People Power

When I grow up I’ll be a foreign correspondent or a diplomat.” That’s what I thought for years. Then a wonderful woman in human resources changed my path. 

I’d taken a week-long temp job to fund a cross-country flight. My boyfriend had been paralyzed in a bicycle race and I wanted to visit him at Craig Rehab hospital. Just out of college, I didn’t feel it was right spending money from my small startup for this unplanned trip. Never intending on working in a corporate setting, there I was.

The company that brought me in needed a lunchtime receptionist. The employee who subbed during lunch had gone on vacation. Her primary job could wait but who would spot the front desk and switchboard? When I wasn’t routing calls, I read a book. Sweet gig.

Mid-morning on Friday the head of HR stood before me, clearly in search of help. She asked this unlikely addition to her lobby if I knew anything about floppy disks. Yes, I said, as we walked to see if I could find a file. Her assistant was unexpectedly never returning to the office. File found and printed, I headed back to the couch.

After lunch she asked if I could find and organize other files, then if I could return on Monday. I told her why I’d really taken the job and that the next week I’d be in Denver. I promised to see her when I returned.

For the next two years, she sought out roles for me providing skills and insights into how a large company runs. I moved from files to playbooks to acquisitions. Her radical mandate: do your work in extraordinary ways. She believed the brainshare of our colleagues was the company’s most valuable asset. It was the only resource capable of creating every other resource. Few days go by that I don’t thank you for lighting my path.

When I grew up I dedicated myself to demonstrating the same generosity of spirit and pursuit of extraordinary people-power I learned during those early years.

Since then I’ve worked with many transformative leaders, both as a colleague and an advisor. With increasing frequency, these leaders don’t work in HR. They lead lines of business and other functions seeking to advance with the talent they employ.

I’m also brought into conversations at some of the world’s largest organizations, making radical changes to how people work. Once there, I often learn HR hasn’t even been asked to sit at the table. What has changed so drastically since my time in HR that the people at the company’s heart are no longer looked to for pumping blood? I’ve heard several times, “HR doesn’t believe people-power is their job.” I believe it is.

This vantage point will guide my keynote at the 2012 HR Tech conference. Entitled, “How HR Can Drive the New Social Business,” my closing caps off an event addressing related themes like how Marsh transforms itself with social technologyAeropostale manages teenage employees and customerseHarmony finds compatible employees, Rethinking the cloud in human terms, and music asking “What If?

HR Tech is a conference I’ve participated in for years because human resources stereotypes blow out quickly. My overview of the 2010 event will give you a sense of how. At this conference people pump ideas, practices, and extraordinary energy. No single event I’ve attended has as much fuel… (well, perhaps the 1-day HRevolution pre-conference), which is also always outstanding.

If you are on the fence, I hope you find a way over. If you’re scared off by the word Tech in the title, know the focus is decidedly on organizational success, not automating HR. If you’re a big-data person, you’ll find plenty of people who love analytics. And if you have patiently read this far but harbor unflattering opinions about HR, consider testing their merit by inviting your company’s HR team to join you and begin together in a new place. This event will convince you we’re at a perfect time and in an ideal spot to make change collaboratively.

When we were young we all had big notions of how we could change the world. We would never have dreamt up some of the constraints that keep us from doing extraordinary work. It’s time we reconnect with our personal stories of people-power, and, where needed, re-write the narrative so we can do what needs to be done. I believe in people and I know what we can do. I look forward to working on how together.

I’d love to meet you at HR Tech. If you use promotion code CONNER12  (all caps, numeral 12) when you register online at you’ll get $500 off the conference fee of $1,795. The code doesn’t expire until the conference ends on October 10, but I hear hotel rooms are filling fast. I’ll be at the event every day. Would you please introduce yourself in the hallways or contact me beforehand to tell me your people-power story? I know you have one. We all do.

People Power
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