Permaculture HR: Observe and Interact, first!

There’s a part of my garden where no matter what I do, I can’t grow tomatoes. I’ve added fish heads, egg shells, cow manure, rabbit manure, compost, hay, and probably more than $50 worth of various miracle cures to the soil there. I’ve spent way too much time on Dave’s Garden, and read every manual out there. Two seasonal crops a year, for four years, I try again.

And still. I get this.

terrible tomato



Or this.



Instead of what’s happening just three feet away, which is this.

tomato on trellis



All of this gardening drama is my fault, because I stubbornly stubbornly insist on applying best practices and outside consulting to a poorly understood problem.

In order to be successful, it’s critical to understand the problem, deeply, first. A solution that works at GE isn’t going to work at my medium-sized manufacturing company. An outside consultant can’t just sub in my company’s name for their last client, hand us the polished PPT deck, and expect their plan to work. And unless a company researches, partners with, listens to, and observes the market and their customers, faith in best practices or their own bright idea will likely result in failure. Strategy doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Permaculture is about working WITH nature to develop easily sustained results, rather than fighting it. Sometimes working with nature means facing realities we just don’t want to face. Partnering fully, observing with open eyes, listening closely, and using inquiry tools like the 5 Why’s can help us to truly understand a situation, and develop realistic solutions, rather than spending time, money, and human resources on shallow strategies.

As for my garden – I know what I have to do. Be realistic that the soil, sunlight, and conditions aren’t optimal for tomatoes, in a couple of areas, and make adjustments, no matter how hard that is. Humbling down to reality is something I should have done several seasons ago. My ego needs aren’t going to put tomatoes on the table.





Permaculture HR for Sustainable Change

I’ve been taking some permaculture classes, here in Houston. Permaculture is, essentially, gardening and farming with a focus on working in alignment with nature, rather than against nature. And by nature, we mean the hard reality of how the natural world works, not just a fuzzy vision of a couple of deer in a sunlit glade. Nature exists, indifferent to our wishes. It’s a bit like physics or the economy.

The principles associated with great HR and Organizational Development are very similar to the principles associated with Permaculture.

The first principles of Permaculture have to do with what’s so, and how to most powerfully related to nature to get the most out of it, sustainably. Briefly, they are:

  • PARTNERSHIP: “work with nature rather than against it”
  • REVERSIBILITY: “the problem is the solution”
  • EFFICIENCY “make the least change for the greatest possible effect”
  • ABUNDANCE: “the yield of a natural system is theoretically unlimited”
  • SYNERGY: “everything gardens,” ”everything has an effect on the environment

Twelve Permaculture design principles are articulated by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Sound familiar? I’ll be talking more deeply about some specific examples of the parallels between permaculture and good HR in future posts.

In the meantime, do some observation of what’s so, in your environment. What are the immovable obstacles and untapped resources around you?

Permaculture Secondary Principles





(source –

Good morning, Masters of the Universe!

Victorio Milian almost always wakes up before me. If you know me, you know how hard that is to do, even if you’re a time zone ahead. At 4:15 or so, I fumble for my phone, raise one eyelid to check the weather and Facebook, and there he is. Every time. “Good morning, Humans!” “Born dia!” “Hola compadres!” and sometimes, just, “Morning.” Every morning.

Passing Victorio in the virtual FB hall and exchanging a brief pre-sunrise greeting is a groovy way to start my day. His little morning posts are inclusive, funny, positive, and give me a little more umph to rise from my warm, cozy bed. I go make my coffee knowing he’s doing the same. And I feel better for it, because I know he’s on my team.

2012-12-15 15.29.52Victorio gives me strength on what Robin Schooling famously calls “Red Sweater Days.” I think of him in some office, calmly and wisely working through some process review, or delivering bad news, and I both FEEL better, and DO better. Maybe I need a rubber bracelet that says, WWVD. Or maybe I just need to check in with him more often, and offer some of that strength and support he’s always lending others.

I’m lucky enough to know lots of great HR leaders. Like Victorio, they’re everything Laurie Ruettimann describes, and more. But Victorio is really one of the most unsung of all my cool HR pals. He’s today’s recipient of the Tim Sackett Day award, a sweet and funny way for HR nerds to tell other HR nerds WE SEE YOU, even if you’re not on your town’s 40 Under 40, or whatever hotlist is going around at the moment.

