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Should we Really Blow up HR? Resistance to Transformational Change
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Once again, Harvard Business Review takes on Human Resources. They want to blow it up. There are three spotlight articles on HR in the July-August issue, two by academics and one by HR’s friend, Ram Charan. Remember him?

I suppose all of this attention on the profession of HR is actually a good thing. At least it is placing attention on the single most important element for business success – the people.

Peter Capelli suggests that HR professionals cannot wait to be told what to do, because most business leaders are not experts on workplace issues. To say that is an understatement is like saying the Eiffel Tower is a playground structure. He advocates that HR be in front of key business issues that relate to people, providing executive leaders with business-focused proposals, backed by good research and evidence.

Okay, I can’t argue with any of that. He sets a three step process starting with HR setting the agenda, then acquiring business knowledge and finally highlighting financial benefits.  All good advice.

So, I get it, but how do I DO it?

Ram Charan proposes that CEOs rewrite the CHRO’s job description to position Human Resources as a member of the leadership triumvirate, along with the CEO and the CFO. (I’m trying not to be cynical about any CEO writing a job description.) Charan suggests including the Board when defining the role of the CHRO. If business leaders cannot define workplace issues, why would Board members do better? However, he postulates three key roles for HR: predicting outcomes, diagnosing problems and prescribing actions. Yep, good advice.

But how do I DO it?

So far, this is all academic and theoretical, but in the next article we have a terrific real-life story – how Juniper Networks completely revamped HR, written jointly by Steven Rice, the CHRO that effected the change, and HR guru John Boudreau. Cool, so now I’m going to learn how I DO it!

The premise of this transformational change is exceptional – stop chasing best practices, and build what makes sense for your organization. Like other successful organizations, Juniper’s leadership made a commitment to culture and values, and began an intense process to deeply understand what that meant to their current people and process.  They challenged the status quo by aligning their business to their values.

One line in this article stands out for me, “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”  Falling in love with the problem, they say, helps you avoid that “bright, shiny” solution that may or may not fit your problem. They no longer worship best practices, but instead take a research and learn approach to solving problems.

I love this! I’m getting closer to “how do I DO it,” but I’m not there quite yet. It seems Juniper engaged a herd of external resources to help them define this path. That’s great, if you can a.) find external resources that don’t come with already-designed solutions, and b.) afford to bring in these experts who can teach an organization how to define their problems and discover their own solutions.

Shucks. I’m back now to “what do I DO?” Let’s say I’m a CHRO in a small or mid-size organization with executive leaders who are fixated on easy, silver-bullet solutions they hear about at conferences. My executive team operates in silos, and only comes together to approve the budget once a year. My team is overwhelmed with fire-fighting, arguing with managers about discipline problems and chasing down work that managers are not doing in a timely or accurate manner. I’d love to have the budget to bring in Center for Creative Leadership, but I don’t. And I’m not sure my CEO sees my role as a strategic partner.

What can I DO? #repurposehr

If this describes you, you are not alone.  Advice from professionals like “learn the business,” and “measure results in business terms” is great, but overwhelming.  There is a way to position HR as a strategic business leader, but there need to be practical steps that anyone can follow.

Here’s a way to get started.

Start small and build your credibility

For your own sanity, recognize that this is a long journey, but like every long journey, it starts with a single step. It takes courage and thick skin, because you’ll bump into untold objects (or objections). You may not change the organization or its leaders, but you can influence and facilitate an honest interest in improving human performance.

As the business gurus say, you have to understand the business. I would add, you have to demonstrate and use your understanding of the business to actually achieve business results.

Start with good research. Review the financials at the organization and business unit level. Read up on the competitors for the organization and business units in trade publications. Look at your human resources data. Compare performance program results with business results.  Identify units that are missing targets. Look at customer feedback, and correlate that with employee engagement scores.

As you look at the data, think in terms of the business. Ask yourself this question: if we could make a small improvement in [insert metric] here, what improvement would that make to the business results. Now begin to make your case. You are going to invite the operational leader to partner with you to improve business results.

