Late May means anything is possible for HR professionals

When Chris Bailey’s “Anything is Possible” conference kicks off on May 26 at the Kimpton Seafire, a handful of speakers will pose some probing questions – and 200 listeners will weigh innovative answers.

The event at Cayman’s newest resort is Bailey’s fourth human resources gathering – and his first since joining PwC last year as director of human capital consulting.

The eight-speaker roster features a range of women and men prepared to lift from its traditionally worn pathways the often-staid subject of human resources and succession planning. Bailey, president of the Cayman Islands Society of Human Resource Professionals and master of ceremonies at the daylong event, says the challenges are more pressing than ever, and companies’ responses are equally critical.

While not scheduled to deliver an address himself, Bailey nonetheless promises “a few surprises” at the formal opening.

He laments a growing corporate culture of “instant gratification,” warning that no shortcuts substitute for “time, commitment and passion.”

“My aim with this theme is to remind people that if you still have those things, then anything really is possible.”

For example, speaker Bryant McBride, former National Hockey League director of new business development, will tell how he woke up as he “went under.” The idea that “anything is possible” started on July 29, 1984, three weeks into his freshman year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as he was wheeled into an operating room.

The tale is hard to hear. “I was playing soccer. I pushed the ball back to the goalie. I destroyed my knee. I knew it was destroyed as I fell. They pulled me off the field on a stretcher and called my parents.

“I was wondering what had just happened,” he said. “The last thing I heard before the anesthesia kicked in was an army officer telling my parents that I was going into surgery and that they should not bother to come as there was nothing that they could do to help.”

The operation was the next morning – and discharge within hours. As he sat on a curb waiting for a wheelchair, “I saw a four-star general walking toward me. I tried to get up to salute, but couldn’t.”

The general ordered McBride: “‘Get up! I don’t know who or where you think you are.’ He chewed me out. He had disgust on his face. I was devastated.”

He returned to his room and passed out from the pain and 90-degree heat.

“When I woke up, it was 7 a.m. I looked out the window and saw my classmates in the field. They were ordered to run back to the dorm, clean up, make their beds, put on a full pack and be back in 17 minutes.

“I realized I was out of the pipeline, but was one of 12 people in my squad. I thought if I can make all the beds, we’ll save time and we can win.”

The job took an hour, “in excruciating pain,” but he finished. The group achieved the 17-minute deadline and McBride’s story became legend. His 1,400 classmates elected him the academy’s first African-American class president that year.

The story illustrates his call for “boat burners,” the pivot of his hourlong “Building Your Dream Team” talk. The concept, he says, originated in the Roman invasion of Britain. As the warriors scaled the Dover cliffs, he says, they “had to make a statement, so they pulled their boats onto the beach and burned them,” demonstrating “we’re not going back; we’re here to stay.”

“Boat burners,” he says, “is a term we use in an entrepreneurial team, “meaning only 100 percent commitment is acceptable. “I only want boat burners on any team. It’s an attitude, a mentality, when approaching a task or mission.

“Boat burners are a special breed – they are the most-critical members of any team – the ‘glue.’ Teams without boat burners rarely win – teams stocked with boat burners rarely fail.”

He says he could not have known at the time of his injury – three days, groggy with pain and perspiration – “that I would receive insights and lessons that would serve as a daily reference point throughout my entrepreneurial career.

“I hope I can provide insight and delve into topics that will help us all think critically about facing down great challenges, building great teams to do so and quite simply how to use practical, proven tactics to succeed,” McBride says.

Today, McBride operates Burst, a video service similar to YouTube, without the objectionable content. The site supplies TV stations in 50 U.S. markets with, for example, weather videos shot on mobile devices, showing ground-level conditions as a tornado batters a neighborhood.

Family and sports are his focus. “Everyone has a camera in their pocket and you take videos, feeding them to Burst, but it’s good and useful” and, unlike broader social media, “it’s not murder and violence.”