We see you, Victorio. We see your hustle, your long hours, your ever-growing stack of extraordinarily thoughtful writing, your speaking contracts. We see you behind that desk making a difference. And we see you modeling great leadership and friendship at work, online, and at home. Thanks for the stable, strong, sweet example you set for us, starting at 4:00 every morning. You make life better from 1500 miles away.




Go Get ‘Em, Tiger: We’re All Bullies, Sometimes

(This was originally published at, an amazing group website for HR practioners and experts. Check out the site. And then bookmark it or add it to your RSS feed. You’ll be glad you did.)
All the sad news lately about bullying in schools reminds me of the  Tiger Oil memos.  Of course, workplace bullying didn’t go away in the 70s, but I think this is a great case study. Bullying is, unfortunately, timeless.

Tiger Mike’s memos were, uhm, memorable. Do yourself a favor on click on over if you haven’t seen them already. These directives, full of threats, hyperbole, and cuss words were his best attempt at “make it happen” leadership. They may not have actually worked, or maybe his strategy was wrong, because Tiger Oil went bankrupt in the 80s.   But he could sure get his point across – with flare! And drama! And some action, damn it!

When the Tiger Oil memos were published in Houston, many of his old staff wrote in to talk about what a great guy Mike was.  They saw him as ahead of his time. He brought in free lunch from a fancy deli every day, paid women fairly,  and offered flex time after all. One said, “It was a great place to work and everyone had lot’s (sic) of fun wondering what Tiger was going to do next. He really was good-hearted and treated his employees well.”

The thing is, Tiger Mike most likely didn’t see himself as a bully at all.  He most likely would have been shocked by the play his memos are getting now. Pugilistic and direct, maybe, but what entrepreneur doesn’t have to fight to get what they want? He truly believed that writing these memos were a good use of his time.  He apparently saw himself as the misunderstood victim of his powerful staff, who took his money but didn’t always do what he wanted. He was  lost in feeling outnumbered and powerless – most likely with no concept that he was contributing to the problem.

We’re no better than Tiger Mike, really. We just usually have better filters. We’re all stressed these days, trying to do everything perfectly, or reach too many goals in too few hours. We have moments when we feel isolated, one-down, unpowerful, or without voice, so we pound on the table. Or say something catty. Or pull a harmless prank.  And in doing so, we get attention, and that mollifies for a moment.

But the fact is, when we give in to the snarky comment, yell, undercut, or use our positions to harm others, we lose. Because we’re telling the world that we feel insecure, have failed in our leadership, and that we are weak. We give away our power when we act out of feeling powerless. And we look like bullies even though we’d never apply that term to ourselves.

So what is there to do?

  • Recognize when you’re feeling powerless, outnumbered, one-down.
  • Connect with your power. This may be through talking to a friend, thinking about recent successes, or just flat getting out of the situation where you feel victimized for a minute or two to recollect yourself.
  • Recognize that nobody’s perfect, including you (and me).  Then try to extend the same empathy you have for yourself back to the person you were about to snark on, yell at, or prank.
  • Speak up when you see someone trying to get their way through fear,  sarcasm, or intemperate display of emotion.
You’ll mess up sometimes. I have many times, and will again.  But keep working at it. Don’t give away your effectiveness through a comment you can’t take back, a tone that turns heads, a prank that goes wrong.

You’re bigger than that.

In showing self-control, empathy, and courage, you show how truly powerful you really are. You set an example for your coworkers and kids that may help end some of the tragic stories we’re hearing these days. Or at least keep your memos off the internet in thirty years. 

Work Life Blending, the Oxford Family Way

The last time we tried aggressively blending work meetings and home, Maggie was two weeks old and I insisted on attending a work-related meeting in New York City. I spent most of the meeting upstairs just staring at her, and worrying about if she could get bedbugs at the W Times Square. It wasn’t great. We kinda decided we wouldn’t try that again anytime soon.

But, hey, it’s been four years! And we’ve grown so much! And it shouldn’t be too hard, right?

