A Dear John Letter to HR

Nahal Yousefian is a Chief Human Resources Officer. She reached out recently to discuss her passion for disrupting the Human Resources function. She has moved from conforming in the system to learning about and experimenting with more effective models of organizational design, capability, and ultimately psychology. She pointed out that many systems and structures were designed precisely to reinforce a centralized, command and control flow of work versus an agile and responsive model. She has reframed her personal purpose at work and strives to create the world of work anew.

I will let her tell you the rest of the story in this brilliant Dear John letter that she wrote to HR. Every function, every institution, every mental model could benefit from a similar letter. It is my continued hope that more people like Nahal make it their personal purpose to think differently about these fossils from our past. Enjoy her letter.

Dear HR,

I am sorry to have to do this, but I am breaking up with you. I am especially sorry to have to do this in writing; given our shared love for documentation, Dear John Letter - HRI suspect you won’t be too offended. I just don’t understand us anymore. I do know that I owe you a lot and don’t want to come across ungrateful. When I left teaching, you took me in. I learned so much about many different industries across many different countries. I was able to realize a lot of my dreams, thanks to us. But now it is time to say goodbye. I don’t blame you. I have changed and you wish to stay the same.

As an enabling function, I didn’t feel like we were enabling the organizations we support to face the two challenges that keep them up at night; responsive to the needs of its customers and its staff. We are slowing down the organization’s responsiveness while promoting autopilot leadership which is disengaging staff, eroding trust and invariably impacting our customers.

We inserted ourselves in the relationship between leaders and their staff. We mapped out the interactions between them and called it the employee life cycle and throughout the years we policy-ed and processed the crap out of them, thinking we were enabling consistency, fairness and autonomy. The opposite in fact was the case. We also ended up building a bit of an empire, adding cost to the bottom line. We were supposed to enable leaders and staff to connect; instead we automated the interaction.

Then 2008 happened. Everyone started to talk about trust in leadership, engagement and a great place to work culture. We didn’t change our approach in managing this new portfolio; we continued to create more policies, processes and templates to bring human back into the workplace. We tried to create a policy and process for trust and culture not completely realizing that trust isn’t something that can be processed, and culture is the output of the efforts we put in and the strides we make in continuously improving organizational design and capability.

I have been lucky to work with start-ups, mid-sized and multinational organizations who are trying to reimagine the world of work. Given that many of the systems and structures were designed precisely to reinforce a centralized, command and control flow of work versus an agile and responsive model, I have had the opportunity to channel significant resources towards learning about effective models of architecture, capability, and economics centered around an entirely new set of principles: that human beings want to leave work feeling like they left the world in a better place than they found it, that the term ‘experience’ isn’t about gimmicks but about learning and that the employee life cycle is the only leadership skill. I have been reminded over the past 15 years that all organizations expand and consolidate, propagate and protect, cooperate and reciprocate all the time; that there is an embedded agility, a feedback loop. We aren’t tapping into this feedback loop enough; the foundation of the learning organization that Peter Drucker and Peter Senge presaged as organizational design’s next iteration.

As for organizational capability, I have had the good fortune of working with some great minds and futurists to help offer the skills that will future proof our staff. As machine learning and systems replace routine and administrative work, new jobs are being created. The new generations entering the workforce are Drucker’s knowledge workers and they crave and thrive in learning organizations; where staff and leaders are ever conscious of the broad processes that define their work. They understand the nature of the interacting processes that, in their totality, engender the expansion and consolidation of the organization.

I asked a group of leaders in a meeting to define the word ‘manager’ or ‘leader’ without using the following words from the employee life cycle: recruitment, rewards, training, development, leaves of absence, underperformance, talent, terminations. They came up blank. The closest they got was task masters. A task master can be replaced by AI and may be that’s the future, but for now, I know I want a human as my boss at work.

The most important decisions impacting organizational responsiveness are how we hire, promote and cut. The financial performance of an organization can be re-imagined if the employee life cycle is intelligently executed and continuously improved by the leaders closest to it rather than centrally through a relationship manager. The fact that HR owns so much of the life cycle isn’t half as worrying as how easily leaders tend to give it up.

Our role, especially now, is to hand back the employee life cycle to its rightful owners; the leaders and to focus our energy on understanding how the world of work is changing. The knowledge workers are curious and hungry. Our role is to foster a learning environment for them and that’s where I am off to; re-imagining the world of business, word by word, slogan by slogan. I want to un-buzz the world of business and re-learn it considering the future of work; which is here by the way.

Like I said, I am and will forever be grateful for everything we did together, and I know I wouldn’t be true to myself if I continued to stay in this relationship. I hope you will join me on this journey so we too, can go home after work and feel that we have left the world in a better place than we found it.
Here’s to creating the world of work anew.

Much Love,


P.S. I wrote a book about us. Explains everything.

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