A Lack of HR Talent

I spent yesterday in Chicago with John Boudreau, Ian Ziskin, and fifty other Human Resources leaders discussing “The Future of HR.” We covered a lot of ground under this broad umbrella of topics, but the one I found myself most animated about is the state of HR talent.

Get ready… I’m going to be pretty harsh about my colleagues. But let’s be honest, if you start a sentence with “Most HR people…” I can almost guarantee that you end that sentence disparagingly (it happened at least half a dozen times in the room yesterday, in fact). Human Resources is not a field that top MBAs choose to pursue. CHROs do not become CEOs. Every few months we get articles in Harvard Business Review or the Wall Street Journal about the need to blow up HR. John told a true story yesterday about two top CHROs (Chief Human Resource Officers) at major companies whose kids were getting ready to graduate college. When asked what field they would encourage their kids to enter in order to change the world, neither could in good conscience recommend HR.

Instead, Human Resources has become the Island of Misfit Toys, the place where you go when your other profession stalls or you have nowhere else to turn. Too often, I hear people want to enter this field because they “like people,” which is a necessary but woefully insufficient reason for building a career.

This topic is acutely painful to me because I’m currently trying to build a world-class HR team at Riot. I spend two to four hours a day interviewing potential HR people. I’m meeting folks just out of school, seasoned professionals, and everything in between. And my conclusion after a full year of constant interviewing is that the talent pool in HR is just not very deep. Neither is the depth of craftsmanship we are bringing to our roles. The metaphor I’ve adopted is that I find myself kissing a lot of frogs in my pursuit for Prince Charming.

It’s depressing.

What happened here? I have two theories, both of which crystallized a bit yesterday.  My first theory is that, a few decades ago, we had the luxury of several “HR academies.” Companies like IBM, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Pepsi, and others hired and trained their HR people rigorously. They took talent seriously, both in their company values but also the expectations of their HR functions. Many of the HR talent who came through these academies represent a who’s who of CHROs of the past decade, and most are now either retiring or are retired. The problem in backfilling them is that the academies no longer exist. Google is about the only place you can reliably point to and say that “good HR” is happening, and one reliable company is not enough. If you dump a hundred resumes on the table, each person with around ten years of work experience, I honestly couldn’t tell you which is likely to be the best HR professional just from scanning his or her experience. That didn’t used to be the case. Our HR academies have toppled.

To add insult to injury, I don’t see any HR academies in “the Academy” either. Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school used to be the primary place to get a rock-solid degree for HR, and I could point to a handful of other institutions behind them. It’s not as true anymore, and there aren’t schools filling the void.

I don’t think many high school seniors target Human Resources as an awesome profession. But even if they did, no one could tell them what to do about it. We don’t have universities taking the cultivation of HR talent seriously, nor do we have companies who are committed to training top notch HR masters. There is no “HR talent machine” anymore, and there used to be.

My second theory is that if you go back sixty or seventy years, HR (then “Personnel”) and Marketing were very similar disciplines. Both were the soft, fuzzy functions you invested in as a CEO because you believed in them but not because you saw a clear return on your investment. Fast forward to today and somehow Marketing has legitimized itself. Top MBAs do, in fact, want to pursue Marketing, and CMOs do become CEOs. Meanwhile, HR is still the soft, fuzzy function you invest in because you believe in it but not because you see a clear ROI.

My belief is that what changed between HR and Marketing is that Marketing got religion around analytics. There is an art to Marketing, but now there is a science too. Decisions are hugely data informed in Marketing in addition to the taste and judgment you need. HR is still mostly an art (because, hey… we like people!), and HR professionals don’t have analytics as part of their fundamental toolkit. I’m seeing a lot of venture capital and private equity-backed “big data” start-ups entering the HR space, because HR sits on a metric ton of data they never seek to properly understand.

By not adopting more scientific rigor, Human Resources has lost a sense of craft. Do you know when those HR academies were thriving? When they were partnering with top professors and universities to do applied research. Today, we’ve lost our link to rigor. We dip into economics, anthropology, finance, and, yes, marketing for models and theories to help prop up what is a lack of real foundation in our profession. So my second theory is that there is a technical craft that we managed to lose or—more likely—never fully develop. Without a craft, we’re just benign people-people.

Right now we’re caught in a vicious cycle—a lack of talent isn’t bringing legitimacy to the function, and that lack of legitimacy is scaring away talented people.

Whether my theories are strictly true or not, my strong sense is that we don’t have a talent pipeline carrying amazing people from school through their careers and on their way to be awesome heads of HR. Meetings like the one yesterday are helping to shine a light on this problem, and I can feel the energy to fix it brewing. That’s the good news.

In the meantime, I’m realizing that I may need to be fishing in some pretty nontraditional waters to make a world-class Talent (what Riot calls HR) team, because I’m tired of kissing frogs.  That’s the bad news.

Sad mummy.


2 thoughts on “A Lack of HR Talent

  1. Clive Stone

    Great read, but I cannot help but now think this blog is the perfect excuse to create a “corporate (HR) Amumu)

    Just for you.

    I know a lot of Rioters, this should be made to happen!

    -Angry Grot (aka Clive, who once almost made it)



  2. robin

    Jay, I feel your pain. I feel it because *Recruiting as a craft is in the same situation. If HR is the Island of Misfit Toys, then Recruiting is the little archipelago just off of the coast where some plaid sport-coated huckster is selling swamp land as prime beach front property. We recruiters are lumped in with used car salesmen more often than not, and if I am honest, there is truth behind that unfortunate grouping. Too often recruiters are ranked by their ability to put “butts in seats” and little else. They make the hire, toss the candidate over the wall and move onto the next. Shuck-jive-shuck-jive…

    In my 25 years in the craft of Recruiting I have yet to meet a peer whose story was dissimilar to my own; like me, everyone seems to fall into recruiting. It was not our career goal, it was an opportunity that came about while we were on another path and now, well – here we are. As such no one taught me the craft, I was just picked up bits and pieces along the way, oft times seeing what others did and then doing the opposite. I had no mentors or professors leading, guiding and rebuking my bad behavior. And, oh brother – did I make mistakes.

    Like HR many people fall into Recruiting because they too like “helping people”. The desire to help others is a noble one, albeit a little treacly for my taste, but it is not foundational for a career in Recruiting. If a recruiters driving motivation is helping their fellows, they will soon become disillusioned and seek opportunities elsewhere (perhaps in your profession; HR and Recruiting are often bound runners in an awkward three legged race).

    You and I are set to meet early next month, I’d love to dive deeper into this if you would.

    With respect,


    *The term “Recruiting” is applied to the Recruiting Industry in general and should in no way be taken as a singling out of any individuals, departments or studios in specific.


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