The key challenge for the HR community, as I have often argued, is to take on the powerful senior personalities in their organisations and encourage them to work on their personal effectiveness as leaders. Arguably, this is the single most effective thing an HR professional could do in their role to help move their organisation forward.
Moreover, it could do much to change perceptions of the HR function among board members. Many HR professionals will talk of their frustration reporting to board executives who do not seem to understand what the HR function is trying to do. At the same time, CEOs and finance directors have little patience for HR initiatives that seem to have virtually no relevance to the real needs of the business.
But what could be more persuasive to the board as to the value of the HR discipline than to witness a member of the HR team engaging with some of the real human dynamics around the organisation, including those in the boardroom, that are holding up progress?
Sadly, a more familiar picture of the HR professional is of someone out of tune with board thinking, who has set up camp in the middle of the organisation, focusing on an array of HR initiatives that often make scant reference to what is going to help move the business forward. But it could all be so different.
A medium-sized manufacturing company hired a brilliant finance director. He was extremely bright, highly skilled and very grounded. The board thought he was fantastic. However, he had one fatal flaw his board colleagues continually overlooked: he talked too much. The effect of this on others in the organisation, from senior colleagues to subordinates, was that he sucked the air out of their space.
Luckily for the organisation, it had a highly skilled HR professional. He had identified the issue, supported by evidence, and was not afraid to give it to the finance director.
The HR professional with knowledge and people skills can do much to deliver the progress those in the boardroom are looking for: focused appropriately, HR skills and resources can extract financial value out of the organisation’s people and so drive the business forward. Yet this opportunity is so often missed.
The chance to make a real difference and win the respect of the board is clearly there, but this is not a job for the faint-hearted: to get board members to face their issues is a skill given to few. You don’t have to be board level yourself to get their ear, but it takes a good deal of courage and personal effectiveness on the part of the HR professional – as well as the ability to make a strong business case.
Our last case study is the example of an HR manager in a large retail business who, although not a board member herself, knew how to speak the language of the board and was able to make a real difference as a result. She presented a case to the board that high staff turnover was crippling the business.
"All we’re doing is losing and replacing people and this is what it’s costing us. If we could save just 10% of this cost, it would have a dramatic effect on the bottom line". She immediately got the attention of the finance director, and the board as a whole.
The change of mindset required in some parts of the HR community is to start thinking first from the business end: how is the CEO trying to take the business forward? What are the skills, behaviours and attitudes we want to see in the organisation to enable us to achieve this? What can we do to bring about these shifts?
The HR professional who takes this approach will find life much less frustrating and will enjoy the ear of the decision-makers in the business. The rewards are great for those brave enough to take on the challenge.