Commitment is key

Commitment figures high on Bailey’s list as well. Recounting relatively humble origins in Britain’s Birmingham, and a handful of subsequent accomplishments, the emcee says he could not have guessed at the distance traveled, “but, hey, anything is possible if you commit.

“At the end of the day, our conference, regardless of theme, aims to educate and inspire, whilst having some fun.” Even a modest impact will serve a critical purpose, he says.

He expects between 150 and 200 delegates – “HR professionals and directors from all industries on island” – and plenty from around the region, “mainly Cayman, Bermuda, Jamaica, but we have had some delegates from North America.”

Among the Bermudans is Krystle DeSilva, associate vice president and human resources business partner at Hamilton-based insurance broker and risk manager Marsh, a subsidiary of New York’s Marsh & McLennan Companies.

DeSilva will discuss “Lessons from the Bermuda HR Association,” surveying potential synergies and “similarities that Bermuda has with Grand Cayman … along with other similarly smaller jurisdictions. Our HR professionals face common challenges and opportunities. I believe we have much to learn from one another,” she says.

DeSilva wants to rebalance the tasks of HR, involving it “with business decisions, imparting knowledge and influencing strategies.”

Traditionally, HR focuses on “everyday operational and transactional work,” meaning “personnel assistance and functions,” and “routine transactions like data entry.”

She acknowledges those are critical for any company, but says they make it harder for HR departments to embrace a more-productive role, especially in the face of economically driven imperatives to streamline and “do more with less.”

“Strategic guidance and influence has taken a back seat,” DeSilva says, but “it’s clear that this is the opportune time to make a shift, to find a balance between operational and strategic.

“By offering guidance, we have the ability to influence our company’s culture, performance, reputation and overall success.”

‘Anything is possible’

DeSilva points to the “C-Suite” – chief executive, administrative, financial, technical and operations officers – and, underlining the conference theme, calls HR managers “equal partners.”

“Anything is possible for HR. We must make and utilize opportunities with our C-suite leaders, creating dialogue, advising of upcoming trends, providing local data and benchmarking information, creating employee-specific initiatives and ensuring that strategic goals and performance tie in with company objectives,” she says.

Like McBride and Bailey, genuinely earnest about the task, DeSilva says “HR officers are able to have an impact on any company, on our employees, managers, and business leaders, on an organization and its direction, everyone with a company.

“We can influence every area of an organization and its success. The business world is at our fingertips, and we just have to grasp it,” she says.

If the task is daunting, McBride nonetheless points to “four years of college hockey … and 26 marathons” on his repaired knee, and Bailey remains undeterred, alluding, if obliquely, to the West Pointer’s immediate post-operation experience.

“The theme for doing an Ironman event, is also ‘Anything is Possible,’” he says. “It encourages you not to give up, to keep going. If you fall down get back up. If your goal changes, make a new goal; just don’t stop believing you can do something.”

Local HR professionals are frequently passionate about expanding the traditional limits of their roles, he says, seeking to boost their companies. But perennial resistance to increased functions makes an already hard path even harder, as “we strive for a seat at the table to represent great human capital strategies such as succession planning.

“Succession planning needs to be at the heart of any good HR strategic plan,” Bailey says, but worries that Cayman’s top talent is too often frustrated by the limited vision DeSilva describes in the “C-Suite.”

The best practitioners are readily “attracted away both domestically and internationally” to a broader world stage, “and maybe you’re not doing enough to keep [them],” Bailey says.

However, succession planning and “do more with less” pose their own set of dangers to even the most-ambitious companies, most-informed HR managers and best-intentioned owners, tempting them to single-minded, but isolated, efforts at change.

Missouri-born change-guru and motivational speaker Andy Masters is the author of five books on sales and service, leadership and personal development – and one of only a few “certified speaking professionals,” a designation established in 1980 by the National Speakers Association.

