Dana Papke’s Reflections on Our Yearlong Blog Series Commemorating TPO’s 20th Birthday

December 17th, 2014
Written by: Dana Papke

Every December, I find myself reflecting on the year that’s passed, thinking about those standout moments that truly made it memorable. There were many of those moments this year, because 2014 was the year we celebrated TPO’s 20th birthday—an incredible milestone that has come with charms, challenges and a great many lessons learned.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that we’ve been marking this special birthday with TPO@20!, a yearlong, retrospective blog series. We conducted 12 in-depth interviews with several clients and partners, as well as our Founder and Chairperson, Karen Usher. When we started contacting these colleagues about the series, I didn’t know what to expect. Would they be willing to contribute their insights? Would they even remember 20 years back?   

Well, they all did, and the results of the interviews were insightful and engaging. TPO@20! is a collection of fun memories and sage perspectives on “how we’ve worked” over the past two decades, and what that means for the future.

Rather than being interviewed myself, I thought it would be useful to offer a summary of what we learned from these 12 interviews—what’s changed since 1994 (for better or for worse) and what vital principles have remained the same.

I hope you find these TPO@20! highlights as fascinating as I did.    

“Virtually” Everything Has Changed

We had a hunch that technology would be the most striking difference between then and now, and our interview subjects reminded us how quickly tech trends come and go. Our clients and partners amused us with their memories of gigantic laptop computers, slooowww dial-up Internet systems, and the bicycle messengers who were ubiquitous in 1994 (before documents went virtual). The shift to a mobile, 24×7 work environment has streamlined the way we do business. Said one TPO partner, “Great work can happen anywhere. You don’t have to be in the office to get results.”

“The Metrics for Success Are Always Changing”

Technology does have its downsides, and according to some of our interviewees, information overload has made it much harder to cut through the noise and distinguish work/life boundaries. “There is still too little time to do too many things,” explained one client. “So [people] tend to substitute working harder for working smarter.” Others discussed the need to keep up with what’s next. “The business matures, so you have new requirements, computerization and more accountability,” said the Chairman of another client. “You cannot sit still for a moment. You cannot stay the same…The metrics for success are always changing.”

“Big Problems Are Almost Always Resolved In Person”

It was refreshing to hear nearly all of our interviewees say that, in spite of our transformational technology shifts, people still need to come first. They consistently told us that relationships and face-to-face communication will always be fundamental to success. As one of our partners put it, “Building trust and playing well with others still matters—and always will.” We were even more thrilled that he used the same phrase in describing TPO: “They’re all about what matters: building trust and playing well with others.“

The Rise of “Passiontivity”

We were interested to hear perspectives on declining employee loyalty, particularly among Gen X and Millennial workers who no longer have defined employer benefits to incentivize them to stick around. These employees are quick to take their skills elsewhere and are “loyal to themselves,” so according to one long-time TPO partner, there is a need to put the humanity back in employment by melding productivity with passion (a.k.a. “passiontivity”).  “If only we asked what our employees want to do—imagine how much passion would be in the workforce,” she said.

“New Types of Leaders Can Ask Different Questions and See From Different Perspectives”

Several of our interview subjects talked about the new reality of leadership. Twenty years ago, it was about power, control and hierarchy. Today, leaders are more collaborative, open and transparent in their decision-making. Said one TPO client, “There’s much more collaboration, and less ‘It’s so because I say it’s so.’ But of course, ultimately someone has to make decisions, set the tone and set goals.”

HR Has Evolved—”Every Business Decision Is an HR Decision”

Descriptions of the 1994 HR department included “kind of wimpy,” “someone you talked to on your first day and last day on the job,” and “the nurse’s office—somewhere you could get a Band-Aid or fill out a form.” But thankfully, our interviewees said HR has shifted from being purely tactical to much more business-driven. “Now, HR is more strategic—it’s about what you’re doing to develop people in order to achieve the organization’s vision,” said one TPO partner. TPO’s own Consultants—whom we also surveyed for TPO@20!–agreed. They told us that HR is now a “strategic business partner helping to impact the business based upon its mission and goals,” and that today, “conversations with CEOs and Executive Directors start with the business impact of HR initiatives.” Given TPO’s uniquely business-centric approach to HR, hearing about this shift was not surprising—although it was still music to our ears.

TPO—”Not Just About Solving HR Problems”

We were gratified to hear what our partners and clients had to say about the value TPO’s consultants bring to the table. Whether we helped them professionalize their HR, systematize their onboarding process or take a more holistic view of their business, the clients and partners we polled said our work helped them reach their goals and achieve success. And that’s what keeps us going.

“The Ingredients of Successful People Have Not Changed”

While it’s easy to focus on the monumental changes that took place these past two decades, many interviewees addressed the things that haven’t changed. One client said, “The ingredients of successful people have not changed. They are passionate. They have high standards. They communicate very well and are disciplined.” TPO’s own Karen Usher may have put it best. “The fundamental elements remain constant in a positive way. People essentially want to help each other, to achieve things together—to do the right thing, to be part of success. That sense of the good side of humanity is stronger today than I’ve seen it in many years. So I’d say, while people of course do things differently today, and their lives are crammed with more stuff, their fundamental characteristics are the same.”

At TPO, we’ve made a business of tying those human fundamentals to business success, and it’s been one rewarding journey so far. Great thanks to our interviewees, and to all of our clients and colleagues for being a part of TPO@20!–and of course, to our fantastic Consultants–past and present–whose expertise and dedication makes a difference for our clients every day. I wish you all great success in the New Year, and I look forward to our continued collaboration as we navigate the next 20 years.


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