19 Nov. 2012 | Comments (3)

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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  • About the Author: Steve Steckler

    Steve Steckler

    Steve Steckler is currently Head of Transformation Management and Corporate HR M&A Integration at Merck, KGaA, the world’s oldest chemicals and pharmaceuticals company, headquartered in Germ…

    Full Bio | More from Steve Steckler


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  1. Mary Carvour 0 people like this 26 Nov. 2012 03:15 PM

    Great observations, Steve. I shared the link with my HR team. I’m lucky to have a pretty evolved C-level team here that gets the strategic value of HR more than most. Although we’ve been generally successful establishing a progressive HR practice, some of these perceptions are pretty deeply ingrained and something we have to constantly push back against.

    My personal belief is that it is partly a failure on the part of many in our profession to move beyond the strictly tactical. I know this because I use an essay question to screen HR job candidates that asks them to write about what they believe the most critical components of the HR function to be. The bulk of respondents believe it is policy and governance; a much smaller number key into the strategic.

    The other “elephant in the room” in my opinion is that the profession is dominated by women, and some of the dismissive attitude sometimes found among senior leadership in companies stems from lingering perceptions about women’s business acumen. I know I’ve encountered this and hear it from my strategically-oriented peers as well.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Steve.

  2. Miles Overholt 0 people like this 26 Nov. 2012 08:53 PM

    As Steve correctly points out, earning a seat at the table requires an extensive knowledge of the business and a clear understanding of how HR professionals can strategically contribute to their company’s success. As we know from a great deal of research, HR professionals sitting at the table is not a common phenomenon. Gaining a seat at the table is not a simple ten step program, it is a professional lifetime of learning.

  3. Don O'Grady 0 people like this 10 Dec. 2012 05:09 PM

    Steve, very nice article on a issue that never seems to go away.

    My views:

    • Many execs don’t purposefully exclude us. They just don’t have experience with a value added HR function and therefore don’t think of us in that light.
    • Getting to the table starts with delivering the basics. Meet your commitments, add extra value on everything you do. Return emails and phone calls right away.
    • You will never be viewed as a strategic partner if the basics are not delivered on time, with quality and something the business needs and wants.
    • Look for the opportunities to add value. Volunteer to be a part of something important to them.
    • Align your goals to the business
    • Use metrics and show measurable results with the things you are working on.
    • Speak their language
    • Be a good facilitator. It’s a great way to be involved.
    • Speak up. Have a voice
    • Develop yourself. Continually add skills to your tool kit.
    • They really want and need our help. But you have to show the way.

    I first received the “be strategic” speech 20 years ago at GE. Yes it’s been that long. I did not understand what it met then but over time developed my own skill set. Unfortunately as a profession we are still talking about it today. But once you have broken that barrier with a senior line executive you never go back.

    Lets keep the discussion going.