America Cries, Again

I awoke Saturday morning to a phone call telling me to turn on the television. Having lived through three assassinations, seeing space shuttle Challenger’s tragic demise right before my eyes, and later the destruction of the World Trade Center, my heart sank as I went for the remote. Dan Rather’s face was puffy. As he struggled with his emotions, his eyes seemed to go from pink to white and back again depending upon what was being said at the time. I can only imagine what it is like to be the one to deal with an unfolding story of this magnitude on live television, a story that can do nothing but break the heart of a country that is still on very shaky ground. I remember thinking how he has reported horrific events like this so many times. It has clearly taken its toll on him. Delivering devastating news to entire generations for over forty years is a grisly job. His young associate held up well, but was clearly following the venerable master’s lead. Perhaps someday he, too, will be the puffy-faced icon, old before his time, delivering heaven knows what horrors into the peace and tranquility of our living rooms. My reaction to this event was, as those who know me would expect, totally predictable. I went up to my office, sat down, and cried. Remembering Challenger and the smiles of the eternally young astronauts in their official picture brought back painful memories. Living through it again with different faces and in another time was more than I could bear. When my crying ended, I fired up my notebook and began to write, because that’s how I manage the unmanageable. Maybe it is the way I am hard-wired. Or perhaps, it is the type of work I do that makes me see so many things from a human resources and recruiting perspective. I’m not sure, but on Saturday morning, February 1, 2003, at about 9:00 a.m., something terrible occurred. And as a country, for reasons yet unknown, we now have another landmark heartbreak that will scar us for as long as we are able to remember this event. Of that, I am quite sure. It is not my intention to wait until blame is assigned for the shuttle Columbia’s tragic demise. The blame game is a fool’s errand and at the end of the day, what is done is done. All we can hope to do is learn from it. After years of investigation, we learned that Challenger exploded after NASA managers, moving away from their “prove it safe or we won’t launch” tradition, went against the advice of Morton Thiokol Inc., the manufacturer of the ill-fated O-rings. On launch morning, Morton engineers unanimously recommended against the launch, due to cold temperatures. NASA managers turned away from this recommendation. Pressure from NASA eventually influenced Morton to reverse its recommendation, and as a result, the launch proceeded uninterrupted. This decision resulted in the white plume of smoke we all can still see by closing our eyes and remembering. No doubt there will be a long, arduous, and extensive investigation into what caused this new heartbreaking catastrophe. I, like everyone else, do not know what will be found. But I do know this: I am not a NASA engineer. I do not have the technical smarts to help make things right for future flights. All I can do, after seeing beyond my grief, is put on my HR/recruiting hat and look at the world from my professional perspective. Obviously, something somewhere went terribly wrong and the team at NASA needs to see that it never happens again. As with Challenger, there will probably be monumental changes made to virtually every process and decision-making methodology required to move this effort of space exploration forward. I only pray that the HR and recruiting function supports the line organizations in any way humanly possible. They need to serve, facilitate, support, observe and be an integral part of selecting the types of people that this organization hires. Furthermore, they need to integrate themselves into the organizations that make the giant machine function. There is no other option in this organization as they deal with human life, not the manufacturing of toaster ovens. There is no margin for error. This article is not designed to play up the importance of what we do. Our role pales in the light of this tragedy. This article is, however, designed to do something far more meaningful: to make the reader think about the catastrophic failure of even the top minds and the best of intentions — and to wonder if, in some way, somehow, we just might have been able to help. With this latest tragedy to analyze, it is obvious that hiring the best and the brightest and supplying virtually unlimited resources does not necessarily constitute success. It is not for me to speculate, but I believe that when all is said and done, the resolution of this investigation will come down to a decision or a series of decisions that were made — not by computers, not by programmed data, not by statistical analysis, but by people, the people whose logic, decision-making process, or essential humanity, was somehow tragically flawed. Could HR and recruiting have in some way, if not prevented this tragedy, at least surfaced some small bit of information, thought, or concern that might have helped to re-examine the facts that might have made a difference? I do not have the answer, but I do have some questions. Lots of them. What is the relationship between the various line organizations and HR/Recruiting at NASA? What is the culture? How do they interact? How do they communicate? What is the decision-making process like and who designed it? Is HR and recruiting doing what they should be doing, or have they been relegated to dealing with administrative and bureaucratic issues? I may never know the answers, but I am certain of this: HR and recruiting must be heavily involved in the daily decision-making process, as well as every aspect of the care and feeding of their employees. Best-of-breed thinking must be established and applied every single day. This ideal must become reality. I for one can’t cry out in pain for one more American tragedy that might have been avoided.

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Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See twitter.com/howardadamsky if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at H.adamsky@comcast.net

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