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Stop Using the Term (or even thinking it’s an) ” HR Program ”
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Talking recently with an HR colleague who mentioned that she was met with resistance when introducing an “HR initiative.” Yep. Been there, done that.

You’re fighting a losing battle if you propose an “ HR Program ” to your customer, without their having asked you for a solution. And if you have not taken the time to fully vet the problem that they think they have, you may be doing them more harm than good.

Step back for a moment and ask yourself these questions?

How often do I have to go out collecting information from managers well after the deadline has passed?

Something like this….the deadline for completed performance reviews was June 30, and in August you are still chasing down recalcitrant managers to get them to comply.

How many times have I had to tell a manager that they cannot terminate an employee because they haven’t followed the progressive discipline process?

You know – they show up in your office and rant about an employee that “just isn’t getting it” and has to go, yet they have no history of trying to help the employee succeed.

How often do managers back out of a commitment to attend manager training at the last minute, leaving me to chase them down once again since I need to prove they have attended?

You know those training programs that require attendance, yet six months after launch you’re still cajoling those few managers left?  [Folks in California, this should particularly resonate with you.]

How often have I prepared a script for managers to communicate important information because I don’t trust that they will convey the message appropriately on their own?

Communication of important organizational information is a crucial responsibility of managers, but so often they either don’t do it, or don’t do it well.

How many times have I had to put my foot down with managers who want to upgrade a job to a salary grade that pays more?

Back in my Comp Analyst days, I swore the only time a job description came out of the drawer was when the manager wanted more money for an employee, but the market didn’t support the move so we were in perpetual conflict.

How well do my managers fulfill the spirit and intent of the action planning after the annual survey results are presented?

The purpose of the survey is to measure engagement, and the purpose of the action planning is to actually improve it. If managers spend more time trying to figure out who said what, then on self-reflection and honest dialogue, you may as well stop spending the money on the survey because things won’t improve.

Each of these programs, from performance management to the employee survey, have historically been HR programs. This means that HR conceived of the need, designed and implemented the program, and is now responsible for the results.

Is that where responsibility should lie?

Here is a bold statement: if managers were effective leaders, there would be no need for HR, or HR programs.

Follow my thinking here….if that statement is true, then it gives a reason for HR and HR programs – to fashion a process and accountability structure to ensure that managers lead effectively.

Okay so far?

That means that the accountability for effective execution lies with the manager, not HR.  HR creates the framework for effective leadership, and leaders are accountable for the results.

We have been derailed somewhat!

That’s often not how it works. Certainly there are those leaders who get it, want it and know how to do it. But those that resist cause HR to be perpetually chasing them down for to comply with the “HR program” shifting the accountability from leadership to HR.

This is accountability wrongly placed. The accountability for effective leadership must be with the leaders. HR would be well served to focus on building the accountability structure, rather than the program. If the accountability structure generates a commitment on the part of leadership, the program actually designs itself.

How can we shift the accountability back where it belongs?

There is a way to engage leaders in helping HR to build the accountability structure, but first, there has to be a real, tangible business problem to solve.

Why would a leader who is already completely overwhelmed with work elect to spend time on HR programs? Because the work solves a business problem, or cashes in on a business opportunity and they have made the decision to own the solution.

Here is a seven step process that HR can use to shift the accountability back where it belongs.

Do your research 

Look at business results: revenue, expense, margins, market share – whatever is meaningful to the business if it can be improved.

Correlate that to your HR data.  Is turnover high? What would happen if turnover slowed? What financial impact would that make?  Is that financial impact sufficient to get the attention of the business leaders?

Lead with the business problem or opportunity

Separate the problem/opportunity identification from the solution you have in your mind. You might be very clear what needs to happen, but keep that to yourself until you have agreement on the problem or opportunity from the business leaders.

Your initial premise to the business leaders is that there is a need to improve [revenue, margin, expense, market share], and you believe that you have a hypothesis on what can help to improve.  Your hypothesis only identifies the behaviors that your research tells you that is holding the organization back. It could be that leaders are too busy, that the span and scope of their teams is too large, or that leaders have never been held accountable for the performance of their teams, as evidenced by the highly inflated ratings on the performance management system.

Facilitate the discussion to gain at least tentative agreement on the problem or opportunity, and the 1-2 behaviors that you believe can have a positive impact if improved.

Develop your proposal

Create an outline of the process or program that you believe can solve the problem or grab the opportunity. Your proposal is not a full blown program, it is merely an outline. In the outline, you describe:

  1. The business outcome that you believe is achievable
  2. A high level description of how the process can work
  3. The accountability that leaders must accept in order for the outcome to be achieved
  4. The contribution of HR, which includes measurement but not accountability for effectiveness

You then facilitate a dialogue with your business leaders about the proposal, focusing on how they will hold themselves accountable for the outcome, and what they want from you in terms of feedback on their execution of the program.

Here’s the critical piece: get their agreement to be accountable for the results.

Be prepared to walk away

If you have identified a valid business problem or opportunity, you have cleared the first hurdle – you have their attention. If, in the dialogue, they resist assuming the accountability, ask them who should assume accountability. If fingers point to you, it is your opportunity to explain the difference between measuring [keeping the numbers and sharing them with leaders] and real accountability [being the ones who keep the intent and spirit of the program in order to achieve the business result.]

If they cannot get that, step back and rethink your approach. Perhaps there is one business unit that gets it, will take the charge, and can be the champion. When the results are achieved, it sends a very powerful message to the others.

Perhaps it is a heart-to-heart with the CEO. Sometimes a one-on-one conversation can be more focused, and you can coach the CEO on his sponsorship. It may be a lobbying effort with the CFO, who can help you build a stronger business case for change.

Don’t push a program that the business doesn’t want.

Keep it simple

After you have agreement on the part of the executive leadership, design the program at bare bones – just enough to draw a very clear line between the behaviors you are trying to change, and the business results.  The program might be a learning program, a performance management program, a compensation structure, a pulse survey, a new recruitment process, or any other program that could be dubbed an “HR program.”

Don’t go for bells and whistles at the beginning. Create a desire on the part of executive leadership to see the results of their program and let them want more. The results come in the form of accurate and timely business intelligence, and a dialogue about what the numbers mean.

If all their questions are not answered by the simple solution, then it’s time to propose the add-on.

It has to be their decision and their accountability

The minute you allow them to push the decision on you, you have assumed the accountability and the risk and you’re back in HR police mode.

At the same time, you now have permission to observe and feedback where you see the behavior straying from what was agreed to. As you feed those observations back, the question becomes “How do you [the leaders] feel about this result, and what do you want to do differently?”

Evaluate the results

If you have defined the problem or opportunity well, the measurements are easy. Did the solution solve the problem, or capture the opportunity?

If the answer is yes, make sure you are clear on why, and that the result was actually due to the behavior change and not a serendipitous windfall. You are looking for continuous improvement and repeatable process. Success must be intentional and recognized as such.

If the answer is no, that does not mean it was a bad solution. It means there is still work to do. Use the timely and accurate business intelligence to formulate your hypothesis, and facilitate that dialogue with the leaders. Allow them to draw conclusions, and if it means they don’t want to continue the program, that is their decision, not yours. But clearly explain the risk.

It’s about commitment, not compliance

We, in HR, have played the “compliance card” too frequently, but there is a good reason. Our profession is highly complex and overly regulated.  Even we have lost sight of the very purpose that “HR programs” have, and that doesn’t serve us well.

By going back to the fundamental “why” with the why being improvement of business results, we can shift the burden back where it belongs – with the operational leaders of the organization.

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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 carol@andersonperformancepartners.com.

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