A little over three decades ago as a young undergraduate I made a decision to pursue a career in what at that time was called Personnel Management. Unlike many of my peers it was a cognitive decision. I believed that there was something fundamentally flawed in how we viewed the relationship between employers and employed.
Candidly my academic advisors weren’t terribly supportive. They encouraged me to have a backup plan in case I wasn’t able to find meaningful employment. I took their advice and dual specialized in an emerging field called Materials Management. Interesting enough many of the concepts I was exposed to from that discipline have served me well over my career as a human resources and operating executive and management consultant.
Personnel has evolved over the three decades in title if not in fact going through a transition to Employee Relations to Human Resources and in newer, hipper organizations to titles like People and Culture. What is frankly disappointing is that in many cases the disdain and lack of respect that was present when I graduated some many years ago is still present today.
A recent poll of CEO’s regarding what they perceived as the key value provided by their human resource function resulted in a pretty disappointing number indicating they weren’t really sure, with another significant group responding the primary value was in compliance and protecting the organization from litigation. What is even more disappointing is that a poll conducted by Focus.com in 2012 of Human Resources executives and professionals reported similar results; a majority reported compliance with various local, State, and Federal laws and regulations as their number one priority and value to their client organization.
Let’s juxtapose this perception of the role and potential contribution of the Human Resources function to what continues to exist as real challenges to the majority of organizations in the United States.
- The process and systems around the attraction, selection, retention, and alignment of talent continue to be mediocre at best.
- Although there are clear, definitive correlations between employee engagement and organizational performance across a variety of critical performance measurements in most organizations employee engagement initiatives consist of conducting surveys and teaching to the test!
- Although emotional intelligence, empathy, and interpersonal skills are clearly tied to management and leadership performance we still refer to them as soft skills and rarely definitively build them into the hiring profiles and protocols of leadership and management positions.
- In too many organizations activities like effective hiring and selection, performance management, coaching and mentoring, and strategic human resource planning are delegated to the human resources department or staff rather than embedded as core competencies into every managerial/leadership role.
I have seen many of my former colleagues in human resources attempt to buttress their credibility through seeking and achieving certifications both within the profession and outside of it. Don’t misinterpret me; technical competency in our profession is important. I believe however, that senior human resources professionals should use technical competency in human resources as a baseline and expand their portfolio into broader management competencies and understanding of the organization they serve.
When is the last time you saw an executive with the title of Chief Quality Officer? It isn’t that quality is not important in the context of any business or organization, but rather the recognition occurred that quality needs to be built into the core processes of the organization, not bolted on or inspected in.
I would make the same argument for core human resources competencies. To me there are fundamental skill sets that everyone above the level of front line leadership needs to exhibit:
- The ability to set and articulate clear performance expectations.
- The ability to provide constructive feedback.
- The ability to connect an individual’s tasks and responsibilities to the larger organizational context.
- The ability to diagnose performance issues and take appropriate corrective action.
- The ability and commitment to coach and mentor the staff assigned to them.
- In my world a significant part of the role of the human resources function and practitioner is to create, deploy, and assess systems to ensure these core competencies are present everywhere in the organization.
Before you write this off as a pipe dream let me share the example of Google with you-
Google identified and tracked the characteristics of their most effective managers and identified eight key indicators that were represented in each case. They then created training and coaching programs that specifically addressed those eight factors. The result was a significant increase in the performance and effectiveness of 75% of their lowest performing managers and units.
So what does that demonstrate, to me it demonstrates a couple of key things:
- Effective managers/leaders can be trained they are not born or created.
- Effective human resource management is not a soft science.
I would be less than direct if I didn’t state that I am a firm believer in the concept of employee engagement and employment branding.
These concepts take a lot of heat because I think that in many cases they are neither defined nor implemented well. Engagement is not about employee morale or happiness, it is about alignment. Employment branding is not about cool interview videos and brochures; it is about defining organizational values and attributes and integrating them into all stakeholder relationships.
They are not human resource programs, they are business strategies.
I read a great article yesterday that discussed the irony of employee turnover as an example. The study pointed out that U.S. organizations lose billions of dollars annually to the direct and indirect costs of employee turnover. One U.S. Department of Labor estimates the losses to be as high as $5 trillion per year.
Presenteeism costs us another $200 billion a year. To me when you are looking at losses of that magnitude it is clearly a business and societal issue, not just a human resources issue.
A colleague the other indicated that the Human Resources function should accept ownership of this issue. I agree in part. We should be providing our technical expertise to identify and resolve the root causes of this issue in partnership with management.
In many organizations we see that human resources are being either centralized or is a candidate for outsourcing.
In the case of centralization it means human resources departments and practitioners may be faced with working with multiple client groups with diverse cultures and needs within the organization. Candidly for me that was the environment I grew up in as part of large multi-national organizations. My internal clients had different needs and different cultures. I had to create a balance to fit those needs within the overall corporate infrastructure.
I did it by looking at my role in three different dimensions:
- Technical skills. The proliferation of rules and regulations has indeed made the profession more complex as has the application of technology, phenomenon like social media, outsourcing and global workforces, and related challenges. I needed to be technically proficient, not only in our craft, but to understand the businesses and organizations I served.
- Project Management. Similar to the Total Quality Management movement I believe human resource competency in core areas needs to be deployed broadly and deeply rather than be seen as a departmental competency. It is fundamental to the management/leadership role, not just human resources departments!
- Facilitation. We need to help our client organizations recognize that by building relationships with individuals as people first and resources second we can create enormous gains in sustainability, productivity, and profitability through alignment of organizational and individual goals.
- Based on my experience I would also challenge you to take some additional steps:
- Ask your internal and external customers how you can help them and make them more successful. If you don’t think you have any internal customers give me a call. We have work to do.
- Ask your staff what obstacles you can remove to make their job more efficient or easier.
- Ask the people on the front line how your products and services can be enhanced or modified to make them easier to address their needs.
- Ask your peers how they think you and your group are doing. You are an internal service provider.
- Ask your boss how you can help them. This may seem a little obvious, but you will be surprised from how you communicate to taking a task off their list can make a difference.
- I would also challenge you to become a champion of commitment over compliance and helping create an environment that encourages true engagement. How do you do that?
- Hire the right people
- Incorporate the elements of commitment rather than compliance.
- Be flexible about process and ruthless about principle.
- Build on a foundation of trust.
- Remember it is all about relationships.
My experience has taught me that overcoming inertia is one of the most difficult things to overcome in creating meaningful change in an organization is inertia or complacency. If you go back and look at some of the opportunity costs I identified there really is a role to play for human resources to become a catalyst and change agent.
Most HR practitioners want respect and opportunity. This is the path I followed from HR to the C suite and to a role as a successful management consulting career. I am not a rocket scientist. If I could manage it you can as well.
The most recent surveys from the Society for Human Resources Management identifies that the attraction and retention of the talent required to achieve their organizational goals is their top priority for the foreseeable future.
Another recent study indicates that there is tremendous pent up demand for better opportunities- less than 10% of those surveyed indicated they were highly engaged and committed to their current job.
The moral of the story is that we recruit and hire whole people not human capital.
I would submit that based on history using the same old models isn’t going to resolve either of these issues.
Organizations like Google didn’t outsource their HR function; they re-characterized it and deployed the capabilities.
Thinking like an internal consultant takes you out of the compliance mindset and into the mindset of true business partner.
That is the future of Human Resources!