Supporting Your Support Personnel

Prepare yourselves, because this is going to be a venting post. Whether you’re in HR, Training, Learning, or some other type of support personnel, this post is for you. I speak from experience, having spent over 20 years of my professional life in various support roles. Far too often, support personnel are expected to continually justify their own existence in the organization. In some cases, this is a good thing, as I’ve written about in terms of showing the business impact of eLearning (see eLearning as a Profit Center). But for all of you who find yourselves frustrated by that constant sense of being made to feel like you’re a drain on the organization, enjoy the venting.

Supporting Your Support PersonnelWhen the CEO of the company expresses concern about resources spent on training employees who might then leave, the thoughtful response from a COO who appreciates support personnel should be this: “What happens if they stay and we don’t bother to develop them at all?” Exactly.

I wish the people who treat support functions as cost centers (i.e., a drain on the organization) instead of profit centers would go ahead and just eliminate all support cost centers and see just how much profit is made, which would be very little.

One of the ways I was able to survive this kind of attitude over time was because I could see very clearly that whether or not anyone recognized it, the support I provided was the glue that held everything together. For me, it was enough to know in my head that what I was doing was absolutely vital to the organizations I was serving. Of course, it’s always better when you get recognized for that, but unfortunately it’s just not something you can count on happening.

I’ve never worked in HR, but I’ve studied and written enough about HR to know that without it, organizations would lose billions of dollars every year without the knowledge and expertise that support function brings to the table in terms of hiring and management practices.

So here’s the thing – this support-staff-as-second-class-citizen is a very tired old routine. But in one way it’s good, because it does keep us from getting complacent about what we do. It keeps us thinking about just how vital our support functions are, and if we like to make decent comebacks to the questions when they inevitably come up, then we might also take the time to be able to articulate the real value of what it is that we do.

The kind of myopic focus on metrics that demands support functions “prove” their ROI or business impact (something we should want to do, but which should not be demanded of us) plays a major role disengaging many employees. And guess what? Disengaged employees have a definite negative impact on nearly all company metrics.

Now, having said all of this, I also often find myself irked by support people for the following reasons:

  • Not being able to effectively articulate the value of what they do.
  • Led by people who don’t present themselves as equals to their counterparts in the so-called “profit centers.”
  • Too often are perceived as gatekeepers who block access or just aren’t part of solutions.
  • Staffed by people who may be perfectly competent but who simply don’t take risks and who are more likely to avoid the spotlight. But the best ones buck those trends.

My final word is this: As support personnel, we have an interesting double-edged task. We have to not only excel in adding value to the organization, we also have to be able to effectively articulate how what we do really does add value. Whether or not it’s right, it’s just the way it is, and the better we can speak the truth about the impact of our work, the better.

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