In HR, nine out of 10 things are under your control but, business is driven by many factors that are not under your control
If you want to move to a line function take a staffing or line HR role after learning all aspects of HR because this is where you get maximum exposure to the business
The impact a decision has on a business or a company is instant and far reaching
About a year ago, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and into a business role. I had two reasons for wanting business exposure: Firstly, as a business leader I thought it was only fair to eat the medicine that I prescribe to other people. Secondly, it gave me more credibility among my peers.
The first thing that struck me was that there was a huge difference between actually running an organisation or driving profit and loss to simply looking at it or giving comments and feedback about it from the outside. In HR, we complain about having a lot of accountability without authority but I realised to my surprise that it is even worse in business. In HR, nine out of 10 things are under your control because your area of influence is within the company and within your own circle of authority. Business, on the other hand, is driven by customers, employees, markets, profitability etc - all of which are factors not under your direct control. It is really quite unnerving to have so many dimensions added to your role at one go.
The second thing that hit me was if I made a mistake in any decision I took or in any deal that I signed, I could tank my business unit for that quarter. Just one mistake can impact the stock price of my company – the consequences are instant. Not that there aren’t any consequences in HR, but those consequences take a little longer to play out and you’re not the only party involved in the decision-making. As a business head, the buck stops with you.
Whether I will continue in this business role or go back to HR, I don’t know - it’s very early and I am currently enjoying my business avatar. It is getting me to move a lot of “muscles” that I never used before. It’s like when you start weightlifting at the gym - your body starts hurting in places where you didn’t even think you had muscles! That is what is happening to me right now -- I am discovering a whole new set of strengths and weaknesses I didn’t know I had and I am enjoying it. As long as the learning process lasts, I want to keep experiencing it but whether I will continue with this or leave the HR role for good or take on something else is a decision I’d like to take with time.
This is not the first time that I am playing to my weaknesses. I have been constantly taking on changes at every stage and I think that helped. The most important part of taking on change is that it unnerves you. From being the teacher; you become the learner, from the smartest guy in the room, you go to being the guy who asks all the questions. A classic example of this position is when someone very confidently tells you something you don’t quite follow and you wonder if you should ask or just let it pass. They are constantly testing you. When it happened to me, I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to be shy so I went and said: I am new to the business, I don’t understand this, can you please explain it to me? I didn’t care what anyone else thought. And this really changed the equation. People realized that I was willing to ask questions and they were very supportive after that. Yes, I was initially very worried about whether people would really respect me, or if they would take me for a ride. But I think if you are upfront and just say “Hey listen, I am new to the business and I’d appreciate if you demystified it,” people will reach out to help you. I didn’t want to make a mistake for lack of information; for me, getting it right was more important than anything else. Being in HR, I was aware of my strengths and areas of improvement and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t falling victim to some of my blind spots.
I roped in our CFO, and asked him to be a part of all my discussions and deals, to work with me and ask me the questions. It did two things for me: One - it gave me a safe playing ground and two - my biggest critic became my biggest supporter. You can’t ask for a more competent and powerful ally than the CFO. I also enlisted past CEOs and friends and asked them for their guidance.
Initially, I used to look at things very differently. For instance, as we started transitioning new businesses, we won six new mandates. That was a indeed a big thing for us but I realised that winning the business was a piece of cake compared to transitioning the business and I was getting into trouble because while our clients were happy, I didn’t know if we were making the money that we were supposed to be making. So I sat down with one of my colleagues and asked him how to review business performance. He told me that I was looking at the project as a Gant chart; instead I needed to see the impact of a business decision on the customer, the P&L and the company. This meant I had to look at data very, very differently. The minute I started doing that, it immediately transformed my success rate and it wouldn’t have happened had I not asked him. Because when you are running the race, it becomes very important to have people outside, who aren’t part of the system but who care for you, support you and don’t judge you. That makes a big difference.
It was a little intimidating, because in a way you are actually putting your ignorance out in the open. But having been through the process, in hindsight I now realize that my hesitation to do it probably set me back by about 30-45 days. Had I done it sooner, I would have moved up to speed much quicker.
From HR to Business
I think HR is just as good or bad as any other function. The advantage that HR has is that they have a ringside view of the business - particularly the services industry, which is all about people. And since as HR you understand people really well, it works as a big advantage in your favour. Implementing change, communicating, having conversations – these are things which come to us relatively easily. The disadvantage that most HR people have is a limited understanding of numbers or exposure to business processes because that is not part of their role.
So for someone who wants to move to a line function, a good roadmap would be to spend their early years learning all the functions of HR and take a staffing or line HR role because those are the roles that give you maximum exposure to the business. Besides this, I would suggest that HR professionals spend some time understanding the domain and the business and not look at themselves as just HR professionals. For example in my company, we have designed a mandatory, non-HR external OJT programme for my HR leadership team. They are required to have different conversations and look at their actions and processes in terms of their impact on business and not just as check-in-the-box activities.
Finally, I would suggest making use of every opportunity to meet external clients because they give you a completely different perspective that equips you to become the ‘Business Smart’ professional.
Elango R., Executive Vice President, Emerging Geography SBU & Global CHRO, Mphasis
As told to People Matters. Excerpts from this interview were published in the June 2013 issue