How to train your HR Dragon

Likening HR professionals to dragon slayers, T-Systems’ Brandon Lew explains why HR should seek to nurture their skills, rather than deny them

About the author

Brandon Lew is the Vice President of HR at T-Systems and oversees the overall HR business operations and development for the company’s Singapore operations.

Lew’s key role in T-Systems focuses on strategic organisational development and critical HR management initiatives.

In the popular movie, How to Train Your Dragon, a young Viking teenager aspires to follow his tribe's tradition of becoming a dragon slayer. After finally capturing his first dragon, and with his chance of gaining the tribe's acceptance at last, he finds that he no longer wants to kill the dragon. Instead, he befriends and trains it.

The teenager was able to reconcile the dilemma and problems of his environment.

The business world, with its hunger for profits and lean management, is eager to slay and reject development initiatives and headcount increases. Any mention of cost is akin to corporate villagers facing down a fire-breathing dragon. The intuitive corporate impulse is to slash and slay it.

So if development initiatives are frowned upon, how do we as HR professionals train our own "dragons"?

Dragons, in this case, is an analogy for our professional HR skills. Leadership, developing a positive culture, cost analysis of workforce, contracts negotiation, sourcing pedagogy, proficient utilisation of HR information systems: these are examples of our dragons.

I’m going to share four tips which I believe may work for the HR Vikings among us. 

Your development is your responsibility

First, accept the fact that we’re alone and, surrounded by hostile and yet-to-be enlightened villagers whose chief concerns are saving resources and their profitable cash cows. Once we have accepted that fact, we will not be looking for company handouts. We will be forced to relook at our options and explore different avenues to develop and train ourselves and the HR team.

Instead of hoping for company-sponsored programmes, we should explore seeking free training from partners, exchanges from clients and in-house peer learning opportunities. You will be surprised what the mind can conjure once liberated from a needy mentality. Any company-sponsored training will be a bonus. 

Invest in yourself

Next, invest and experiment on your dragons. Once you have gone for a few quality training programmes, seminars or conferences through cost-free initiatives, you will have an idea of where your HR interest is heading and what you should focus on more.

Nobody is more interested in your career advancement than yourself. And this is the time to allocate your own resources and money into programmes which will enhance your abilities and employer’s interest in you. Every year, I will reserve a portion of my savings to invest in myself. Likewise, you must invest in yourself, for it may well be the most profitable investment you will ever make.

Li Ka Shing (one of the richest tycoons in the world) advises young people to  apportion their income into five parts. Two of which are: investing in your own learning; and treating smart friends and associates to a meal (networking). Li Ka Shing’s rationale is that when you increase your investment through learning, you strengthen your self-confidence. When you increase your investment in networking, you expand your network of contacts and your income will also grow proportionately.

Build your tribe

In the movie, our protagonist eventually leads a group of self-trained dragons to successfully defeat the enemy and change the perception of the Viking villagers. Similarly, once you have groomed yourself independently of your organisation, help groom the rest of the HR team.

You can only go as far as your own community. Coach others with your newly-developed skills. Make time and commitment to do that. Set those learning sessions in your calendar. By doing so, not only will it help you internalise these competencies, it will also increase your emotional credit with the team.

It’s a win-win. You have to build and grow a strong tribe.

The worst kind of HR leaders are those who are afraid to share. Bad HR leaders consolidate power through knowledge hogging, hire the less capable, and instil individualism within their teams. David Ogilvy (founder of Ogilvy & Mather) famously shared that if each of us recruit people who are smaller than ourselves, we will become a company of dwarfs. However, if we hire people who are bigger than we are, the organisation will have a good chance of being a company of giants.

We need to invest in others.

Radar and Compass

Ultimately, to be a stronger and better HR professional, one has to be mindful of two metaphorical tools: the radar and the compass.

The radar shows us what is heading towards us. In our daily work, this means we need to be acutely aware of the HR technology which is trending, the global economic changes, the sunset HR processes, and the intermediate business needs of our organisation.

The compass shows us our "True North", the purpose and ideals of why HR exists. We exist for the betterment of all employees and to ensure moral, fair and just treatment within the organisation. We are the human side of HR.

There is an HR saying: “Culture trumps strategy. Relationship trumps culture.” Staying true to our values helps to govern behaviour, culture and relationships. Having the courage to stay committed to our values makes us stronger HR business partners and leaders.

Other than “training our dragons”, we need to be exceptional at reading the radar and be courageous at following the compass. If we can do that, I am sure our career development will exceed all our expectations.   

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