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





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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?

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!

HREvolution: Stunt Double Camp

In my last post, I asserted that HR pros will and should consistently work in the background, with no acknowledgement and little, if any, attention drawn to their performance in creating a culture of excellence. The problem is, that can lead to a lot of lonely and discouraged HR leaders, folks who, out of habit, scurry from the limelight when it does happen to shine near them.  Practicing HR pros rarely share their expertise,  except at their company. They don’t try to speak at local or national SHRM conferences much, they don’t give quotes to the newspaper, and they sure as hell never draw attention to themselves in public with questions or comments that might imply that their employer is anything other than Perfect In Every Way.

Except. It’s hard to grow without making mistakes and asking questions. It’s impossible to contribute honestly without telling the truth, authentically, about mistakes you’ve made, or plans that went awry, or just flat admitting that you don’t know it all. You can’t do that staring down at your Blackberry, working while “attending training,”  and counting out HRCI credits. To learn and grow, you will need to screw up.  And sweat. And talk about those mistakes, or at least process the learning you get from them. And try again.

HREvolution, and the community of badass,  honest, ambitious, authentic HR leaders who attend HREvolution, is a platform to celebrate HR pros who are trying to get it right and aren’t afraid to try new things, and a learning laboratory where we can all process and learn from mistakes and new ways of thinking about our role and how to be amazing at it.

Stunt-double school!

HREvolution is sold out. Which is good, because we like to keep it intimate. And authentic. And put people in the limelight who don’t normally love to be the center of attention.  And mostly, we think deeply about how to be the most amazing stunt double leaders in the world, ninja CEO, CFO, and CIO stand-ins with a heart and a deep appreciation for the human element.

We laugh. We argue. We toast each other. We develop intimate and appreciative relationships with vendors who get what we stand for. We deepen ties to each other so that when we go back into the real world of HR leadership, we don’t feel so under-appreciated, isolated, alone. We may not be the center of attention in our workplaces, but we’re renewed in our resolve and our ability to make our employer the center of attention.  We’ve got each other, which, in my book, is better than an award. I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to be with these people, and have these conversations, for the world.


HR: Leadership’s Stunt Doubles

Recently, a dancer named Sarah Lane has been talking to the press about her role in Black Swan.

She danced some (85%? 5%?- it’s up for grabs) of the scenes in the movie, and is angry that Natalie Portman is getting credit.  Lane stated, “To say that someone trained for a year and a half and did what I did is degrading not only to me but to the entire ballet world. They threaten the entire principle of ballet and I feel like I need to say something.”

And then, there was this important detail,  “Another thing Lane was upset over was that she was snubbed from Portman’s Oscar acceptance speech. “I expected it because at that point, I knew,” she said. “I did wish that she could have said something nice about ballet itself instead of saying that it was so horrible and she’s so glad she’s done with it.”

When your company is on Fortune’s 100 best places to work, does your CEO go up to the dais and thank HR, or all company staff? Does he or she ever say anything about HR, other than how glad he or she is that someone is there to take care of it? Do you find your words often coming out of some manager’s mouth, after you’ve coached them about how to handle a delicate leadership issue? Do you yourself often end up doing the “backstage leadership” associated with the successful role-out of a new initiative, or having the hard conversations when a manager just won’t get it done on his own?

In other words, does Lane’s whine sound familiar? We may think it, but hopefully, unlike Lane, we’ve kept these thoughts to ourselves. Whining and looking for credit never, ever gets you what you want.

Fact is – our job is invisible to most people. And it’s supposed to stay that way. Just like stunt doubles, it’s our job to stay fit, mind the details, do the hard stuff in the background, and let others win the Oscars. While I agree that HR needs to stop enabling bad management, as Jason Lauritsen and Trisha McFarlane have discussed, we don’t get the limelight for doing so. And we sure don’t get to complain about not getting the limelight.

If you want the award, then start your own company.  Whining kills your credibility faster than a knee injury kills a ballet career. Sarah Lane may develop some notoriety in the ballet world, but her career in film is now over before it really began.