So – this week we tried again. My wife and child came with me to the HR Florida conference, which I had agreed to both speak at and write about. HR Florida is smart and reimburses bloggers for their travel expenses, thanks to the the PR and buzz we bring to the event. Those perks are what allowed our family budget to justify three days in the MickeyMouseland. The writing is primarily blogging, tweeting, and general PR, but requires more time than you’d think, because, of course, you need to actually attend the events to tweet and blog about them.

On the plus side, Maggie got to see my mug all over the conference hotel, because HR Florida goes out of their way to make us bloggers feel like rock stars. Or guilt us into writing about how awesome they are. Which we’d write, anyway, happily, because this is, in fact, the best HR conference in the country, aside from HREvolution.





Maggie and and her other mama got to go to Disney on their own, one day, while I was conferencing away, solving all the world’s HR problems.






And Maggie got to meet some of my favorite people in the universe, people who live all over the United States. We even had breakfast this morning with two of my most frequent IM buddies and professional mentors, Mike VanDervort and Victorio Milian. That was pretty amazing. My family got to meet Shauna Moerke’s infamous stuffed animal named Grrrr, and Ben Eubanks taught Maggie a new trick which now she’s insisting we break our old people backs trying:












And logistically, it was all good. But internally, instead of being two places at once as I often am at conferences, (work and the sessions) this week I was in three. Thinking about, spending time with, and focusing on work, the conference, and my family was simply too much. I didn’t give as much attention to any of the three as I would have liked, and frankly, I feel wiped out.

If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have managed my family’s expectations a bit better, and would have cleared proper boundaried time each day for work calls, conference attendence, and family meals.

So – blended? Yes. Maybe too blended? Yes, this time. But for next time, we’ll have a better plan, and we’ll know that the third time is a charm. Who’s ready to take a chance on the Oxford family flyers? You might get your money’s worth. Might.

HR Florida: Excellence, Personified.

Having spent a couple of days at Disneyworld before the last couple of days at HR Florida, I’m struck by the radical differences in tone, service quality, and flat happiness level between the two events. You may be surprised to learn that HR Florida is the clear winner over Disney, by a long shot. I’m still trying to figure out the formula for the magic, and I definitely don’t have it down. But talking to and watching the HR Florida leadership team in action, here’s what I’ve seen so far.

  • When I lost my computer cord briefly yesterday, two volunteers cheerfully went ’round to find it. At hour ten of their conference day. They literally were happy to help, and not in a corporate, consumer drone, way. Just happy to be of service. With 1699 other people like me to take care of here, they just focused on taking care of one person at a time.
  • There’s a 75% return rate on volunteers. Volunteers who work their butts off, 12 hour days and no reward, for no tangible or financial return on their investment.
  • The volunteers cheerfully rise to the high level of accountability and excellence that many professional event management firms have a hard time getting from their staff.  Apparently, clear processes and an enthusiastic volunteer team win out over a permanent staff of less enthused professionals.
  • These people never stop thinking about how they can do things better and different next year. These conversations are happening in the halls, at dinner, and after every keynote. And it’s not whining – the right people are talking about what they’ll take responsibility for doing better a year from now.
  • A little bit of silliness and rule-breaking can really help move things along.

Teams Matter. Tone Matters. And Relationships Matter.  I think the word I’m looking for, honestly, is heart. This isn’t some corporate deal where people MUST perform day in, and day out. This is what they truly care about. And they truly care about each other. Out of that caring comes a level of discretionary effort, buzz, and enthusiasm that Disney couldn’t possibly buy. And seeing it in action is more inspiring than any of the excellent presentations we’ve seen so far.


Disney-driven Observations on Parenting

I get to come to HR Florida this year, which will be awesome. We’re using the chance for some Orlando time to do a couple of Disney days. Fun! And, of course, I can never turn off my Human Development brain. Particularly as it relates to parenting.

Disney, and theme parks in general, are some rocky shoals in family dynamics. I’m not saying everyone I saw was like the below, but a lot of crap was going down in a lot of families at the House that the Mouse built.

It appeared that often a parent or both parents had some very specific agenda in mind, mostly around something they didn’t get to do when they were a kid, something they loved doing when they were a kid, or something a coworker or friend said was cool. They approached the day in full task mode, doing whatever it takes to make sure they get to check every box, ride every ride, MAXIMIZE their experience. After all, a day at Disney doesn’t come cheap.

