Two weeks ago I was speaking to an extremely intelligent leader with the title People Ops.

In the beginning of the phone call, I asked: “so is your title Head of People Operations or is it Head of HR?”

She responded emphatically, “oh, it is Head of People Ops” with excitement.

Quickly I asked: “What’s the difference.?”

She responded: “Nothing really, just a title.”

I brushed it off in the back of my mind and we had an engaging, thoughtful conversation.

It also immediately reminded me of the Mark Twain quote:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”

Our experience working with HR and People Ops leaders has prompted 4 observable themes or as we like to call them: mind shifts.

1. People Ops Help Steer the Company, The Company Doesn’t Steer People Ops – There are fewer circumstances I enjoy more than when someone in People Ops proclaims a statement that is bold, neat, and purposeful. They have a vision and beliefs about how the company should be run. It’s always founded on sound principles and they’ll go to the proverbial work guillotine to get it initiated.

On the other hand, I’ve observed too many traditional HR folks protect their legacy and get overpowered by the system of the company. The end result: their actions are dictated by the company. Here are 5 questions they should ask leadership to gain respect today.

2. People Ops Does Not Fear Getting Fired – Do you remember the final scene in Braveheart? William Wallace (Mel Gibson) has the option to yell “mercy” in front of the King and crowd yielding a quick death, free of torture. Yet, his conviction towards what is right weighs too heavily on his heart. People Ops know in their heart what is right for the company and will go to the company’s graveyard championing their belief. People Ops know it’s a fast growing industry and many companies are looking for quality talent. This puts them on the offensive.

On the other hand, traditional HR folks are worried about disrupting the status quo. They seek to look busy and be busy to give the projection they are irreplaceable. Everyone up to the CEO is replaceable, focus on the value you bring to the organization.

3. People Ops Use Data to Their Advantage – Leveraging data is one of the greatest assets People Ops has when supporting their beliefs. They realize their unique position in the company gives them greater visibility into the inner workings of the business perhaps only outside of the CEO, CFO, and COO. What is more powerful than knowing about the most important asset to the company: the people running it? That is why People Ops look at data as one of their greatest assets. Which managers have the greatest employee churn? Which managers are doing 1 on 1 meetings? Which managers have the highest ranked employees from simple, quarterly performance reviews? These are just a few examples from the thousands of questions People Ops should know and explore. What an exciting profession!

On the other hand, traditional HR folks stick to pushing paper and making sure everyone has checked the box. Instead of looking at data as a way to progress the company, they look at data as a way to protect the company. People Ops does both.

4. People Op’s Growth Mindset Is Open to Experimentation – We get it better than most. People Ops is a company-wide responsibility. There is balance between tinkering with new concepts and maintaining political capital. Luckily, in today’s world, anything that should be tinkered with will have a free trial and flexible trials. This limits the time commitment and political risk associated to tinkering. People Ops constantly keep an open mind to improve processes and are not afraid to implement something that aligns with a core belief (see bullet point 1.)

On the other hand, traditional HR folks dread the idea of something new. It seems too grand, too risky, and quite frankly, too much work. They are not open to experimenting with a division or team. Instead, if it doesn’t fit the existing process, it won’t work at all.

Understanding the difference between People Ops and traditional HR folks is a fascinating social study around the exciting transition of a rapidly innovating space.

Do not look at these as hard, set rules for the title. Instead, they are broader observations. Numerous, progressive HR leaders bring these 4 mindsets to the office everyday, but as a whole, People Ops do it with greater generality.

About WideAngle: WideAngle helps traditional HR folks transition to powerful People Ops.

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