He kicks off the speakers’ program with an hourlong “HR Lessons from Hollywood,” and promises a “unique program,” illustrating his talk with clips from “The Devil Wears Prada,” “The Iron Lady,” “Apollo 13,” “Frozen” and “Star Wars.”

Masters also promises the latest research from Harvard Business Review, Deloitte and Glassdoor “to provoke real organizational change,” and “immediate ‘take-home’ action items to help HR develop millennials and future leaders in today’s new economy.”

Echoing Bailey and DeSilva, Masters says “HR leaders must develop and empower their organizations,” defeating ‘do more with less’ and crises of succession planning.”

“Do-more-with-less,” he says, “leads many to fall into [a] ‘do-it-all-myself’ trap,” creating a “control freak” corporate culture.

Managers “wear multiple hats,” and owners start to drown “because of their obsession to have a hand in all facets of the business, every day,” he says.

Seeking remedies, companies promote their best performers to management and their management to wider leadership. Seeking to prove their competence in those new roles, they decline to delegate, feeding the “do-it-all-myself” cycle.

“Overworked, stressed-out micro-managers” create a “high-stress, high-burnout, high-turnover, low-quality and low-morale” environment, Masters says, exacerbated by needless costs as high-salaried officers do the work of lower-salaried employees.

“Leaders who don’t effectively delegate” not only distract time and attention from more-important projects and responsibilities, Masters says, but also demonstrate a “lack of leadership,” which in turn “squelches employee development, negatively impacts succession planning and even causes a direct ‘negative ROI’ impact,” a counter-productive outcome as human resources are used ineffectively.

“A leader isn’t the person who takes on all responsibilities,” Masters says. “A leader is someone who empowers and inspires others to achieve the goals of the organization as a team.”

Calling it “a crisis,” if “easily resolvable,” he calls for a hard look at corporate cultures in which “leaders can see the forest through the trees … where leaders understand the big picture of the organization, set high goals and have tangible plans to achieve those goals … where leaders are masters of developing, empowering and delegating … where leaders hire talented people and provide them with the resources, support, coaching and inspiration to flourish.”

Training and development are critical to any organization, which must offer “a plan – 100 percent supported by each manager – for each of those talented employees.”

“This creates an upward distribution of responsibilities, where talented employees are encouraged to take on more, accelerating their development, while freeing up valuable time for the leader to focus on top objectives. This environment leads to higher morale, lower turnover, higher achievement and improved succession planning.”

Succession planning

While Bailey does not speak directly to Masters’s admonitions, he nevertheless embraces succession planning as both a fundamental need and critical HR “deliverable,” outlining a six-point plan.

“The approach has been designed ‘fit for purpose’ for many companies,” he says. “It builds upon PwC’s approach to succession planning and is tailored to address unique talent-supply challenges.”

Bailey starts with “define,” involving basic scrutiny of the purposes of any planning program, its scope and executive support within the company.

The second stage, “assess,” he says, triggers “data and document collection [to] determine the readiness and organizational context to customize our recommended succession-planning approach.”

“Construct,” he says, is “when the creation of the strategies, the communication, and writing takes place.” A broad-based effort, it surveys “regional, industry, and economic parameters unique to the company.”

Building blocks in place, the “test/validate” stage may take up to a year “to make tweaks and test the appetite for development and progression of those deemed to be part of the talent pool,” Bailey says.

Only at that point, does the extended hard work of “implement” begin, he says, as “the program is fully rolled out, and communicated in a transparent form” throughout the company.

Finally, the “evaluate” phase is ongoing, a kind of permanent evolution in which managers monitor the initiatives, tracking, documenting and reporting outcomes to C-Suite executives and the board of directors, Bailey says.

He acknowledges the succession-planning scenario is an ideal, but sketches it in the context of “anything is possible.”

“If we make an impact in just a few delegates, that will still permeate through the workforce with new ideals, inputs and practices,’ Bailey says.

“I would be happy to chat with any company looking at implementing a fit-for-purpose succession plan,” he says.