Thursday, November 7, 2013

Business Leadership as an HR Responsibility

The GM of an HR department lauded Dave Ulrich's HR model, and applied it, upon arriving in the company.  It was about HR partnering more closely with the business.  Specifically, there were four HR Operations Managers, and he assigned each one to a set of business units.  The main company was actually a holding group, so these business units were companies in their own right.

So what was the problem?

First, the HR Operations Managers were overburdened with the day-to-day tasks of serving their clients, that is, procedural, policy, and employee issues.  They hardly had time to engage in more strategic, business partnerships with them.  Second, they were not fully bought into this HR model.  The GM was strategic, even visionary, but neglected the people aspects of making the model happen.  Third, his expectation was that other HR functions, from Learning and Development and Performance Management, to Recruitment and Compensation and Benefits, would serve their clients' needs via those HR Operations Managers.

With nowhere near sufficient buy-in, this model created a bottleneck in serving the business units.  The HR Operations Managers didn't, or couldn't, follow through consistently with day-to-day HR contacts, never mind more major initiatives.  Those other HR functions took matters into their own hand, and liaised directly with the business units, and the business units in turn approached their favorite (i.e., most responsive) HR staff.  Unfortunately, the GM didn't help his cause in the least, when he himself turned to his favorite HR staff whom he could trust to get things done.

This was not a failure of the model per se, but a failure to adapt it for a particular company - its structure, headcount, and culture - and to manage people effectively.

This is just one case study on the challenges of HR's aspiration a partner to the business.

In this article, I will introduce a model I've developed and presented at a handful of conferences in the Middle East.  There was a buzz about this among attendees, and organizers were keen on my presenting on it when they invited me.  In a future article, I will expand on it further.

From "HR as Business Leader," by Ron Villejo, PhD
I described HR as having self-esteem issues.  Imagine entering an elevator, say, in a large office building.  It's often tight quarters inside, and people feel awkward being that close to one another and having any eye contact.  So we stand in a state of tension, making ourselves as small as possible, so as to avoid physical contact.  We bow our heads down, or at least cast our eyes down, so as to avoid looking at each other.

This, in a nutshell, is HR: awkward, small and tense, and downcast.

I conveyed the thesis of my talk, to the audience, by acting this elevator scene.  I then said that the aim for HR was this: I placed my hands on either side of my head, physically moved it from looking downcast to looking out: forward and confident.

The Evolution of HR has been a boon to the industry.  Companies know, by and large, that HR is not just a organization of tasks, policies, and documents.  It is very much a people-oriented function.  The good news in my case study is that the HR Operations Managers worked hard to build relationships with managers and staff at those business units.

The navigation between the two bottom triangles of my model is meant to be two-way.  That is, as HR understood the importance of relational, they also recognized the need to fulfill their tactical responsibilities.  In one company's case, that tactical remained so compelling that it prompted one colleague of mine to intone: Put the heart back into HR.  I added: Put the human back in Human Resources.

Needless to say, this navigation can be a challenging one.

Over the past decade or so, HR aspired to be more of a business partner.  Below is a slide from another presentation on this topic:

From "HR in the Business, for the Business, by the Business," by Ron Villejo, PhD
Being a business partner meant that HR earned a seat at the table.  In my case study, the GM of HR was very much a part of the CEO executive team.  This is a good thing, for sure.  Besides insuring buy-in, that HR leader must coach and mentor, train and develop, encourage and hold staff accountable to abide by such partnership model.  In effect, it isn't just the GM alone who has a seat at the table, but his entire staff does also.  Or at least should have.

In Becoming an HR Business Leader, I argued that while business partnership is indeed challenging, this simply was not enough for the HR organization and, even more importantly, was not enough for what the company as a whole needed in its HR organization.     

From "HR in the Business, for the Business, by the Business," by Ron Villejo, PhD
The majority of respondents expressed concern with the head of HR’s understanding of the overall business. Forty-two percent believe the head of HR is too focused on process and is not a “big picture” person, while 36 percent say he or she doesn’t understand the business well enough.
Reference: New Study Details C-Level Perceptions of Human Resources Executives in Western Europe.

This study by the Economic Intelligence Unit is telling, indeed.  Perhaps it's a matter of training and education, or interest and willing on the part of HR professionals.  Their background may be well-steeped in theory, practice and experience of their function.  Which again is well and good, and crucial.  But I wonder how much they're actually prompted, guided, and taught about business and business leadership.  This study suggests, not very much at all.

To their credit, the HR Operations Managers in my case study had really solid knowledge of their clientele's business.  Much of the rest of the staff in the HR department did not, however.  Schooling may certainly be required for them.  But it's best, I think, to tap the knowledge and resources within the company itself.  Staff across the enterprise can certainly talk about their products and services, their market and customers, the competitive landscape, trends and development, and key leaders and professionals in industry.

Again, I'll expand on these in a subsequent article, but for now, let me close with two final points: Business leadership is a responsibility for HR.  It must gain business acumen, plus exercise effective, confident leadership presence.  Not just at the table, but also throughout the enterprise.  

In addition, my triangle model suggests that these four components - tactical, relational, partner and leader - are all essential for HR organizations and leaders.  So the evolution is not akin to the kind of metamorphosis a butterfly undergoes, which prevents it from becoming a caterpillar again.  Rather, this evolution is more about expansion, extension, and growth.  Partner, in particular, is at the center of the model, because it represents the evolution and aspiration of HR.  Plus, partner is also at the basis of HR leadership.

January 18th 2014

Lead With Giants holds a Tweetchat every Monday at 7 PM (ET), and this coming Monday, January 20th 2014, I will co-host on this topic - HR as Business Leader.  Please join us!

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

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