Nine Questions

The next participant in The Field Guide's interview series - "Nine Questions" - with HR thought leaders is Jane Watson, a senior HR practitioner and blogger extraordinaire over at Talent Vanguard (one of the best blogs, post-for-post, in the HR field). Below, Jane gives us her thoughts on everything from the ever changing demands of HR, the future of the field, not looking back on career regrets, the realities of working in the field vs. the idea of human resources, and much more...

Tell me why what you do is rewarding, challenging, and I suspect in your opinion (and mine) quite awesome?
I love that I am never, ever bored. Every role, every day, is different. I embrace the ambiguity, analysis, and problem solving that are inherent in most HR positions. I studied Anthropology in my undergrad, and while I understand that some people don’t see the connection, I feel that it has a strong link to what I do I now. Organizations, at their most basic level, are large groups of people trying to work together to accomplish a series of common goals and strategies. Culture, human dynamics, membership politics, and social identities- all of these can support or detract from an organization’s effectiveness as a whole. That’s why every day is a little bit like fieldwork for me. 
Do you believe in the notion of professional regret? Why or why not? If so, what's been your biggest professional regret?
I definitely believe in the notion, but I feel very lucky to not have any significant professional regrets of my own…not yet anyway. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had so many great opportunities to say ‘yes’- to learning new things, taking on new challenges. I’ll admit that I’ve cheated a bit by making it a priority to always find great mentors- they’ve shared their regrets in hopes I can avoid them. 
What do you think has been the most significant game changer in your specialty area of human resources over the last 5 years? Over the course of your career? 
I don’t really think of myself as having one specialty- I’m more of a generalist, but most of the areas I tend to focus on – training, performance, recruiting – have been hugely impacted by technology in recent years. And I think it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. E-Learning is now placing a stronger focus on quality and learner experience, now that many of us have automated performance processes we can hopefully now rethink our approach to them, and recruiting has changed dramatically due to social tools. It’s all very exciting, provided that you’re not just focused on the shiny tech at the expense of solid practices… 
Where do you see your area of specialty heading in the next 5 years? Do you think that’s a good or bad thing?
Well, because I’m more of a generalist I think about the future of HR as a whole. There are a lot of opinions out there- some dark, some rosy – and if I’m honest my viewpoint is equally ambivalent. Great HR can make organizations function better, but poorly executed HR is all that its critics claim and worse. I've written about how we are transforming as a profession, but there are days that I worry it’s just not happening fast enough, or that we’re transforming into the wrong thing. I do feel strongly that it’s good to talk and write about those concerns, because we can’t just cheer on ‘Team HR’ if we’re the only ones cheering. We need to take frequent and honest looks in the mirror. 
In your opinion what’s the most important part of the talent management puzzle: attracting talent, acquiring talent, developing talent, or retaining talent – or something else entirely? Why?
That’s a tricky question. I don’t think that you can claim that one of these pieces in general is more important than the others. It depends so much on the particular organization’s industry, goals, and strengths/weaknesses. What I will say is that developing and retaining talent are highly complex and necessarily personalized efforts, and I think most organizations struggle to deliver on these in a meaningful way, especially since the recent trend has been to cut costs in these areas. So, I think more focus could and should be brought to these areas. 
What do you think is the biggest failure of most organizations when it comes to their talent management strategy? Is there an easy fix, a difficult one, or can it be fixed? 
The biggest failure is trying to blindly duplicate someone else’s strategy, or worse yet implement traditional ‘best practices’, without putting in the time and effort to assess what their own organization really requires. It’s just cosmetic, when we should be analyzing the specific gaps and opportunities that exist in our organizations right now. There’s a lot of ‘Well, I hear that everybody is doing X…‘ or: ‘Let’s create a Program Y, because Zappos is doing it, and we want to be like them.” Putting on a tutu does not make you a ballerina. And in fact, not everyone can or should be a ballerina. This can be fixed, but it’s a tough shift in mindset. 
In your own words, define what it means to be a leader? Do you think anyone can become a leader? Why or why not? 
The best leaders I’ve ever known we’re people who were truly passionate about a particular goal or cause, and interested in engaging others in that pursuit. They were fair, and they treated people equally, because they recognized that leadership is fragile; you’re only a leader as long as people want to follow you. I believe that almost anyone is capable of being a leader in the right context; you just have to be able to authentically engage others in what you care about. It seems like our society gets hung up on a misguided ‘Leader’ archetype sometimes- someone who’s tough, never wrong, forever a hero. But that’s not realistic, and I think it can blind us to the innate ability that most people have to be leaders in some capacity. 
In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing human resources related professions and professionals today? 
In a word- value. We need to show that we can deliver measureable value. The opportunity is there – top-of-mind concerns like retention, the perceived talent gap, and employee engagement are all issues that HR as a profession should be well positioned to tackle. But I think many HR folks struggle to deliver in a meaningful way in these areas because many of us still lack the skills to do so. We should remember that in many organizations HR is still a purely tactical, administrative function, and even where it is not, the requisite grounding in business, finance and data analytics might be lacking. I’m not saying we need to become accountants or statisticians, but we need to at least understand the language, and become more evidence-based. 
What words of advice would you give to a college student considering a career in your field? To someone looking to transition careers? To someone in your field that is feeling burned out or turned off? 
I would (and do) tell college students considering HR that if they are only interested because they consider themselves to be “people persons” (or “because they don’t like computers” –that’s an actual quote) that it won’t be quite what they expect. Today, HR pros entering the field need to be tech and business savvy, analytical, comfortable with ambiguity, and both capable and interested in looking at the big picture. Oh, and find a good mentor! As for someone who is burned out, I’d tell them to go work in another part of their organization for a few years and then consider coming back to HR. My hope is that the way in which progressive organizations practice HR will change quite a bit in the coming years, and working in another area of the business will surely make you a better HR person in the long run. 

Jane Watson is a senior HR practitioner based in Toronto, and the author of the blog Talent Vanguard. In the last 10 years she’s worked across most functional areas of HR in the financial services, non-profit, design, food processing, and hospitality sectors, and is transitioning into a role in the public sector as you read this. She is an active volunteer for HRPA Ontario and HRPA Toronto, where she sits on the Mentorship Program Committee, as well as acting as a mentor through Fanshawe College and ACCES employment. She would love for you to find her on Twitter at: @jsarahwatsHR or at

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