Primum Non Nocere

Out of all of the roles that can exist in the corporate world, it is my belief that none touches more lives than that of the human resources executive.  Often thought of as the go-to for complaints, issues, problems and advice for employees they’re almost the priest like equivalent for modern companies.  It is for this reason that I was delighted when Scott Kelly, Chief Human Resources Officer for Hitachi Data Systems agreed to spend some time with me to discuss this article.

When I first met Scott and he’d agreed to be the host of a conference I was coordinating I was immediately struck by a calm sincerity that put me at ease.  I immediately wondered how many times that demeanor had become a tool in his arsenal throughout his career.  Scott was born in Scotland which was immediately recognized through the Ewan McGregor like accent that had lost none of its potency despite many years in the US.  And, in good British tradition, I was delighted to hear that he actually played semi-professional rugby.  Suffice to say this enflamed an already smoldering competitive nature.

However, the most interesting thing for me was that he actually chose to get into Human Resources at a very early age.  I’ve spoken to a lot of HR folks that have attended conferences that I’ve been part of but this was the first time I’d heard someone electing Human Resources as their primary focus from education through to career development.  “HR has the ability to make a real difference,” Scott told me.  “It’s fairly easy to get into but it’s incredibly hard to do well.”  And so he chose that he could only achieve the level of excellence he sought through extensive education.

Scott enjoyed successful tenures at Motorola and Dun & Bradstreet before moving to Hitachi Data Systems.  But I don’t really want continue with a biographical style article because, as I review the transcript of our discussion, I was able to pick out three major lessons.  Within these lessons was a theme of how your actions affect other people.  I believe I can some up these lessons in three of Scott’s quotes:

  1. “First, do no harm.”
  2. “Diverse backgrounds brings diverse viewpoints”
  3. “If you can’t risk yourself, you don’t have the right to risk others”

Prior to moving to the United States, Scott spent several years with the HR team at Motorola.  He would tell that this team was predominantly female and that they were one of the most empathic and caring HR team that he’d worked with to date.  However, the repercussions of having such an empathic team was that they had also become people pleasers.  The employee was in control of the company’s destiny and business was suffering.  “It was an example of where HR can overplay its hand” Scott laments.  Needless to say that the story of Motorola is an ill-fated one.  But lessons must be learned and Scott was very grateful on the phone as we spoke for the opportunity to see the importance of diversity and what people from different backgrounds offer to a well-rounded team.

Throughout my conversation with Scott, it was clear that he and risk often went hand in hand.  I didn’t get the feeling that this was because he was an adrenaline junky and enjoyed base-jumping of a Sunday afternoon.  However, it seemed that he was willing to make calculated risks with the unwavering belief and confidence in his own ability.  Confidence is an interesting concept to me as I’ve spoken to people that seem to have a similar confidence but their actions didn’t always reflect that belief.  However, Scott’s decision to move from Europe to the United States with a wife 7 months pregnant would certainly show confidence.

At first hearing this my initial response (sorry Scott) was that it was irresponsible.  I’ve since changed my mind on this and I actually see the reverse.  So often we are shown opportunities and we choose not to take them or shut them down with some irrelevant justification.  I realize now that my initial reaction was based on the fact that I wouldn’t be brave enough to do such a thing.  The thought of it being “irresponsible” is simply a justification for my own fear.

People trained in health care will understand the phrase ‘Primum non nocere’, a Latin phrase meaning “First, do no harm”.  Roughly meaning that, sometimes, no action is the best course of action.  Scott relates this to the case of performance management, a core HR practice and the 10,000+ man-hours that are spent on it.  However, when measuring the impact in terms of raises and leavers, it was discovered that the benefits did not outweigh the costs.  Scott tells me “you can then see that ALL HR practices run the risk of causing harm to our business rather than good, either simply because it takes time to do which isn’t driving real value or it actually causes disengagement.”

However, if there was a central lesson from Scott Kelly, I would say it’s this but on a scale that represents life, not just Human Resources.  How often, in life, are we victims of performing actions or living to expectations that are set for us from external sources.  Whether it be social, parental, occupational or habitual pressures we can often be caught performing damaging actions without even realizing it.  I’ve certainly learned from Scott; with his risk taking, his confidence but most of all, he does things that are right for his own fulfillment and that of his family.  He’s not trying to prove himself on a social media profile, only to himself. more tips can be found at

Follow up reading:  “Ego is the enemy” – Ryan Holiday

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