· 5 min read · Features

The HRD as entrepreneur

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Sahar Hashemi bitterly regrets selling Coffee Republic, saying she lost her way as it grew. She believes HR should flatten the toad of the conventional organisation and re-focus on the individual.

In the living-room of the opulently furnished home of Sahar Hashemi hangs a huge, rather incongruous painting of an unfortunate-looking toad lying lifeless in the middle of a long, winding road. "Oh, that belongs to my husband," Hashemi remarks apologetically, gazing up at the splayed limbs of the flattened creature.

Hashemi - who is best known as the brave investment banker who risked it all to launch the Coffee Republic chain in 1995 - must look at this picture daily, without giving it a second thought. So perhaps she doesn't recognise what I see: that this toad is actually a rather useful metaphor for describing her current crusade - her belief that, as never before, HRDs must be brave enough to steam-roller over the toads (in the boardroom) that create obstacles down the road of future success.

But, believes Hashemi, HRDs can be the toads too. She knows - she was: "I fell victim to what I now see so many companies doing," she recollects, thinking of her time at Coffee Republic (which she sold in 2001). "I thought that once you reached a certain size, you needed to act like a big business - that you had to rein in your entrepreneurial side and let managers run the company. I was totally wrong," she says, sounding ashamed of what she did. "At the beginning, I was the HR director. I learned as I went along, brought in outside help, but in the end, I surrendered to weekly meetings and the things that start to eat away at original flair…" She pauses in remembrance, and reveals something she clearly still has feelings of guilt over: "Today, I would never have let it become the 'bigger' company that it started to become under me," she recounts. "I have painfully looked from afar at what Coffee Republic has since become. Selling it was the worst decision I have ever made. If I were still there, I think there would have been a way to keep the same vibe while still being able to make it grow in size."

It's a startling revelation for one who, after selling the chain, became financially secure for life. And her 'way', to flatten the toad of convention, is a return to what she says was responsible for the company launching in the first place - entrepreneurism. And it's what more other businesses need to remember too, she argues.

"Halfway through my time at Coffee Republic, I remember thinking, 'how restricted my staff have become'," says confides. "They were 'in the box', no longer liberated as they had been. I rationalised it by saying we needed to introduce controls for people, but really, what I had created was so many limitations."

According to Hashemi, HR's oft-remarked tendency to over-engineer processes and systems is not only what blighted her, but is what still blights too many companies today, and it is only getting worse. She is serious about there needing to be a solution.

Being more 'entrepreneurial' is the umbrella concept behind her latest book - 'Switched On: 10 Habits to being highly effective in your job' (Capstone, 2010). It is a more cerebral and, some might say, modest follow-up to her brash, top-selling 'Anyone can do it' (Capstone, 2007) book that she wrote at the height of her Coffee Republic notoriety, and before her own self-reflection influenced her current view. Although the new book is essentially about how employees can empower themselves, in this interview she is critical of how HR professionals seem to have forgotten about the things that once made their businesses great: "Entrepreneurs have had a bad press recently," she says.

"They've been branded as swash-buckling risk-takers. When I talk about being entrepreneurial, I don't mean this; to me, it's simply about questioning what you do more, and on a daily basis. It's small innovation only. The concept of work has changed so much over the past few years, but corporations haven't reacted fast enough to reflect this."

According to Hashemi, the simple solution to being more entrepreneurial is for HRDs and their employees alike to return to the concept of diversity - but not the limited definition she says it has now come to mean. "Diversity is 100% about letting people be themselves," she says. "By trying to fit into a type of work culture, people have had to suppress a part of who they are. That's what turns them into corporate robots. Companies and their HRDs have created a situation where employees have been allowed to fall into the habit of not bringing all of themselves to work."

If what Hashemi says is right, companies are wasting their time setting up and defining complicated and ultimately artificial 'cultures'; instead, the best thing is for staff to be themselves. Really? Surely she has the measure of engagement wrong?

"Companies could save themselves a hell of a lot of marketing money if they simply did what they believed in," she responds, slightly playfully. It suggests there needs to be at least some common corporate goal or value, but her point is nevertheless a serious one: "In the new way of working, HR must ensure employees bring all of themselves to work, not just the restricted part. They need to bring in the bit that allows them to say, 'I can be creative', rather than the bit that causes them to say, 'I'm not a creative type'."

This, of course, is the $64,000 question that all engagement specialists have sought to answer. So is Hashemi any closer to finding a solution for doing this? "Companies still over-penalise the so-called 'mistakes' staff make, but this isn't conducive to new working," she says. "That's where the HR function needs to come in, and remind staff - with honest dialogue - of where they can be, and what they have the potential to do. I sometimes think staff are forced to edit away their views of their own potential because of the constraints the company structure places on them to just 'do what they do'. A lot of staff bite their lips; a lot of staff compromise. Even those that start off really enthusiastically trail off and lose their vitality. Sure, you can't force creativity, but giving flexibility to staff within the areas they work in is where the dialogue needs to start."

But if things seem bleak, Hashemi believes the current economic gloom could unwittingly be the saving grace in helping people return to the form of entrepreneurism she knows best: "The most successful entrepreneurs started with limited funds," she says. "That's what made them 'create'. But they got lazy when they realised money seemed like a good substitute for creativity and ideas. A lot of money, and a lot of apparent success is a spoiling thing. That's why a lack of money now could see a return to the entrepreneurial spirit," she adds: "It forces people to suck out every last bit of juice from an idea. It is forcing them to look to their staff for inspiration. The more entrepreneurial the CEO and HRDs are at the top of the company, the better."

According to Hashemi, entrepreneurial thinking is a model that HRDs are suited to pursuing, because "it is a different approach, one that looks at individuals within companies and not just concentrating on the organisational level".

Whether HRDs can be entrepreneurial enough themselves to set this ball in motion is another matter, but Hashemi has faith. "HRDs should almost be seeing staff as their consultants within the business, the people that can tell them about the customer experience, or why what they experience matters. It is a very exciting time still. One of my favourite quotes is, 'I hate to waste a good recession', and this holds true now. HRDs have to see where their opportunities are for themselves and their staff, and they have to be creative. I believe they can."