The Day I Got to Talk About Business (and HR) at Harvard Business School

On the day I got to talk about business at Harvard Business School, I advised every woman to stay out of Human Resources.

I didn’t intend to deliver that message. I was invited to speak at the 22nd Annual Dynamic Women in Business Conference at the Harvard Business School because of my unique experience as both a Human Resources leader and marketing executive with The Starr Conspiracy. It was an especially big honor to attend because this year marks the 50th anniversary of the decision by Harvard to allow women to enroll.

The theme of the conference was simple: How do you define success?

“Really the worst job across the enterprise”

I sat on a panel with women like Sara McKinley, a Project Manager at Google +, and Amanda Pouchot, who is the co-founder of Levo League. We discussed gender, social networking, and navigating the business world while maintaining a strong and credible professional brand.

Laurie Ruettimann, third from right, speaking at Harvard Business School
Laurie Ruettimann, third from right, speaking at Harvard Business School

But then I said it.

No self-respecting woman would work in Human Resources. It’s really the worst job across the enterprise.”

Many in the room nodded in agreement, but some Harvard Business School students and alum were dismayed. They have an interest in the Human Capital space.

And as we explored my position, I spoke to thoughtful women who believe that data-driven decisions can help to attract amazing talent and transform organizational cultures.

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“The world needs more women leaders”

I simply said:

If you really want to do Human Capital Management, go work in logistics or IT. Go spend some time as a consultant focused on improving an organization’s supply chain. Go run a business and be responsible for a P&L. Then come back to HR when you have actually done the work of working. You’ll be much more valuable once you have some real experience.”

For every McKinsey and Deloitte, there are thousands of other companies that have no real use for modern day HCM buzzwords. They do need smart and amazing women who can bring their companies back to profitability. And it just so happens that if you run your business properly, you are doing great HR by default.

The world doesn’t need more young women in talent management and executive compensation roles. The world needs more women leaders. You get there by doing real work in real jobs.

So I stand by my advice that I gave at Harvard Business School: The best and the brightest women in America should stay away from HR.

You can find more from Laurie Ruettimann at her blog, The Cynical Girl.

 

Laurie Ruettimann (LFR) is a former Human Resources leader turned influential speaker, writer and strategist. She owns a human resources consultancy that offers a wide array of HR services to human resources leaders and executives. Check out her LinkedIn profile here. You may know Ruettimann as the creator of The Cynical Girl and Punk Rock HR (retired), which Forbes named as a top 100 website for women. You may have also read her book, I AM HR: 5 Strategic Ways to Break Stereotypes and Reclaim HR. (RepCap Press, 2014.) 

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18 Comments on “The Day I Got to Talk About Business (and HR) at Harvard Business School

  1. Look at you stirring the pot with a big ol’ spatula of logic. Well done.
    And I say let’s take it even further and require that anyone who works in HR be required, yes required, to work in some other function in the business for a minimum of 18 months before coming back to HR. Mobility – in roles and in thinking.

  2. I would add that this is not necessarily a gender-specific issue. No one should work in HR without some business experience first. When you have walked in the customers’ shoes, you can do so much more in helping them achieve their objectives.

  3. Hopefully the conference theme “How do you define success?” gave a clear message to the attendees that they are personally responsible for determining what success means.

  4. Hopefully the conference theme “How do you define success?” gave a clear message to the attendees that they are personally responsible for determining what success means.

    1. I think defining success differs when you bring certain experiences — and certain chromosomes — to the table. Nothing like institutional sexism and a glass ceiling to dash the dreams of a young HBS student.

  5. I think your comments were right on and probably startling to some since they have never considered that perspective. Our collective poor reputation is perpetuated by people lacking a bigger picture outlook on, well, practically everything that HR should provide and why it matters.

    It wasn’t by any conscious decision or planning, but I worked the first half of my (for lack of better word) “career” in various operational roles before “finally” getting my size 5 ½ foot in the HR door. While I don’t consider myself an authority on which career path is best for any particular business function, I do believe HR continues to suffer from a dramatic credibility gap due to real or perceived competency deficiencies of many practitioners.

    Based on some of the LinkedIn discussions I’ve come across over the years, the people who seem most interested in working in HR are probably the least likely to be effective. How many times do we hear “I work in HR because I’m a people person” or other similar statements that show no evidence of business savvy?

    It is frustrating to feel a strong connection to the real purpose of HR, but be constantly battling the stigma of being associated with and assumed to be contributing to all that is broken in the profession. The incessant HR bashing is tough to witness, but unfortunately much of it is well-deserved and will continue until we acknowledge and address our flaws.

