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I cut my “people management” teeth leading turnaround situations.  This included learning — a lot — from some truly great HR pros.   People with vast experience who mentored and taught me.

Back in the day, HR wasn’t always great.

Yet even good people could use HR tools and practices to support their people and create a good environment.

Over the last 20 years, Corporate America has sliced, diced, outsourced, and automated a once-holistic function.

Yes, it was once imperfect.  Today, in large firms, HR struggles to be even good.*   It’s toothless.

Growing firms today have the opportunity to re-create this function.  The Netflix culture deck is what can happen when you have great HR in the house.

An HR lead is a business partner, who will advance your business strategy and strengthen your culture.  They’re leaders of particular expertise and experience.

And they wear a few hats beyond Recruiter or Tax Form Wrangler.

Traffic Engineer.  The world is a safer place because we have civil engineers.  Using lights, crosswalks and agreement about which lane to drive in, they create process.

Your HR lead can create repeatable process for the traffic flows of hiring, and managing people and performance.   Early stage HR process can use whiteboards and spreadsheets.   Later, you’ll need more.  A solid HR lead knows when it’s time to scale.

Judge Advocates.  It’s complicated to comply with the law.   Getting it right can save your time, money, and reputation.

Unlike military Judge Advocates, your HR lead needn’t be an attorney.   He will build practices to keep you in line with the law, and advise you when your counsel should hear about a people issue.

Conscience Check.   You wish your employees would tell you when something’s out of whack.  They may not.   And you may not have time — or the experience — to really hear them.

Like a mediator, a strong HR lead will serve up checks and balances that support working in alignment with your values.

This may involve process — or simply listening when there’s an issue.  When someone is listening, you can respond before your people take their concerns online.   Or out the door.

I’ll reach out to a few HR pros to see if they’ll comment, because there’s more to say about doing this this leadership role right.

When you’re 5 people around a table, you better not need HR.   If you’re a 20 person “mom and pop”, you can do a lot yourself, backed up by your accountant and attorney.

If you have bigger ambitions, talk to other founders, mentors.  And don’t forget your own people!

Go online and see what investment pros like Fred Wilson and Mark Suster think.

Once you’ve been sold, build things right.  To be effective, HR has to have teeth.

The right person for the role is your ally, but not your Yes Woman.  If you’re fairly new to managing, the right partner is someone with more experience than you have.

Someone who will tell you, “You can’t do that.”   Because it’s not legal.   Or just because it’s not smart.

And then, you’ll listen.  (And like I did, you’ll learn.)

To really give the role some teeth, help her build relationships with people who influence you and your co-founders — coaches, mentors, or the right kind of board members.   And give her access to them.

Because sometimes, you may be the problem.

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* Many fine people work in these roles.  I’m distressed about the devolution of the function itself.  In large firms, it’s too often vendor management and compliance.  It’s hard for me to shut up about this.   Instead, check Peter Cappelli.

And check the sort-of preachy NY Times article on HR, published while I was on the nth revision of this post.  Scooped!

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Photo:  Legoland Dragon, by drmama via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.