There is no more important responsibility than to develop HR leaders who can impact the business
HRs response to building the skill of strategic business partnering has been a decidedly a mixed bag for quite some time now even though it clearly has a seat at the table
I have been a HR practitioner for over 35 years and have held senior executive positions at P&G, Walt Disney, Kellogg, Scripps Networks Interactive and NXP Semiconductors. Through these experiences and my own consulting practice across a variety of industry sectors, I have been struck by the HR function’s propensity to torment itself into constantly questioning its purpose, its role and responsibilities. One needs to only glance back a decade ago when the Fast Company article titled “Why We Hate HR” triggered self-examination (and misguided self-loathing in some quarters) regarding what the HR function was truly responsible for. In fact, there is quite a large cottage industry that has been developed to “Fix HR”. It seems there isn’t a day that goes by when there isn’t a new buzzword (the most unfortunate one being ‘Human Capital’) or a prescription for curing the ills of HR.
Every CEO I have worked for and now those I consult with, struggle with the role of HR and have very different aspirations for the function. Some describe it as “building a world class HR function” (whatever that is). Others want it to be “low cost but effective” while a few others would rather have it out of sight and out of mind or “please just keep the trains running on time, thank you very much”.
There have been seismic trends concerning the political, social and economic effects of globalization buffeting companies that are exceedingly difficult to predict: the fraying of the employer-employee relationship, disaggregation of organizations designed more for efficiency, leveraging tax havens and cost management. This has resulted in correspondingly record low engagement and satisfaction indexes and slower responses to the dramatic changes in workforce composition and expectations. At the same time, Chief Executives have never been under greater pressure to perform with the average tenure in role now less than four years. It is a tough business world out there with pressing business issues to anticipate and solve.
HR in its own way has been trying to cope as well – with varying degrees of success – by designing its organization where non-core activities are outsourced and non-value add costs are ruthlessly driven out. What is left in HR is generally that of strategic HR business partner. This is more or less a fact. However, the HR response to building the skill of “strategic business partnering” has been a decidedly a mixed bag for quite some time now even though it clearly has a “seat at the table”.
So what to do?
As I reflect on three decades of experience thus far, I firmly believe that HR contribution should be directed at three major activities:
- Assisting in the development of strategy choices that create clarity and a source of meaning and motivation
- Designing organizations that are open, agile and responsive to the marketplace.
- Developing the talent base in a manner that unleashes human capability and potential to its fullest.
From my perspective, one can do the following things within the company to assist in the development of business-focused HR people who will be seen as an important and credible source of wisdom, perspective and impact:
Attract top talent. Keep standards high. Get personally involved. Make it a priority. Contrary to conventional wisdom, not everyone can be an effective HR leader. Key success criteria should center on business acumen, leadership and influence, demonstrated ability to get things done and having an “edge”. The “edge” means having the perspective and courage to ask tough questions, willingness to confront and hold up the reflective mirror when needed and taking contrarian points of view that help to sharpen thinking and implementation plans. My favorite interview questions center on strategy such as “pretend for a moment that you are a consultant from McKinsey, Bain or Boston Consulting, three well known and very good consulting houses. Give me a SWAT analysis on our company” or “what did you read in the Wall Street this morning or the Financial Times?” Given our strategic choices, what do you think the HR priorities might be?
Early starting assignments in the business. Young HR people should ideally start in a line role or have line experience within their first 3-5 years that teach the fundamentals of the business. Overspecialization is a career killer and a “glass ceiling” for many HR professionals.
Rotate line leaders into HR for broadening assignments. Broadening or ‘stretch’ assignments help develop much needed organization effectiveness skills for line managers. For the HR function, the insertion of those from the business increases the business acumen of the total group. People take notice, conversations change, and the standards for excellence increase.
From a career development perspective, encourage people to understand their company’s specific value chain of activities. Demand that people understand how the business makes money. Help your people understand how the parts fit together to form the whole. How does a sales forecast impact manufacturing? How does inventory impact the profit and loss statement? How does Marketing influence R&D?
Bring the outside world inside. There are several ways to do this. At Walt Disney, the company encouraged training as a Park employee (cast member) to truly understand the importance of the customer (guest) experience. At Kellogg, we had HR people shop with low-income consumers to get in touch with their lives and hard choices they make on purchase decisions. At NXP, it was bringing Tesla on site to showcase the autonomous drive technologies of the future. The point here is that there is an endless number of ways to get your HR organization in touch with the macro external environment.
Limit access to various HR accreditation institutes until internal methods of developing your function are exhausted (hint: they never are). When I led HR functions, I was frequently asked to a sponsor people at external events for the purposes of external HR accreditation. I resisted doing this until the HR team had demonstrated their mastery of the business by, for example, spending time on the off-shifts in manufacturing, deepening their understanding of the realities of the workplace or training at the advertising agency about brand equity and good consumer reach vehicles or walking the aisles routinely with the sales people to understand the retail environment, competitive activity, shelving, pricing, off take etc. etc.
Learning the business IS fundamental and can be creatively done within your four walls and represents a much better investment of time and energy for your company and your HR organization.
There is only one strategy and that is the business strategy. Everything else is a functional work planning to support the business.
Be choiceful and clear on your functional work plan. It should be simple, clear and sustaining. If you have done a good job at matching it up with the business strategy, it should not change appreciably from year to year.
Deploy your functional work plan to the individual level in a manner that creates both clarity and provides motivation. People want to know how what they do creates value in the business. It is your role to make that connection hard and fast.
Use simple metrics. A few go a long way. Too many confuse. I suggest being very wary of the predictive analytical merchants of “Big HR Data”, HR Blackboards”, “HR Dashboards” etc. Measurement IS important. Over-measuring creates its own sets of problems by often valuing troves of data over informed judgment, experience and wisdom. Many companies have stumbled terribly in succession planning by thinking that a science-based approach alone can drive effective decision-making about succession planning.
Be pragmatic and teach your people to operate this way. Continually ask “how does this drive value? Can it be done in a simpler yet just as effective way?” This is not to say sloppy thinking or cutting corners is encouraged. Though it does underscore the actions you would take if you were actually a sole proprietor counting money at the cash register at the end of each workday.
Champion those that get “it” and prune out those that do not. Simply put, one of the key leadership roles is to highlight, profile and encourage those that are close to the business and protect them from the forces elsewhere in HR that can often be quite negative. Strategic HR business partners who are an absolutely integral part of the business (and affiliate as such with the business rather than the HR function) will be judged in two ways: In well-led HR organizations, this is compliment. In poorly run organizations, it is a critique and often framed as a performance issue.
I have been fortunate to have terrific business partners working with me over the course of my career. Will Hogg, who now heads up a successful consulting practice in Europe, Keith Lawrence, a successful consultant and author, NJ Pesci who heads up HR at Scripps Networks Interactive, Giovanni Giordano, who is CHRO at BAT, Cath Bailey, Senior Director for Talent Development at Kellogg, Dominic DiCosimo at Walt Disney (now SVP at Apple) and Chris Jensen, SVP at Freescale quickly come to mind. There are many others. Each of these leaders distinguished themselves by being thoroughly versed in the business and used that ability to lead significant and sustainable change in their organizations.
Which leads me to my final thoughts: There is no more important responsibility than to develop HR leaders who can impact the business. This assertion is not new. Moreover, the need for developing better partnering skills has never been more apparent and needed. I would suggest more effort is put against this rather than worrying about the next “HR Transformation”. It represents a fabulous opportunity for HR leaders to step forward. The function will be better for it and so will your business.
Meet Dennis Schuler at TechHR 2016