How I Became An Accidental HR Revolutionary?

At the age of twenty-five, I got drunk at a conference and told my boss at travel retailer Flight Centre that the way the company hired and trained people was crap. Two weeks later he rang and asked to meet with me. I dreaded the encounter, feeling sure that he was going to sack me for my outburst. By Mandy Johnson, 2014.

Instead, he sat me down and told me that if I thought I knew so much about HR, then I should turn one of the company’s shops into the organisation’s first recruitment and training centre. That was the start of my new vocation.

My First-Ever ‘People’ Job

I’d only hired a handful of people as a store leader so I didn’t have a clue where to start. My Arts degree, majoring in journalism, was about as useful as a wet tissue. The only advantage I had was sheer practice. Flight Centre was opening a new store every forty-eight hours and had an almost constant requirement for new employees. It was business at warp speed. Over time I interviewed more than a thousand people, and because of the awful, gut-wrenching mistakes I made, particularly in the early days, and some good calls as well, I learnt a lot. It was through this kind of trial and error that I built a successful enterprise.

How I Saved My Career By Throwing Away the Traditional HR Textbooks

Yet it was my experience co-founding Flight Centre’s start-up operation in the UK that was the real making of me. This came about after I quit because I wanted to go backpacking around South America. Instead the CEO called me in and convinced me to take this new role, opening a shop a month, with minimal support from Australia. I’d have to recruit, retain and develop people to reach high performance at break-neck speed yet I was confident that I had the skills required. Imagine my horror then, when 3 months later I still hadn’t employed a single decent recruit.

My standard methods simply didn’t work in an environment where the company was an unknown, competing against well-established, 800-store, travel agency chains.

Throwing the textbooks out the window, I had to attack HR from a whole new angle.

Yet this disaster was the best thing that ever happened to me. Not only did I create a whole system of unconventional techniques that I’ve now applied successfully to a host of other organisations, but I also became the company’s youngest ever-director in the process. By the time I left 5 years later we’d opened 50 shops and the UK is now Flight Centre’s most profitable operation outside Australia, with over 200 businesses and a turnover of over $1 billion.

Becoming An HR Revolutionary

After travelling around South America for a year with my husband, I returned to Australia, joined the 6 person leadership team and became Flight Centre’s Australian ‘Peopleworks’ Leader. Still focused on improvement, I convinced the CEO to let me go off for a few months and research best practice HR systems.

At that stage I believed that everyone saw the link between great people and business success the way that I did. Yet I discovered something surprising. Winning The War For TalentThere was a real shortage of inspiring ideas and role models. It wasn’t until my university executive education seminar on people practices became the most popular course of its year that I realized that the whole discipline of HR had atrophied, that there were very few HR leaders at executive level, and that many HR departments had become dumping grounds for administrative tasks.

The realization that in many organizations people practices were actually getting worse not better, turned me into an HR revolutionary. I now challenge conventional thinking at every opportunity, both as a speaker and an advisor.

In my new book Winning The War For Talent I explain why HR is stuck at roughly the same stage of development as professional medicine in the eighteenth century – a time when toxic mercury was used to treat many ailments – and what corporations can do about it to improve their profitability.

My quest is to spread the word that great people management is the heart, soul and balance sheet of every organization, move HR to the top table, and transform workplaces around the globe.

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