An HR Department without Silos?

I still have several friends from my first civilian HR job, which was back in the early 1980s.  It is incredible to me how many of us stay connected over twenty years after the organization was sold, and the name (and culture) changed forever.

ThalhimersThe organization was Thalhimers Department Store, headquartered in Richmond VA, during a time when the flagship downtown store was a destination for a classy shopping experience.  Shortly before I joined, the organization was sold to a large retail holding company, in an effort to generate capital for expansion.  In the early 1990s, the holding company sold Thalhimers to the May Company (now Macys) – shedding the most profitable division in hopes that the holding company would survive.  It didn’t.  So the classy downtown atmosphere is gone now, and shopping happens in Macy’s in suburban malls.  But that’s not why I’m writing this.

What is incredible to me is that the Thalhimers HR team was the most cohesive and strategic HR of which I’ve been a part – and that was in the 1980s.  We were on the cutting edge of OD, learning, compensation, employee relations, recruiting – basically every aspect of HR.  But what was even more remarkable is that our HR team didn’t fall prey to silos that affected every HR department I have seen since.  Why is that?

Margaretta Noonan, CEO of NoonanWorks, and I worked together back then and continue to stay in touch.  We’re both external consultants now, and have been commiserating about why we seemed to work so well together back before Personnel “evolved” to what it is today.   It’s been awhile, but I do remember that we were very clear on our individual roles, we were encouraged to build relationships with each other and with the business, we had an HR Director who had the ear of the CEO, a CEO who truly believed HR was a key element of business success.

This morning, Margaretta sent an email with the above picture.  The #2 pencil is inscribed with “Everyone sells at Thalhimers.”  We all had them, used them and we clearly understood the message.  We may have been in HR, but we spent the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the stores selling (well, actually helping the professionals sell – they wouldn’t let us touch the register).  We spent a night in a store twice a year counting inventory.

Looking back, it was the last time I have been part of an HR team that worked strategically and together on a singular, critical focus….growing revenue and maintaining costs.   Sourcing sales associates was really difficult when paying minimum wage, but we strategized together how to source and engage.  Even though I was in compensation, I worked the job fairs and knew that when I encountered a good salesperson in another store, I needed to actively recruit.   Our OD&T department was embedded in the business with register training, product knowledge, and professional skills, and we profited by their business intelligence from that close relationship.  Our Store Personnel Managers (yep, it was a long time ago) looked to the “specialists” and actively invited our participation and visibility in the stores.  Business leaders were held accountable for talent management through a systematic business review process (yes, it is a business process.)

Can HR exist today in complex organizations without falling prey to the silo mentality?  Perhaps there are some lessons from our Thalhimer days.

  • Know the business.  Not just theoretically, but know the day to day challenges that the associates encounter.  When you’re in a stock room counting linens beside a sales associate, you get a very clear picture of “employee engagement.”
  • Bring it back.  Talk about the challenges you encounter with the associates, and work together to strategically analyze and improve.
  • Be clear on roles.  HR folks embedded in the field are generalists, and those in specialty HR roles have a deeper understanding of the various parts of HR.  But those specialists need exposure to the business, and the generalists need to provide that.  In turn, generalists need to understand and respect the role and challenges of those embedded in the business.  They have important information to share.
  • Of course, it helps to have supportive executive leadership, but a cohesive HR strategy can go a long way toward generating support.

What is your mantra?   “Everyone sells at Thalhimers” worked very well.

Maybe focusing on the business rather than HR will help to break down the silos and get everyone working toward the same “mantra.”

5 thoughts on “An HR Department without Silos?

  1. Carol, how true this is! The experience i had with Thalhimers in HR has certainly served me well in my other places of employment. The one thing i have felt, esp. as I’ve assisted in hiring my replacement, is that we did have the approval to help outside of our ‘box’. Don’t see that in many HR folks today. I’ve been told repeatedly ‘you are much more than HR. You are part of the mgt. team.’.I have felt comfortable looking at the total picture and offering suggestions which in turn served employees and citizens well. I have also had the good fortune to continue to find the good qualities and support in my work that were at Thalhimers in all the areas i served – stores and corporate.

  2. I wish the many models i had over my 20 years at Thalhimers could know know i used their teachings well.

  3. I’d like to comment on the importance of role clarity from my personal point of view. It may not necessarily be commenting on the particular point made in this posting which I agree with, but it is my interpretation and response that could lead to future discussion.

    Without a doubt, it is importance for an individual to hold true to their job description, striking a balance between managing their responsibilities and accomplishing the companies mission. However, I think that for some, sticking to the job description is ALL that they do. What I mean by this, is that they become a bit too comfortable. Based on my short but diverse experiences, many show up to work, do what they need to and do not seek to accomplish anything else. Some may feel limited by their job description and in turn, stay in the safe zone, only doing what they know they can. Which leads me to my question – is there more to successful role clarity than simply completing the day to day tasks delegated to a specific rank or position? I believe so. Although it is crucial for an individual to understand the role he or she plays within a company, it is not enough to just “do what your told.” Employees and employers must actively engage in taking initiative and exploring how they can expand and take on new responsibility relative to their position. Doing the bare minimum is not beneficial to the employee, employer or the business itself. So the question then becomes – how do we encourage individuals to think beyond their job description like the management team at Thalhimers did?

  4. Hi Alexandra – you asked a good question, and yes putting “duties” down on a piece of paper is not what I mean by role clarity, but I see your point. Perhaps it is a semantic nuance, but I see role clarity as defining the end result or product of the job one is hired to do. Job duties, as in a job description, are limiting – you just can’t list everything and it is more the “how” where the role is the “what.” Those who aren’t motivated, do just what is asked.

    So….it comes down to the skill of the leader to provide an exciting vision, articulate a result, generate the result and hold the team and individuals accountable for their contribution.

    Role clarity becomes a point of contention for those in leadership positions. Without a sense of “scope and purpose”, either leaders jockey for ownership of an opportunity and create confusion, or no one sees the opportunity because they aren’t looking and it is missed.

    Thanks for your comment – it helped me think through another presentation I’m working on!

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