And the kids? The kids just hung on. I saw less joy at Disney yesterday than I see at your average playground. Or your average shopping mall. Or hell, your average schoolyard. The parents were oblivious until a shortie started whining, unable to keep up, resist temptation for some shiny object they’d passed for the 10th time, or just walk much further. The kids who were ignored in the whining round escalate to full-contact meltdowns with real flair. From afar, it was truly great performance art.

Then the scolding began. I heard people talk to their kids yesterday in tones and words I wouldn’t use on my dog. Lots of little hands being jerked along by a rushing parent, lots of cajoling a tired and scared child to create the perfect photo op with some character or another, lots of adult whining about why the Little wants to ride a ride that’s “too baby” and has a long line.

This is supposed to be the happiest place on earth. And these parents love their kids no less than I love my own. I’m sure they’re mature adults who pay their bills, work hard, and take care of their communities, back home. But anticipation and advertising got the best of them. They got caught up in their own anxieties and desires, and forgot that it’s not supposed to be the happiest place on earth for them, but for their children.

You know what the the happiest place on earth is, in my mind? The space between my child and I when we are looking right into each other’s eyes. So today: we’re going slow. We’ll see what we see, do what we do, but we won’t rush it. And we won’t stay one minute past her over-stimulation point, even if it means we miss the fireworks or the Electric Parade. Because Disney will always be there, but her childhood won’t.

Not my kid, but she's a cutie, huh?

How to Meet People at Professional Conferences

If you ever go to a professional conference, here’s what you see: 90% of the people attending have their phone at their ear or their fingertips, avoiding eye contact at all costs. It’s weak, y’all.

I’ve written about this before, but, as the fall conference season heats up, I gotta try again. The true gold of a conference is the opportunity to create or widen a professional network. These are folks you can learn from, bounce ideas off of, meet for an occasional happy hour, and maybe even work with one day. Making connections is critical to your career, your well being, and your learning. Period. Make it happen.

So, how do you do it? First, get over yourself. Not to be mean, but honestly, nobody cares, so if someone doesn’t respond to your chit chat, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t reality TV, no one is watching. Just go talk to someone else. Second, recognize that mostly people really do want to connect, find a commonality, have a laugh. Reaching out is a little gift that you’re giving their day.

Here are some harmless ways to start a conversation:


  • If Wile-e can pull these off, you can, too.

Compliment something, if you mean it. People often work to look their best at conferences, so if you truly like someone’s bag or shoes or dress, tell them! It’s a good way to get a conversation started. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice. *Note – this can be a little awkward. Once, an acquaintance came up to me at a national HR conference and, I guess, finding nothing else nice to say, exclaimed, “You got waxed! Your eyebrows look great.” Not a lot of opportunity for follow up there…

Go with the context. What seminar are they thinking of attending next? Did they go to the conference bookstore and have a look around? What did they think of the keynote?

Find commonalities. She likes jewelry made from bottle caps, you MAKE jewelry from can tabs. See, you have lots of things to talk about already!

Go meta, if you must – “I know I’d like to meet some people here, but it feels awkward to meet strangers. How have you typically networked at things like this?”

Basically, just relax. Relax, make eye contact, and listen. Look for an opening, something that makes the other person’s eyes light up a little, and ask more about that.

BFFs now? Great! Before you end the conversation, let them know you’d like to get in touch again, and give them your card or tell them where they can find you online. If they don’t give you one back, it’s fine, they may not have any. Make a note of their name in case they get in contact. If you get a card or contact info, follow up two weeks to a month later with a brief note about something relevant to your conversation, and see where things go from there. Keep it light.

If you’re getting a lot of people looking around for an escape when you introduce yourself,  you might be falling into one of the insecurity traps associated with meeting strangers. Here are a few traps to watch out for.

I wish I had these cards.

Don’t brag. (“I’m the youngest VP of the largest company in Florida. Here’s my Precious my business card.”)
Don’t humble-brag. (“You have two kids? And no help? I don’t know how I could raise my three without my nannies.”)
Don’t name drop. (“Oh really? You just started as an HR Clerk at Walmart? Then you must know Prithi W? She’s the VP of Supply Chain for Walmart Corporate, I think she reports directly to Bill Simon, Walmart’s CEO? We’re GREAT friends.”)
Don’t complain. (“Yeah, these conferences are okay, but the food is terrible. I wish we could get better sandwiches, after all, we’ll never eat again and we couldn’t possibly bring our own or go off campus. Let’s whine about the chips together.”)