    ~Kelly B @TalentTalks

    1. I think some of the people who work in HR are ineffective, but more than likely, HR is ineffective as a whole because it’s designed to solve a problem instead of proactively manage a revenue-generating aspect of the business.

      I’m glad your 5 1/2 shoes are working on this problem!

  6. Interesting take on the value of Human Resources work. I find myself struggling with the role of the function on the business, and perhaps one of the reasons it’s less value added is because of the lack of impact many in HR departments have made on the business world before joining HR.

    Thanks for sharing Laurie.

    Best,

    Rory

  7. Interesting subject, there is a huge prejudice against women in leadership roles. It saddens me and is extremely unfortunate to hear comments from prominent politicians, the most recent blunder being “binders” full of women, that point towards that prejudice being so deep rooted within a society. While I agree with the fact that diving into the stereotypical administrative roles within an organization is not healthy, I would like to point out that the answer to the question has much more to do with being a sociological issue than it is a business issue.

    My comment on your advice, you basically downgraded HR to simply being an administrative function (excel and HRIS). What about human capital management? There is much room within the field for leadership, business partnership and increasing profit margins, granted that the participants understand the business and operations. You don’t need to get into logistics to understand operations, you simply need to spend time and effort in attempting to do so, go to the front line and ask questions….. but judging by your blog’s name I just realized that these are the kind of reactions that you are hoping to invoke.

    1. Judging by my blogs name, you are missing out. Who judges a book by its cover?

      I would also like to also ask, “What about human capital management?” Very simply, most companies don’t have a need for anything beyond personnel management in 2013. I think women can defeat some sexist ideologies AND make a difference in human capital management by working in other aspects of the business first and coming back to HR with some experience, success and gravitas.

      But judging my my blog’s name, I’m not sure you expected this kind of response.

      1. Ok I’ll bite, taking into account the Warhol themed blog with outrageously edgy commentary. But hey, what do I know?

        “Most companies do not have a need for anything beyond personnel management in 2013.”

        So you’re saying that HR is useless and pointless? Because it doesn’t generate revenue? Let’s explore that, what department (other than marketing) is not a cost centre in some way shape or form?

        Your comments about the need for HR being limited to cost incurring activities are typical of someone who never actually worked in HR before. Let’s see, workforce planning, organizational development (in terms of strategy) and talent management do generate revenue. Look at Google or Apple – these companies thrive on success by innovation through talent management.

        As for the sexist ideologies and their ignorant masses, I believe that they will dissipate in time.

        Keep in mind that we are not disagreeing on the fact that pigeon-holing knowledge is not effective. Yes HR experience alone is not as helpful as HR experience coupled with operational, finance and product development knowledge.

        Cheers,

        1. Roy Lichtenstein themed. But hey, what do you know?

          I have deep expertise in HR and spent a decade both in the trenches and in key leadership roles before moving into a consultancy model where I advise HR on recruitment and transformation — and in the age of transparency, I see the “job of HR” being everybody’s job. If HR does its job right, it eliminates its job. A few of us are left as organizational coaches. Maybe.

          But hey what do I know?

          I’m glad you bit.

  8. A strategic human resource function has a direct feed into all functions of the business, via their greatest assets…People. So, although important for women to work in other functions such as IT or Finance, this is only the case if this is where her passion lies, if implementing a new HR policy, or delivering on a new HR initiative is what bring her success (personal or professional) then this is where she belongs. It is up to any self-respecting woman to make this choice, including the path that she takes, whether that is study, HR administration, cross-functional experience or a combination.

    We continue to speak in terms of sourcing amazing talent and building positive organisational culture – key functions of HRM. We need strong-voiced, capable HR professionals to speak to the outcomes delivered by the HRM function – gains in financial and organisational wide performance (success) metrics. In the same manner that a good lawyer, accountant or engineer would represent their own fields, with passion, gusto and hard facts.

    Dramatic effect may help to convey something that you feel a great deal of passion for, but I believe that generally there are more effective ways to go about communicating your point of view. While I prescribe to the view that individuals should have business experience before moving into a strategic HR position, I believe that this is true for any business leadership/strategic role.

    1. ” We need strong-voiced, capable HR professionals to speak to the outcomes delivered by the HRM function – gains in financial and organisational wide performance (success) metrics. In the same manner that a good lawyer, accountant or engineer would represent their own fields, with passion, gusto and hard facts.” — Agreed in 2013. But do we need this in 2014 and beyond? I’m still not convinced as “people” are not a HCM/HR function but rather an organizational asset and an expense. They should be managed accordingly. And if the contingent workforce continues to grow, HR has a diminished role in the development and management of the workforce.

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