Human Resources is a challenging profession in today’s world – wars for talent are being fought in the same arena as the wars over people productivity. On the one hand, employers want to attract, develop and retain talent and on the other get employees to do much more with much less resources and also keep their people costs strictly in control. In such times, HR professionals are expected to lead the charge and shoulder a big burden of responsibility in these near simultaneous wars. Therefore, it is important for HR professionals to have sets of experiences that “round them off” and better prepare them for today and the future. One such critical experience in my view, is for them to be doing at some point in the careers – a direct business contributing job – a “line” role . I say this because of events in my own working life. In late 2009 I found myself in a situation where I had to make a big career decision - after 12 years as a hard core HR practitioner I was tasked to move to a line position - an operating job in my organisation where the role demanded being directly responsible for a large set of outsourced processes run out of India for a US-based client.
Since I was certain that my final career destination was HR leadership, I did not know what to make of the opportunity – would this risk be worth the reward or will I lose out to my peers during the time I will be in operations? My year-and-a-half long stint on this “other career track” ended quite some time ago and I have my answer – it was so worth it! Apart from the confidence gain any out-of-comfort zone experience gives, what truly amazes me is how much I learnt about my own field (HR) during that time.
The intent of this article is to share with my fellow HR professionals the learning that came my way by walking in the thorny shoes of line (operating) managers whose job it is to get things done. With benefit of time and some reflection these learnings have crystallised as follows:
- The basic principles of people management are transferable to most jobs
I was anxious that a line role would expose me and my failings on domain. The only weapon in my arsenal was my experience of managing and influencing people. Since my new job was in essence about getting results through people whom I led directly, I crystallised what I thought were the bare essentials of effective performance management – set goals for people, spend time in coaching them, have regular formal reviews of their performance and reward them commensurate to it. I went forward on the hypothesis that this simple and elegant principle will work in almost all settings and be job agnostic. Over a period of time to my delight, the hypothesis proved itself true. In my case, the seasoned and senior people of the team who were skeptical of my lack of domain knowledge really appreciated the fact that their supervisor was serious in taking out formal time for them to not only set identifiable goals for them but also regularly coach and review their work in a non-threatening manner. I often wonder how many new leaders are aware consciously about these “basics” and what benefit would result in the confidence levels of aspiring leaders if they were given assurance that these people principles will work irrespective of settings.
- HR needs to play in more areas - not less
The function needs to expand into areas where it is not playing now - HR managers tend to be focused on broad-based generic inputs catering to the largest possible population with similar menus e.g – generic training of large groups of middle or lower level employees. More time and energy is spent on homogenizing inputs for foot soldiers than on customizing learning for generals. While the former is good to do, it is mostly the actions, decisions and learning agility of generals that have a bigger impact on outcomes. There is in my view a huge scope for HR actions to be individualised and focused.
Going back to my personal example: I was going to do a senior line role (for the first time) with large ramifications for the business. I had in me a strong desire to be coached and guided for the new role and that was when I needed HR to guide me to effectively position myself in the crucial first 90 days but there was no institutional arrangement for such. It strikes me as strange that despite a huge unsatisfied hunger for coaching and feedback at senior levels, there is so little of it. In fact, wherever it exists the pyramid of feedback is inverted. Those people who can have the maximum impact on business and on many other people receive the least handholding and feedback from the HR function. HR practitioners can and should take it upon themselves to volunteer their services to coach and guide line managers of all disciplines through job transitions of every nature in a focused and perhaps individual manner based on discussed needs.
- HR needs to focus more on alleviating the pain and not implementing the process :
HR gets sidelined faster and not involved in major decisions if there is no disproportionate amount of value coming from them. I have frequently heard HR people accuse business of using them as paper pushers and to rubber stamp decisions. In some cases, this does happen but in quite a few other cases HR needs to first reflect on why they were not involved right at the beginning...did their line partners think that work would happen faster without them or did they think that HR is unaware of the context of the issue and hence would not be able to contribute or did they just not feel that their perspective would add value and richness to the solution... an honest reflection and an answer to these questions will be helpful to HR managers to understand where and what they need to improve upon.
In my line role experience, I did feel that HR did not “get” what the business context was and just did not feel the pain that I had. Whereas I was focused on the end result, I found they were focused on implementing a set “fair to all and agreed by all” process that had neat little metrics that meant nothing to me. There is scope for HR professionals to just sit down with their line managers they have to influence and just ask them what are the issues that pain them and what they need solutions for, which are the critical issues that if overcome will have the greatest impact on their business .... this sounds simple and quite a few of the superior HR professionals I know do this ... but many don't. I would encourage even those who do ask this question to ask it on a more regular enough basis.
- Helping forge the vision
Organisations to varying degrees are political systems consisting of people - individuals and in groups – who are keen to see their interests satisfied. When I took over my new role, I was struck by how many groups and coteries existed within the people I managed and how they had hardened attitudes towards “other” groups. Everybody had worked with each other for a prolonged period of time and had chosen one camp or the other depending on their affinities or interests.
Over a period of time, I realised that the best way to keep bickering and politics aside is for the leader to give that “vision thing” – have that one touchstone, one big goal which he gives his full attention to and measures everyone against. This I realised gives a heightened transparency to performance and reward management, which is the big bone of contention among people. A fair and predictable workplace environment usually reduces infighting and almost always a common goal and a visible external competitor usually channels the energies of the team in a way beneficial and less stressful to all - this, to the best of my experience is true for small teams and truer for larger teams. Human resource leaders have a moral obligation to reduce turfism and help in creating a productive workplace - they can do this effectively if they assist their line managers ( whatever level they may be ) in forging a vision or even an engaging enough big goal for their areas of responsibility.
- Creating an environment where it is ok to ask plain and simple questions in a non threatening way :
Most people in operations (and everywhere else) who have either been in their jobs or organizations for long have not tested their assumptions and after a period of time they tend to get frozen in their minds - the “thaw” occurs when those deeply held beliefs are brought out in the open and debated in an environment that encourages it.
As a new incumbent I learnt that if you are not afraid to ask why and ask it again and again everybody learns and not just the newest guy in the room. The prime determinant of this culture of questioning assumptions is the attitude of the leader and the encouragement he provides to others to ask fundamental questions. That being said there is also a role here for HR to act as conscious keeper and helping the business leader to be aware of how his actions contribute or take away from this culture. Creating a productive, engaging and open workplace is an HR responsibility and it is a tough daily job where preventing decisions that hurt this environment are as important as taking the good ones that promote it.
The five learnings summarised above capture my outside in view that I was fortunate to see. In conclusion, I do say with great pride that I have over the years seen the HR function really evolve in India and gain serious importance in the eyes of line managers at all levels. Perhaps more heartening is the fact that I now see more people of calibre and skill wishing to make a career in this function. These are welcome developments for the HR profession - maybe practitioners now need to take the next leap by climbing out of their functional wells and jumping on the choppy deep sea’s of mainstream operations.