Work Human 2017 Recap

Last week, I spent 4 days in hot and sunny Phoenix, Arizona checking out Globoforce’s WorkHuman conference. Billed as ‘the only HR Conference you should attend’, I was excited to check out the line up and see what new ideas I could bring back. Here is my top 10 list of takeaways from some of the sessions I was able to sit in on and the people I met:

  1. Managers make shitty career coaches – one of my favourite presentations was by Lee Burbage of the Motley Fool. He shared how the Fool has put in place 16 coaches who employees can go and have career conversations with directly (vs. trying to do it with their direct reporting manager). For years, I’ve struggled with the idea that a manager can have a neutral conversation with a direct report about their career paths. There’s just too much of an agenda involved for managers to be neutral. At the Motley Fool, employees can choose who they want to have the coaching conversation with and then the coach shares the results with the talent team. Burbage shared a great ‘real life’ example of an employee who wanted to quit to become a personal trainer but transitioned, instead, to head up their wellness initiatives.
  2. Brainstorming is insaneSusan Cain, author of the great book Quiet, shared how most people think up better ideas on their own vs. in a group. She suggested that, instead of pulling everyone into a room, try having people do something thinking alone beforehand and then circulate ideas. Great way to make sure all ideas get heard in addition to encouraging some individual insights. I bumped into Susan as she was leaving the hotel the next day and she is absolutely lovely in person and it was fun to be able to thank her in person for her great work.
  3. Mindfulness is a hot topic – I can’t share with you anything that happened in the mindfulness sessions because they were filled to capacity. So, the big takeaway I took from that is that people are really, really stressed out and that mindfulness is poised to become the next biggest wave trend in corporate America. (We’ve been on the mindfulness wagon since 2012 at the Roundtable, so love to see it go more mainstream).
  4. Make the unfamiliar familiarAdam Grant, author of the Originals, got me thinking about all kinds of ways to bring more originality to work. He talked about the fact that new ideas are often too unfamiliar which is why they get rejected. Instead, draw a parallel to something that’s already in the market place. He used an example of an eyewear company that wanted to sell prescription glasses online. They pitched it as the Zappos (an online shoe provider) of eyewear. Zappos was a big success, so people could make the leap.
  5. Try killing your company – Another gem from Adam Grant was the idea of holding a ‘kill the company’ meeting. Bring your team together to talk about all the ways you could put your company out of business. This surfaces the real issues. Look at the biggest competitive threats and then act on closing the gaps. He also touted having a ‘problem’ box instead of a ‘suggestions’ box. Execs can then prioritize the problems and then get volunteers from the company who have the interest and skill to fix the issues.
  6. Trends, trends, trends – there were a couple of speakers talking about trends in the work place. Common themes include: a focus on teams over individual performance; continuous performance reviews (the entire annual performance review process is being blown up…thank god!), more people will be engaged in a ‘side hustle’ as they follow their passions; workplace wellness is accelerating (see point 3 above); company culture is your #1 advantage.
  7. Have fun at all costs – Julia Louis-Dreyfus shared that her highschool science teacher wrote that line on all test results, no matter the mark. It’s a great motto and one that Julia shared has been a big factor in her life. She talked about the power of working in an ensemble and the fact that the cast of Veep have a ‘no asshole’ rule (even though they all play asshole’s on the show). My takeaway from Julia’s share was the power that words can have on others. What a great reminder to think about how you’re mentoring and shaping those around you.
  8. We are hungry for connection – there were lots of stats and stories shared about how, even though we are telecommuting more and consumed by social media, we are hungry for connections. Pick up the phone, call instead of email, make decisions by video conference, check-in with colleagues regularly… collaboration and inclusion was a big theme at the conference.
  9. Recognition continues to be underutilized – since the sponsor of the conference is in the recognition biz, it was of little surprise that there was lots of stats and talk about the power of recognition. However, in my opinion, you don’t need a fancy platform to create a culture of recognition. Saying thank you, asking people how they are and building in time at your 1:1’s and team meetings to acknowledge people’s efforts goes a very long way. I’ve worked in cultures with amazing recognition and support and they didn’t need fancy software systems to do it. Just people (not just managers) who made it a priority.
  10. In and Out Burger is over-rated – and so was this conference. I had really high expectations for Work Human (and In and Out Burger…Harvey’s is better) based on what I’d heard about it from others. I’d give my whole experience a 6 out of 10. There were lots of great things (the venue, the food, the ‘extra’s’ during the day and evening) and I definitely connected with a few interesting people. Unfortunately, when something gets really hyped, the disappointments were many. Some were minor: a weak interviewer made Chaz Bono and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ fireside chats fall flat; there was a lot of self-promotion throughout the conference stage for Globoforce’s products; many of the breakout sessions overlapped so it was tough to get in to all the people you’d like to see (really sad that I miss Cy Wakeman). But, the biggest complaint I have is the same one I have for all conferences I’ve been to lately… they are stuck in the old style method of the ‘sage of the stage’ format with very little opportunities to share experiences with the people in the room (other than on breaks and at lunch). I would LOVE to see a conference that gets the audience to be a big part of the agenda with lots of peer discussion and interaction vs. relying solely on a handful of experts.

Next year, Work Human will be in Austin, Texas and the first speaker – Brene Brown – has already been confirmed. I’m not sure if I’ll attend again but tons of people I spoke with loved it and gave it a 10/10 so give it a look. The reality is, I may not be the target audience. Work Human is aimed at HR leaders (which I am not). I found the entire concept of an event that touts the objective of bringing more humanity back to work, a little off putting. As Chaz Bono said when asked what ‘work human’ meant to him, he replied ‘how else would you work?’. I’m with you Chaz. I also have to say that I found it a bit irritating as a line leader to hear so much ‘line leader’ bashing. The one thing I wish HR leaders would stop doing is perpetuating the story that the majority of line leaders are incapable and uninterested in people leadership. It comes across as arrogant. I spoke to two women in HR who claimed that their company was incredibly advanced in people development but their leaders were just incapable of having feedback conversations with each other (even though they’d had training ) because ‘it’s against human nature. They’re too nice’. The implication being that only HR people could have the tough conversations. I don’t buy it. I meet and work with hundreds of amazing line leaders who are doing awesome work and are more than capable of handling tough people situations. Anyway, that’s a rant for another day. 🙂

Happy leading!



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