HR is powerless!

I have been meaning to write this article for ages and not daring to say some obvious truths about organizations and how they think as a collective. Since the work that I do is on the “soft” human side, it has often been associated with HR, but a great number of my work to change organizations is not ordered by HR. And the best programmes that I do are not sponsored by HR, they are backed by CEOs themselves, Executive Committees and high level management. In many instances I have found that HR is powerless!

HR is not invited at the decision table

Historically, HR, seen as a support function and not a strategic one, has never really been invited to EXCOM meetings, to be part of the strategic decision making process. Indeed, HR has for so long been seen as an operational role dealing with legal obligations and administrative work, that its emergent talent management function has not yet been really integrated to the strategic level. The difficulty is that the HR function has a double role which is not easy to reconcile: it needs to be close to people to be fully operational and it needs to be highly strategic to enable a long term management of the core competencies of the organisation. This dual (hardly reconcilable) perspective and the historically operational function enhance the HR’s image of lacking strategic thinking. Hence HR is not invited at the decision table or when they are, they are not contributing to the decisions much (whether they voluntarily do not through lack of confidence or because they are not listened to).

not invited

Whether HR does not understand its real value or lacks the affirmation of its real contribution to the company, one thing is clear, talent management and competency development have been implicitly the role of managers: they know their teams (as individuals and performers) so they are legitimately (in the eyes of most) the best people to evaluate performance and competencies as well as suggesting ways to improve and develop further. And here, HR is seen as a service: “I need a catalog of training so that I can develop my public speaking skills as discussed with my manager”.

HR do seem to have a serious problem of self-marketing. And on this point I would suggest that they take an intrapreneurial look at their “Added Value”. One of the reasons is that it is difficult to get real metrics on “soft” subjects. Also any change of behaviours or culture in an organization and any people development (whether we are talking about leadership or other soft skills) need time. There are no “quick wins” in HR, and nor should there be. And in our culture of fast results, instant gratification, “show me what you can do and I’ll back you”, well it’s very hard for HR to actually show the impact of their work. So the lack of short term measurable results creates a lack of recognition which does not encourage them to shine and may even push them to just perform operations. Finance and sales people are so much better at showing results, tangible, measurable ones.

In my mind, HR are being powerless just because they do not show the value of their work and are not recognized for the strategic function they should have. After all they are looking after the most valuable resource of an organisation: people. How many companies boast that they are putting people first, that they are proud of their people, that people development is at the heart of their strategy!

HR people may have not been strategically educated

One of the reason I see for the lack of strategic thinking comes from the business schools and universities. Indeed, the students I have met who took HR as a specialty did not have real strategy classes which would have allowed them to make the connection between the management of human resources and the strategic decision making as a whole. It is in my strategic diagnostic classes that I used to make the connection, since strategy cannot be implemented without the employees alignment (I refer here to the good old balance scorecards). The Learning perspective (which includes human capital, knowledge management and organisational culture) of balance scorecards (according to Norton & Kaplan) is equally important to the other 3 perspectives (processes, customers, finances). Understanding overall strategy would help HR to have the references, knowledge, tools and mindset allowing them to use the right language to convince boards, that they are valuable and key players in the strategy of the organisation and not just executing it. Strategy should be a compulsory subject in HR education and “strategic HR” should be according to me a new subject. So far what I have seen in business schools and universities, is limited to operational tools (how to recruit, how to train, etc.) or to theoretical view of an organisation’s demographics (age pyramid, or categorization of jobs and competencies).  HR education needs to revamp itself if we want HR to have the strategic skills required to be invited to the decision table.

HR blindly follows fashions

A good illustration of the lack of connection with strategy is the incoherent use of great practices such as mentoring, coaching, emotional intelligence training… These practices are tools to support a strategy, and should not be used just because others do it, or because it is trendy at the moment or sounds great or is good for people. HR needs to really ask “Why mentoring?”, “For whom?”, “What are the objectives of the programme?” and most importantly “How is it actually connected to the overall strategy?” Otherwise it would be like using all the powerpoint features and animations in a presentation just because they are there… And you know what death by powerpoint looks like!

And unfortunately when that happens, it is the practice (like mentoring) that gets blamed: “mentoring we tried it and it doesn’t work!” Of course, if it is not aligned with a strategic axis of the company and if it doesn’t have the support of top executives in the organisation, there is a strong chance that the programme will fail… Because disconnected from strategy the tool doesn’t make sense.

All in all, a shift needs to happen for HR to find its rightful and powerful place at the decision table, from the education of future HR managers and directors, to the strategic use of HR tools (training, career development, recruiting, mentoring, coaching etc.), and most importantly in the mindset and self-marketing of current HRDs.

Author: Stéphanie

Stéphanie has developed an extensive practice of executive coaching in London for more than 10 years. She now coaches CEOs and top executives to help them with team creation and development as well as business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.