You look insecure and weak when you show that you feel you MUST establish dominance through status, who you know, or criticizing something you didn’t create. You may think you’re playing it off, but you’re not. Nobody is impressed, and you just made them either judge themselves for not being such a rock star, or judge you for showing your insecure side. You want both parties to walk away from the conversation feeling good!  The best conversationalists are secure enough to make the conversation mostly about the other person, and are gracious and supportive.

If you’re headed to HRFlorida or the National Nonprofit HR Conference, I’ll see you there. And say hello! Just don’t ask me about my facial hair.



Local and Humble

My wife and I like good food. A lot more than we should, really. We spend a disproportionate bit of our budget on fancy food served in tasteful restaurants. We live in Houston, one of the top restaurant cities in the world, and we work our way down a long list of great places pretty methodically.

We’ve found that the finest ingredients, cooked and served in the most amazing atmosphere, is nothing compared to decent, local, food, cooked at home by kind people who care about you.  The same can be said for your HR functions.

You see these shrimp? (Sorry, crappy iPhone pic) Those giant blue shrimp were sold to me in the small town where I work sometimes, an hour from the Gulf Coast. Two guys drove up in a truck and parked at the closed up corner gas station. They come on Thursdays, and hang around for a while drinking beer out of cans covered with paper bags, shooting the shit until their six pack or their coolers of shrimp and fish run out or their customers stop coming around.

The smaller pink shrimp are from Key West. They cost $3.00 a pound more and came from a very fancy grocery store here in Houston. They were purchased the same day. The taste test – well, too bad you can’t taste a blog post, you’d know the difference right away.

The guys only sell shrimp in 7 pound bags, so I took some around to our friends. Our friends gave us a glass of iced tea, a good visit, a sack of strawberry plants and a jar of home-pickled eggplant. The visit wasn’t very efficient, but the strawberry plants were a nice surprise and the eggplant tasted great with dinner.

Nobody’s going to get rich shrimping, and selling their catch out of the back of a truck. It’s not scalable, as they say. But  that’s what works for those guys. They’re not looking to supply restaurants in Houston: it’s too far and they’d have to work too hard. And though pickled eggplant wasn’t on my list of Things That Sound GREAT for Dinner, we really enjoyed it.

Be careful, when developing your HR function, not to suck all the life out of your company, all the opportunities for a little conversation, a talkative coworker who offers you something you’ve never tried but really works well. Chances are good that your homegrown system, built with a deep appreciation for your company’s particular circumstances and culture, will work much better than some off-the-shelf fancy system, if you’re not planning to become a Fortune 500 giant. Efficiency can be highly overrated when building a company, and a life, worth savoring.








Brunch Treats

A couple of little treats for you this fine, hot, Sunday morning.

First, let me introduce you to my favorite drink this summer, the Bloody Micky. A country club cousin of the Michelada,  It’s perfect for a long brunch, particularly a long brunch that ends in a swim or a nap. Or maybe, if you have the right pool float, both.

You”ll need:

  • Your favorite wheat beer. I’m fond of St. Arnold’s but you can use whatever you like.
  • ZingZang Bloody Mary Mix. I’m less mellow about what kind of mix you use. ZingZang is THE BEST.
  • Vodka. I like Tito’s. Also pretty firm on this part.
  • Limes
  • Ice.
  • Olives, celery, a little paper umbrella, and friends to brunch with
Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour half a glass of ZingZang, then add the beer and the vodka to your own preferred degree of sobriety. Careful now, you most likely have errands to run and work to do after your nap. Add the juice of a lime and olives or celery, mix well, and clink the glass with your friends. Enjoy!
Second – someone reminded me that I had written an okay presentation on Social Media for Reluctant HR Pros. I delivered it at the HRHouston Gulf Coast Symposium, threw it up on slideshare, and forgot all about it. But since only three people came to the presentation, (talk about relunctant!) someone else might get some use out of it. Feel free to download and use for your own purposes.
So, if your Sunday was all about making a last minute presentation for HR Pros who are scared of social media, and what you REALLY wanted to do was have a nice savory mixed drink, you’re all set. Enjoy!