Article: Rethink what's possible: What the CEO wants from HR

Strategic HR

Rethink what's possible: What the CEO wants from HR

Can the CEO and HR be allies in business transformation? R. Gopalakrishnan, author and CEO at The Mindworks, makes a case for this strategic partnership.
Rethink what's possible: What the CEO wants from HR

The HR function has an excellent opportunity to play an integral role in an organisation’s leadership and business strategy. The challenge, however, is that most CEOs don’t know how to use HR and most HR leaders don’t know how to be useful to the CEO. 

For the past 25 years, the business and talent leadership community has been trying to answer the question: "What does the CEO want from HR?" Yet we are no closer to finding the answer. 

The HR community is perpetually waiting to take on an instrumental role in business transformation, and CEOs are carrying on with what they want – at times shouldering additional responsibility themselves – and unaware of how to make the most of their HR team and leadership.

The challenge HR leaders face today

One factor to this stalemate is the advancement of technology which – despite all its amazing benefits and potential – is dehumanising us. It is making leaders and managers exclusively process-oriented and left-brained. This poses a challenge because our brains have been unable to keep pace with technological evolution. 

From the steam engine to combustion, from the telegram to digital software, the rate of technological development has been extremely relentless over the past two to three centuries. 

Our brain, however, continues to experience the world as it did ages ago. This lag between the advancement of resources and the ability of people to deal with change creates unfavourable conditions for business leaders, particularly HR. Both the CEO and the HR leader agree that this logjam must be removed, but no one knows how to do it.

The role of HR: transactional vs. transformational

Over the past decade, the world in general has been talking about transformation more than ever before. We have always been obsessed with advancement, but the conversation has evolved due to the constantly changing nature of the tools we possess. Focus has primarily been on re-engineering the human mind to keep pace with changes in how the world works.

But if you have to re-engineer the collective psyche of the workforce – to change how they view work – who do you turn to? 

The role of the human engineer must be played by HR but, to do that, they need to stop being a transaction manager. Young HR leaders, fresh out of college, learn about payroll, benefits, and engagement without truly understanding their impact. As they become senior leaders, they design and implement unpopular company policies because they are used to working transactionally. Therein lies the biggest challenge, as most HR leaders have become transaction managers who complete tasks and have forgotten how to be transformational leaders who can think of possibilities and change.

To understand this better, think of what a geologist and an astronomer would do if they visited the moon. The geologist might start digging and analysing what’s inside the land and soil, whereas the astronomer would look above and try to figure out the location of other objects and the bigger picture they are part of. 

This difference in perspective between the two individuals – despite being in the same place – sums up the conundrum of the HR fraternity. We need HR leaders and professionals to balance their act of being a geologist and astronomer; that is, to look within and outside equally.

5 lessons for CEOs and HR leaders to work with each other more effectively

The basis of any successful professional relationship is SCULPT (Socialisation, Communication, Understanding, Patience, and Trust). Thus, business leaders should apply the fundamental principles of relationship-building to work together effectively. 

Here are five lessons that can help them get started:

Recruit your HR chief and make them an ally

CEOs need a human engineer or HR chief who can help them find the right people and keep them motivated to run the organisation successfully. Hire the HR chief and make them an ally on the very first day. Treat them as a partner and give them respect and time.

Push yourself to talk to the least powerful people in the company

It is natural for CEOs and HR leaders to interact and hold meetings with other leaders and peers, but it is crucial to break that mould and also talk to the least influential people for more comprehensive and more accurate insights. You might come back with lessons you hadn't realised before.

Open channels for communication – both formal and informal

As important as formal channels of communication are, it is the informal ones that bring more value. CEOs tend to be short-sighted as they are constrained by budgets, reviews, results, and meetings, and they may lose touch when it comes to listening to others. It's important to keep breaking down communication barriers, especially on matters where the CEO and HR leader might disagree.

Use constructive energy to stimulate organisational change

Channel any criticism into productive energy and ask your human engineer about a better way to do things. HR chiefs should be courageous and not mere instruments that provide validation with a "yes sir / yes ma'am" attitude.

Communicate both ways and ensure it’s a two-way street

Think of the CEO as driving a racing car, skidding tires and hitting the accelerator, and the HR as the soft brake. Both are essential to enjoying the ride and ensuring safety. Make sure that you and your HR chief can communicate freely, without reservation, and as peers.

HR and the future 

As we step into the future, we must keep in mind the effects of technology on business, management, and leadership. Empathy becomes the cornerstone of how leaders should behave in such a situation. 

The integration of technology in HR functions has made its role even more popular. It is the responsibility of human engineers in the business world to recognise the challenge and ensure that empathy and compassion are central to leadership. 

We are all capable of being empathetic. But if HR can help business leaders and professionals become even more open and communicative in their conduct, perspective and actions, then our future will be much brighter.

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Topics: Strategic HR, #TechHRIN

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