You might think that the corporate human resources function doesn't have much of a role in improving business processes, such as product development, operations, customer service, or distribution. But I've found that it does. HR can propel or inhibit process improvement because it has an outsized influence on people: how they are recruited, rewarded, and developed. In organizations like IBM, Lowe's, and Harvard Vanguard where HR has accelerated change, it has emerged from its compliance and administrative focus to make bold changes in spite of regulations, bureaucratic entanglements, and other barriers.
As I explained in my last post, IBM's corporate HR function was instrumental in the company's strategy of standardizing and integrating processes globally. It developed "Global Enablement Teams" that brought marketing experts from mature IBM country units to help IBM businesses in developing countries. In a post about Lowes, the $49 billion home improvement retailer, I described how Cedric Coco, senior vice president of learning and organizational effectiveness, quickly united his group with the firm's internal performance improvement team when he joined in 2008. And I also described how HR at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, a large Boston-area physician group, has changed how they recruit, orient, reward, and develop people to fit with their "care improvement" activities.
Why has HR become instrumental to the success of IBM, Lowe's, and Harvard Vanguard? It starts at the top. All three companies have tough, business-savvy, and politically astute HR chiefs who are a vital partner to the CEO. They lead by force of personality, credibility, bold thinking, strong conviction and a sense of mission. In addition, they possess two key traits:
Deep operational experience. HR tasks such as benefits administration and recruiting require specialists. But these specialists often have difficulty describing their services in terms that resonate with line managers. In contrast, Coco joined Lowe's HR function after a career that included process improvement and "Black Belt" experience at GE. Scott Beaird, director of talent management at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and also a "Black Belt," had a background in process improvement at Cigna and Fidelity Investments. Coco and Beaird relish talking operations with line managers. Both have the credibility to challenge them on whether they are improving the attitudes and skills of their people at the same time they're redesigning their jobs. Coco and Beaird also work intensively with customers and customer-facing teams to make sure their organization gets the "people" part of process improvement right.
Selflessness. The typical leader of a process improvement initiative is someone who has been appointed to drive actions and direct others, has high visibility and the power to deliver results, and wants to be recognized. But HR leaders must play a more subtle role in change efforts. By taking actions obviously in the best interests of the company, especially advocating for employee development and engagement, the head of HR can earn credibility and respect. And to be seen as an effective team player, HR has to be flexible on its role in policy enforcement, modifying HR policies to achieve enterprise objectives. The HR leader must be seen as focusing first on serving others.
Consider Lily Benjamin, former vice president of organization development and chief diversity officer at Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc., a $2 billion company whose 6,000 employees manage and dispense communications related to securities transactions (e.g., proxy statements for shareholders). While Benjamin and Broadridge have won several awards for their activities, Benjamin consistently deflects any personal credit for their accomplishments. "I develop people and the culture to support the accomplishment of business goals," she told me last year when she worked there. "But I don't do it alone; my approach is to partner and collaborate. It is very important to me that my team gets the recognition. Without them and their collective intelligence, the breadth and reach of my contribution would be limited. Hence my biggest reward is to attribute the success to my team, even if I am the accountable leader."
Operational experience and selflessness appear to be traits of growing importance for HR heads at many companies. A major beverage company hired a new HR chief because she had these characteristics, said Sharol Henry, a consultant who helped the company redesign its business and HR processes. "They picked someone out of left field — someone with no HR background. The new HR leader was an outsider, yet had to build new capabilities and behaviors for leaders throughout the company and on transforming HR processes." In addition to experience in making big and lasting changes, the top criterion was "service to others — not to self."
Question: What characteristics have you seen to be critical for HR chiefs who have played big and beneficial roles in organizational process improvement?
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/25/2012.