Zero in on the problem

Now that you have your data, you can create your problem statement. Before you can provide your new operational partner with a recommended solution, you and she must agree on the problem. You already have your hypothesis – if we could make a small improvement in [metric] here, I believe we could improve our [revenue, margin, productivity] significantly.  Back that up with your research.

It might look something like this:  After reviewing the business unit financials, the employee and customer satisfaction reports, business unit turnover and employee relations activity by business unit, you have identified a business unit where there may be opportunity.

  • In unit A, a production unit, you see increased turnover and decreased satisfaction scores in one particular department and note that the down trend began shortly after a new manager was promoted from within the department. Looking at the financials, you see that they are flat, but in two similar units the financials are growing. You recognize that the company is entering peak season when production teams are stretch thin to meet customer demand.

Your hypothesis, that the new manager may be struggling in the role, is simply a hypotheses, ready to be proven or not. Your expected business result is that the department will meet its business plan for the quarter.

Start with the end in mind

As Steven Covey says, “begin with the end in mind.” The improvement to the business results is the end and it is the only thing that will matter to the operational leader. She doesn’t care about turnover, compa-ratios or compliance with training mandates; she cares about either improving the top line or reducing the bottom line, or both, to boost business performance. Your job is to be a translator.

Make your case

Your invitation to her (your case) has to start with a bold statement that says, “I can help you improve your business’ performance.”  How this is received will be based on your relationship with the operational leader, and the existing reputation of HR.

Once you have her attention with a business outcome, provide your research, your hypothesis and a well-conceived proposed solution (or two) that you believe will help.

Be prepared for resistance or pushback by having a tight, well-developed analysis of the opportunity that you see. If all else fails, you can always use the old standby “what do you have to lose by trying my idea?”

Your proposed solution

The last thing your operational leader needs is “more work,” so your proposed solution must be realistic. The bigger the proposed outcome, the more the leader will be willing to invest.

In the example above, your proposed solution will focus on assessing and developing the new leader.  What a phenomenal opportunity to teach the operational leader coaching skills. Your elegantly simple solution is to:

Sit with the operational leader for 30 minutes, clarifying expectations of the new manager, and identifying 1-2 skills that will have the most impact on the business outcome, if improved. Use your initial research; satisfaction scores have decreased, so perhaps helping the new manager learn to coach for excellent service is a good place to start.

Provide a self-directed development plan that includes providing a coaching model and online resource (these are widely available on the internet at no to minimal cost) and providing the leader with a series of dialogue questions for her to use in weekly sessions with the manager, and beginning with a level set for expectations.

A plan to mutually (leader and manager) evaluate the progress within 90 days, which includes reviewing the business metrics and discussing progress.

Meet with the operational leader

Starting with your bold statement about business results, engage the operational leader in an efficient discussion about your analysis and hypothesis, and reach agreement on the problem. The ideal is to facilitate the discussion in such a way that the leader reaches a conclusion before you share your own. If they match, great. If not, you can explore the why.

Implement the development plan and measure the impact on the business results

This disciplined process may be difficult for the operational leader, so touch base frequently on a casual basis to see how you can help. At the 90 day mark, facilitate an open dialogue about the process and results.

What you are really doing

You are really teaching the operational leader to set goals, to coach and to provide feedback. But more than that, you are leading the achievement of business results.

As the process concludes, you can share with the operational leader how proud of her you are for the results achieved. You can also point out that the process you introduced is really the foundation of your organization’s performance management system. By continuing to coach and provide feedback, the operational leader is fulfilling the spirit of performance management.

My earlier caution about having a thick skin is worth mentioning again. For every win, you may face several failures. That is not a bad thing if you think through why your proposal failed, and learn from that. If it is simply that the operational leader just isn’t interested, don’t waste more time.  But your vision is to help drive business results, and you will win one, and that will propel your confidence.

Give it a try and let me know how it works.

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About The Author
Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson is a nationally recognized thought leader, author, speaker and consultant on aligning the workforce to business strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. Carol founded Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, to bring together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business - CEO’s, CFO’s and HR executives – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. She is the author of “Repurpose HR: Moving from cost center to business accelerator” published by the Society for Human Resource Management in June 2015 which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results. She can be reached at [email protected]

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