Is HR like Tom Landry?

Is HR like Tom Landry?

Growing up, I hated the Dallas Cowboys (actually still do). I loved the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 70s. I also maintained my local allegiance to the New England Patriots hoping that one day they would be champions (they were…30 years later). Dallas labeled themselves America’s Team. How dare they??!! Nothing aggravated me more about the Cowboys than their head coach, Tom Landry.  Landry lead the Cowboys for nearly three decades. I can picture him on the sideline: thin, suit and tie, fedora, emotionless…and winning. Under Landry, the Cowboys had 20 straight winning seasons, five NFC titles, and two Super Bowl championships. In a recent post on leadership, Chris Edmonds wrote about a NFL documentary he had viewed on Landry.  He shares that Landry was a fastidious manager dedicated to the execution of his system. To Landry, the players were interchangeable and he didn’t feel the need to connect with them as people. Edmonds considers that Landry might have had even greater success if he had engaged them as human beings. Could it be that this consideration is also a question for the Human Resources profession? Is the HR function like Landry all about the system (the company) or is it about the players (the employees)?

Many years ago, when I was early in my career and working in a large corporation, I had a conversation with a colleague that still sticks with me today. The fellow employee told me to always remember that HR’s function is to protect the company and it can’t be trusted. Call me naïve but I was taken back by this comment. My perspective was folks in HR were advocates for employees.  Sure, their programs and policies set the ground rules for our employment. But wasn’t their charge to connect with us as people creating and implementing personal development programs that would assist us in our advancement and ensuring us a rewarding career at the company?

As I advanced in my career and interacted more frequently with HR folks, I had a few experiences that supported my former colleagues’ comment. It seemed that certain HR people were all about No. No innovation, No creativity, No “pushing the envelope.” Actions and programs were about the letter of law (the company’s policies and procedures) rather than about the intent. It did seem like it was about protecting the company. It was about the system rather than the players. In a business, someone has to marshal the laws. I get it. Using Landry’s approach, a strict adherence to the rules of the system will produce success. And it did for the Cowboys. But it left players bitter and disconnected. Is this the outcome HR is seeking? I don’t believe it.

So, I’m sticking with my initial view of HR’s mission. HR should be, as my friend and a respected HR consultant says, about attracting, developing and retaining high quality, high performance employees at all levels. It is about the players, first and foremost. This mission doesn’t mean that HR can abdicate its position as the system’s defender.  As I said, someone must own this responsibility. I respect that the balance between the system and the players is a difficult one. Those HR professionals that own the responsibility and choose to do so without communicating and connecting with employees are failing their companies, their colleagues and giving HR a bad name. Unlike Tom Landry, HR shouldn’t just be about the system.

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