Leading the human resources function has never been more crucial and challenging. Global competitiveness, quick cycles of change, the economic reset, and an uneven and lethargic recovery has impacted the effectiveness of leaders, the engagement of employees, and the performance of businesses across industries and throughout the world.
So why are so many of us in the field of human resources still asking for the opportunity to contribute, to be valued, and to have our expertise both requested and acted upon? Are the leaders of the finance, accounting, or IT functions still wondering about their purpose, role, and identity as key contributors during these times?
We know our history and humble beginnings as the personnel administrators, keepers of records, processors of plans, and designers of programs and services – the maintainers and guardians of what happens during key events of the employee lifecycle. Many of us believed that if we only excelled at process and became efficient, we would earn the chance to be more strategic. Metrics became very important, so we either developed our own or borrowed from other functions. These measures helped us become operationally excellent at the various transactions that were ours to manage, including hiring, training, compensating, and eventually engaging.
However, the struggle for strategic impact continued. We complained about leaders “just not getting it,” as if the value of our field should have been apparent. Often it wasn’t! Even one of the most brilliant and successful business leaders of the late 20th century once told his HR folks that all he wanted from HR were three things: “Hire, fire, and keep the company out of court.”
There have been many failures and false starts; often human resource organizations have failed to gain credibility and partnership, while other HR departments have lost trustworthiness due to their inability to strategically and operationally contribute to the achievement of business and organizational strategy and performance. Still, other HR professionals seem to be relegated to playing at the tactical level of everyday policy and procedure. At the same time, some of us have wondered whether we are business partners or employee advocates, as if our calling can be only on one end or the other of that continuum.
While many still seem locked into what seems to be the HR function’s never-ending search for relevance, impact, and, in fact, an identity, more businesses and organizations understand, and are demanding, higher value and return from HR. The importance of human capital management and its link to high levels of employee engagement and customer satisfaction requires internal HR leaders and their organizations to forever move from the tactical and operational to becoming more strategic and business focused.
It’s not a simple ten step program to make this transition. It requires a strategic mindset, an approach to human resources that is derived from, aligned to, and integrated with the business. Educating leaders who may not know what to expect or have low expectations from HR are also part of successfully transforming HR. The ability to present and influence with a strong, evidence-based business case is also critical.
However, evidence is not just the numbers and the statistical year-to-year engagement comparisons. It’s also about bringing insight, judgment, and personal passion into the discussion. Even Wall Street analysts use less than scientifically pure algorithms in evaluating company leadership and in predicting financial results (you would be surprised!)
The first step is to either limit or eliminate insecurities about our identity and consider our history as prologue, not epilogue. Next, we need to view HR as an integrated force, rather than a separate group of siloed programs and activities. We must become expert at how the business makes and loses money, delights or disappoints customers, deals with suppliers, and is positioned against the competition and all of the resulting talent and organizational implications, challenges and opportunities. It’s being prepared to advocate for big bets, not risk reduction.
That’s the starting point. After all of that, if you still find that there is only sole demand for the tactical status quo at your company, it’s time to move on.
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