How many times we have seen HR adding significant value to mainstream business? Still, the talks at water coolers are generally HR related jokes. Some of them have good knowledge about the business but that is just not sufficient to earn the respect of business. Unfortunately, they are seen in action mainly on few occasions like retrenchment and employee strikes. Both top management and HR professionals themselves are to be blamed equally for the status HR has got in many organizations.
Therefore, what should HR do to command respect from the business (which however few of them receive in abundance)?
People first, everything else is second. As a first step, HR must be staffed by people with credible line function (like sales, production, project delivery, supply chain management) achievements who are subsequently trained on HR. They know the difficulty in achieving numbers and while managing their teams they would have done on the job “real” human resources development. (I have seen in a midsized IT company, a line manager shining as HR head but this kind of examples is unfortunately rare).
Once HR is staffed with line experienced executives, what should they do to command the respect of the business on a sustained basis?
Assignment model: Periodically, HR professionals should take up assignments in various functional areas on a full-time or part-time basis and could also specialize in a certain functional area through these assignments. This collaborative model would help them to get overall experience of the business and truly test cross pollination of ideas and subsequently prepare them for higher responsibilities.
I could quote an example from my own experience. During my earlier years, as a sales manager, I was reporting to head of sales and marketing of a particular business, in a highly profit making Indian diversified group employing around 15000 employees then. I used to always think that this assertive and intelligent sales head should have started his career as sales professional. To my surprise, later I understood that he had spent more than a decade of his initial career in HR and rose to the position of handling national HR responsibility, in his previous organizations. This demonstrates the possibility of how professionals, primarily from HR back ground, can shine in senior mainstream roles.
Interestingly in nationalized banks, majority of the middle and senior layers are rotated across major banking functions like Advances, Deposits, HR and Accounts in their career. Therefore, when some of these executives move into HR, they would already have gained experience in other functions. This practice is in vogue for decades in this part of corporate world. However, sadly this is not being widely followed in other industries.
Leadership bench: Whenever business wants to toss the views and brainstorm any major business challenge, HR leaders should become the first option. They should proactively don the role of internal consultants to business. They should aim to graduate to “Consulting” function from the present “Staff” function. Line experienced HR (LEHR) professionals can contribute directly to business by providing unbiased opinions on important decisions like new product launches and location of the new plant. In fact, they should be able to fill up any senior position in short notice, if required. HR should become the leadership bench for the entire organization.
In the above mentioned previous organization, I had an opportunity to gain the insights of a senior HR professional, on few strategic challenges. He could have definitely assumed a bigger cross functional role over time but for he leaving the organization prematurely.
Owning top managers: Battle-hardened LEHR should own the responsibility of top managers along with their line managers in terms of their development, rewards and advancement. One worthy example to look for is from the times of legendary Jack Welch (Fortune described him as “Perhaps the most admired CEO of his generation”). He and his HR head Bill Conaty in General Electric were personally responsible for 750 managers.
Succession planning: Even in many presently successful companies, this is not given its due importance may be because the KPIs for measuring the financial loss of not seriously undertaking this activity are not being followed up by top management. Therefore, this is a perfect area for LEHR to show their mettle and make differences to the organizations. Since they are common to all functions, there are fewer chances that they would have vested interests coming in their way while planning successions. The ability to judge and pick suitable persons comes to those experienced in its pursuit.
360 degree appraisal: In India, very few companies like Bank of America and some IT firms practice it in spirit. Many colleges and even schools undertake 360 degree appraisal of their teachers for long time but not corporates, ironically (T.A.Pai Institute of Management (TAPMI), Manipal, Karnataka has been evaluating their teaching team by their students as part of the appraisal system since early nineties).
Pushing matured practices like 360 degree appraisal and preparing ground for its execution would be another worthy challenge for new age LEHR, which would force many managers and leaders to perform better, apart from creating healthy working atmosphere.
Mentoring: Hindustan Unilever’s HR department has brought the practice of mentoring to its real meaning over the years and it is an important KPI for mentors across the company in their yearly appraisal. HUL’s senior HR executives have graduated to international HR roles unlike in many other Indian arms of MNCs. We can believe that LEHR would be able to execute this best practice than the traditional HR.
Appraisals: A large percentage of line managers struggle in doing balanced appraisals for reasons like lack of maturity and training, unfounded fear of attrition and personal bias. This is an ideal area where LEHR can be of immense helpful to business.
People decisions: This author had witnessed how HR had fumbled in taking action on a totally incompetent highly paid senior manager who was deteriorating the entire atmosphere of an important project in a health care multinational for more than two years, to quote a case. A matured LEHR would have definitely taken a quick action. The point is HR should be able identify bottom raters and have the guts to decide on them.
Playing umpires: Tensions between departments and seniors are common in corporate life. LEHR is ideally placed to resolve them because they are neutral and have rich cross functional experience.
Value promoter: Since HR is a horizontal, LEHR could play stellar role in supporting CEOs by promoting organization wide common goals like fostering the desired culture, bringing in meritocracy and so on, far better than traditional HR.
Recognizing HR: Key inputs for the appraisals of HR team should be from them with whom HR have worked in that year and top performers should be published to reiterate that HR is facilitating business. Asking for too much from HR? The organizations that truly believe in excellence can build these kind of HR teams and have them as competitive advantage in their armor.