On Being Excellent: Seinfeld, Bad Advice and Best Practices
There’s something in the air, I think. I’ve noticed many conversations around the term “excellence” and what it really means in the last few weeks and it’s got me thinking. Perhaps it’s the coming of a New Year, and everyone getting back to work after a prolonged state of suspension between multiple holidays or maybe we’re all holding ourselves to a higher standard, but whatever it is, it has people in our industry talking.
People like Jeff Wiener, who wrote a piece called “From Seinfeld to Sushi: How to Master Your Domain“. It’s a great read and offers some interesting insights from both Jerry Seinfeld himself and from a profile on the world’s greatest sushi chef. In both cases, the men offer (and seem to practice) sound advice like practicing consistently, working clean and being detail oriented. While notable, these traits are not impressive in your average career simply because both of the men profiled in the piece have made it, yet they each still insist on working within the parameters they set for their careers early on.
For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regimen is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a creative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.”
Contrast this with a piece written by Tim Sackett, on his irritation with the term “best practices.” From Sackett’s point of view, the term is a lazy man’s barometer, speaking less to excellence within a firm or HR shop and more to the point that being “okay” or “on the level” with your fellow organizations is enough for you. While he makes a valid point, it’s possible that the term “best practices” didn’t start out with this generic and blase definition, but instead was hijacked by a thousand marketing departments until it became difficult to really derive any meaning from it.
While you can argue the finer points of whether or not Sackett is right in his assumption (and I did) his bottom line rings of scary truth:
I’m not saying that many HR/Talent shops can’t improve by using a best practice from another organization. That actually might be true. But, again, you’ll only improve, at best, to the level that other organization has achieved. You’ll never be industry leading – you’ll be industry following. I always assume when I hear a best practice that it was something that worked really well for that organization, at a specific time, and then ask – “what are you doing now?” Almost always, I’ll get a response of something new they are actually working on – but it’s not, yet, a ‘best practice’ in their eyes! That’s what I want to hear – the new stuff – not what they’ve been doing for 5 years!
It falls to actual recruiting practitioners to decide for themselves what dictates a “best practice” within their industry/organization/department/function. But how can one do that without some guidance? I brought up the question to Sackett but was answered from a different source, RJ Morris wrote a withering piece about the kind of HR advice that makes news but is relatively value-less in real life. In it, he discusses what might (or will probably happen) when real people take ridiculous suggestions to heart like following up relentlessly (you look like a stalker) or making grand gestures before or during an interview (you seem deranged) or wearing a sign on the street (see grand gestures).
Hey, HR professional, here’s an idea. If someone comes to you for generalized career advice (not asking for a job, but really looking for advice), how about maybe acting like a professional? Take your responsibility seriously. Listen to their needs, give good counsel, give a resource or be quiet.
Morris vents his frustration with these tactics because they are of no help, and may even hinder the standard job seeker. And this same principle applies to conference speakers, editorial writers, bloggers and consultants who make big, splashy claims or who play it safe with something that masquerades as a “best practice” but is actually rote and increasingly expected in the life of a talent acquisition professional.