with those?" "I'm planning on sending them to people at work for Valentine's Day." She replied warmly: "What, are you crazy? You don't do things like that in business. Need I remind you that we have a big mortgage, 2 young boys and huge college bills looming in our future? Please stop experimenting with stupid ideas. You'll get yourself fired." This is what support has come to look like in the Moore household.
I took the cards to work and began addressing them. "Thanks for bringing warmth to our company" I wrote in one. "You make a heartfelt difference" in another. I got on a roll and finished the whole box.
Execution and results
When Valentine's Day arrived, I was prepared. Coming in early, I walked around headquarters dropping cards in offices and cubicles, on chairs and workstations. The Chairman, the President and a handful of executives got some. A whole bunch went to supervisors and managers. I kept the largest stash for our union folks - the ones who do the work and make the company hum. My rounds once complete, I sat back and waited. Or more accurately, by the time I got back to my office I was already late for a meeting and spent the rest of the day trying to catch up.
I figured that 90% of the people who received the cards would think I'm crazy. But I believed there would be 10% who understood what I was trying to do and might gain some strength of heart from the card. What actually happened was the opposite. Large numbers of people responded positively. The Chairman sent me an e-mail: "Thanks very much for the card. It's nice to be appreciated." The President replied: "How refreshing. Thank you for noticing." I got another note from an executive who seldom sees value in much of the work I do: "While I can't go into the details, your card was the high point to an otherwise miserable day. Thanks." I wondered what executive events were going on for him? The management and union folks responded just as warmly. One woman wrote: "This is the first Valentine Card I have ever received from a man I've never slept with." I accepted that as a compliment ... of sorts.
Within a day or two, the notes stopped. Life went back to normal; or so I thought. But two months later when I was called into an executive's office to work on a corporate project - there, taped on his wall was the Barney valentine. Upon closer examination, I came to see that a lot of the cards were still pinned on cubicle walls, work stations and corporate offices. In some regards I was elated. Yet, in another way, a little mystified.
Further developments and ruminations
The following year on Valentine's Day, I sent out a whole new bunch of cards. I did the same thing again this year. I even received a card myself this time around: a child's "Alien" Valentine card with a lollypop attached. My co-worker signed it: "I think you're out of this world." It made my heart smile. I still have it on my desk and won't throw it away. It makes me feel warm and cherished. And also, young. A lot younger than 50.
I'm sure there's some moral here - just not clear what it is. It probably has to do with the human spirit's desire to be noticed and affirmed. And that somebody out there still loves us in a childish kind of way. I remember thinking once that maybe we should have an executive whose only job is sending personal notes of thanks to employees ... since the need is so great. But I feel that once it becomes somebody's job, it loses its effect. One of the reasons the "Barney Valentine cards" hold sway is because it's not my job. At some level, employees know that I have limited time. When I send cards, something else doesn't get done. And somehow, that's what makes it meaningful.
I now spend more of my time sending notes and cards to employees. And my in-box doesn't get emptied as quickly. Some days … not at all. Who knows, maybe that comes with turning 50?
Life Goes on
I'm sure the downsizing and cost reductions will continue. And I'll bet that H.R. will be at the forefront of these efforts, demonstrating their bottom-line contribution to the company. But I'd like to believe that a select number of us might deviate from the purely quantifiable work and seek to rekindle the human spirit.
It is, after all, what's at the heart of our work … and the foundation for business success. We just need to do this a bit more often.
P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenny Moore is co-author of "The CEO and the Monk: One Company's Journey to Profit and Purpose" (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the Top Ten best selling business books on Amazon.com. He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 energy company. Reporting to the C.E.O., he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. While these efforts have largely been met with skepticism, he remains eternally optimistic of their future viability.
Kenny has over 20 years experience with change management, leadership development and healing the corporate community. He's been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning News, and interviewed by Tom Peters, The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company magazine regarding his unique leadership style. His business practices are based on Louie Armstrong who said: "I am here in the service of Happiness." Louis died a rich and beloved man; his voice still rings in the ears (and hearts) of millions.
Prior to his work in corporate America, Kenny spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. Several years ago, he had the good fortune of being diagnosed with "incurable" cancer, at its most advanced stages. He underwent a year of experimental treatment at the National Cancer Institute and survived. Kenny came away from that experience recalling the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us." Kenny's lifetime goal is to spend more of his time playing his music. Having dealt with both God and death, Kenny now finds himself eminently qualified to work with senior management on corporate change efforts.
Kenny is a watercolor artist, poet and photographer. He is Founding Director of "Art for the Anawim," a not-for-profit charity which works with the art community in supporting the needs of terminally ill children and the inner city poor. His poems have been published in several anthologies; one was selected as a semi-finalist in the North American Open Poetry Contest. Kenny lives in Totowa, NJ and is married to the "fair and beautiful" Cynthia. Together, they are fighting a losing battle of maintaining their mental stability while raising 2 growing boys.
Kenny can be reached at email@example.com or (973) 956-8210
(Kenny is also a regular contributor to The CEO Refresher. He has the distinction of having the longest bio we have published as it is, in and of itself, a truly wonderful and inspirational story of a man on a most mindful mission. Thanks Kenny. ed.)
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher