HR: The CEO’s Big Ask

Or, what can HR put up its hand for that will make a real and lasting contribution to the business?

I was with groups of senior HR professionals a couple of times in the last fortnight – at an evening forum at GIBS in Illovo, and with the IPM in Namibia. On both occasions the discussion turned to how HR can make a real strategic difference.

Of course there’s plenty that is strategic about looking after human capital. But that’s not what they were talking about. HR wants to be seen as a core member of the team alongside the likes of operations and finance. It’s a longstanding aspiration and one that gurus like Dave Ulrich have virtually made an industry of.

At the GIBS event, the view though was that HR people don’t have the business smarts to really take their place at the table. That it is difficult for them to make the leap. I’m not so sure.

A few days later I was speaking at the Windhoek conference. My argument – more of an exhortation really – went like this…

There are two kinds of work in organisations. The first is the everyday effort of delivering¬†products or services to customers, and everything that goes in support of that. Call this line work. The second kind is project work, the things the organisation has chosen to do outside of the frame of everyday delivery. (There’s probably a whole lot of work in most organisations that doesn’t fall into either category, but we’ll leave that for another day…)

‘Everything boils down to work in the end’
– Peter Drucker

Line work is about today, delivering value and making money. Project work is about tomorrow, working on things that will create the organisation of the future. Both are critically important.

Let’s start with project work. In most organisations, HR isn’t responsible for managing the project portfolio, or the workings of the Programme Management Office (PMO). But the CHRO can be the conscience of the executive when it comes to making sure projects are aligned to high-order objectives, culling projects that don’t qualify and building rock-solid project management disciplines. Often the senior HR executive is the person seen as the steward of change. What better way to wear that mantle?

My real thrust though is to do with line work – everyone’s day job. I say the HR chief should put up his or her hand and take accountability for the building blocks of performance. Not just performance management, but the actual performance of the organisation. Of course HR doesn’t directly manage the people we want to perform. However HR can provide the tools the line needs to deliver performance – and make sure they are used.

The factors that impact the performance of a complex enterprise are many, starting with leadership and going all the way over to, I don’t know, housing and health. But the foundation stones of a performance organisation are few, and they all fall squarely into HR’s traditional remit.

One: Accountability. In my experience, and notwithstanding all the job descriptions you care to parade, people are often not absolutely clear on what they are responsible for. Even at my sophisticated bank the other day, the person I was talking to lamented that particular lack of clarity. So HR, go onto the web and look up a little management tool called RACI. It stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consult, and Inform and it’s an easy way for any team at any level to work out who should take what role on any activity or decision. Train everybody to use it and make it part of the lexicon of everyday life in your business. “I’ll take the ‘A’?” should become part of the lingua franca. (Noting that we are talking about single-point accountability here. The ‘A’ can never be shared – surely a start in itself).

Two: Measures. Yes of course you have measures, probably some version of the balanced scorecard. But are they few enough and clear enough for people to know when they are doing a great job? Three to five key metrics are enough.

Three: Disciplines. Organisations work if the teams within the organisation work, at all levels. That means teams have to meet effectively, use their information well and follow through. It’s not complicated. So HR, take the ‘A’ for building robust management cycles – daily, weekly or monthly – at all levels. In one organisation I worked in recently, the senior team of a large business unit hadn’t had a proper meeting for several months. Oh woe!

Four: Management skills. In my book, day-to-day management skills are a neglected essential. Perhaps they’ve become outmoded by leadership development. In our work we have found that the single most culture-changing skill we were able to transfer was how to run a good meeting. Performance coaching and problem solving come a close second and third. HR needs to develop a suite of simple daily management training modules along these lines, make sure everyone gets up to speed and then offer the coaching that’s required to entrench the new skills as habits.

Five: Performance discrimination. As the custodian of performance management, HR has a huge opportunity to make sure the system delivers real results, separating the weak from the strong, and then responding accordingly with coaching, sanction and reward. One of the scariest remarks I hear in organisation is ‘It makes no difference how hard you work here’. If your producers don’t think the organisation is a meritocracy they will be the first to go elsewhere . At a large JSE listed company a senior executive remarked to me that they know who their poor performers are, they even know how much they are costing them, but they can’t seem to do anything about it. At another big client HR was collecting performance contracts in the twelfth month of the financial year.

I’m not suggesting any of this is easy, but it’s not complicated either. Put your hand up for performance HR, and take the ‘A’.

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