CEOs want HR as strategic business partner

HR needs to make time to think of business in broader fashion
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/08/2011

What do CEOs want from HR? In October, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosted a special panel discussion featuring three CEOs — Glenn Laverty of Ricoh Canada, Anne Martin of United Van Lines Canada and Jamie Moody of Tree of Life Canada — to gain an understanding of their perspectives on HR issues. For more information, visit To view a video of Laverty discussing what CEOs want from HR professionals, scroll down to bottom of this article.

CEOs want HR as strategic business partner

HR can’t be more strategic without C-suite support (Organizational eEffectiveness)

3 areas of development for HR to move beyond transactional (Strategic Capability)

Mastering the balance (Leadership in Action)

CEOs want HR as strategic business partner

By Amanda Silliker

When Glenn Laverty was vice-president of marketing at Ricoh Canada from 1996 to 2007, he saw human resources as a functional role. He considered it the part of the organization he could turn to for support around performance management, hiring, terminating employees and anything of the sort, he said.

Now, as president and CEO of Ricoh since January 2008, he acknowledges he had a “pretty basic view” of HR back then.

“Once you transform into the role of CEO, you recognize what you have (in HR) isn’t the function but the role of a strategic partner to take a look at the organization from a people perspective,” said Laverty, who is based in Mississauga, Ont. “It really does open your mind to the potential and the possibilities that exist in the organization.”

Being a strategic business partner is one of the main expectations CEOs have of HR, according to Laverty, who spoke at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto in October.

At Ricoh, HR holds a prominent position at the executive table and acts as a strategic partner to each of the departments. Similar to other departments at the 2,100-employee company, such as sales and service, HR is expected to create its own strategic plan each year which should demonstrate it has been thinking outside-the-box, not just as a function, said Laverty.

“(HR’s plan outlines) what they’re going to do in the organization, how they’re going to prove a partner to the business, what they’re going to bring to the party in terms of enlightening or changing or challenging the leadership within the organization to move in the right direction as it relates to people,” he said.

But moving from a functional role to a strategic partner can be difficult for HR, said Anne Martin, president of 85-employee United Van Lines Canada in Mississauga, Ont., who also spoke at the event. It’s easy for HR professionals to get caught up in the administrative duties and it can be challenging to expand beyond that, she said.

“All the legislation is so tough to keep up with today, you need to make sure the pay is in there on Wednesday nights and those kinds of things, so it’s a challenge to be able to complete all the administration, do the recruitment, et cetera, and have time to sit down and be strategic,” said Martin.

Even though HR professionals have many different tasks to accomplish every day, they need to make time to sit back and think of the business in a broader fashion to help them become more strategic, said Laverty.

Another barrier is many departments view HR as a function, not a strategic partner, he said. To break through that mindset, HR needs to be present during strategic planning meetings with all departments.

“Pay attention, listen and be very involved in understanding what the other strategies are within the organization and then clueing in on what it is (HR) can do to help that business leader in accomplishing their goals,” said Laverty.

“And, let’s face it, there’s going to be opportunities in every department you can imagine because they are all filled with people.”

CEOs also want to be able to count on HR professionals to “keep up with everything,” said Martin. They should be constantly staying abreast of everything in the HR portfolio, from regulatory changes to talent management.

“What I want from HR is that wisdom, experience — they have to be lifelong learners,” said Martin. “I want that person to always be that learner so I feel I’m on the leading edge all the time and not getting caught behind.”

The head of HR should be a CEO’s trusted advisor who can help align business strategy with people management to move an organization into the future, she said.

“Whether you’re looking for someone who is a regulatory guru, keeping you and your employees safe, or it’s about all the changes to talent development in the future, she’s the first person I want to walk to,” said Martin. “It’s going to be about the people that are going to deliver our service into the next 50 years.”

Helping organizations move forward effectively is another expectation CEOs have of HR. With four generations in the workforce, HR is integral to preparing the CEO and department heads for how to properly manage talent to move the company forward, said Laverty.

HR also plays an important role in helping a business stay competitive.

“It has to be about finding the right talent, thinking about getting the right bottoms on the bus — that has to be the key because you have to have the brain trust to create those ideas of innovation,” said Martin.

HR should strive to maintain neutrality throughout the organization by not getting too friendly — the “kiss of death for HR,” she said. Becoming affiliated with any one department or area of the office can upset the key position of balance HR holds.

“If something is wrong with a staff member, the first person I would go to would be HR because that’s the person that’s going to provide me with all the regulation, the legal, the experience, the people side — all the different parts, but in balance,” said Martin. “The leader of the department having the challenge or of the other department where the combatant part is coming from are not the first people I would go to.”

And HR needs to work on prioritizing, said Laverty. As CEO, he has often been approached by members of the HR team with many different initiatives they are eager to take on, but they want to do them all at the same time.

“HR is just endless,” he said. “There are any given number of elements in their basket of goods they can delve into... but the reality is the burden on HR itself and the amount of change management required really is in direct conflict with trying to do too much all at the same time.”

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HR can’t be more strategic without C-suite support (Organizational Effectiveness)

By Barbara Kofman

Those of us with more than a few decades of experience in the HR function have waited a long time for organizational leaders to realize people really do make a difference when it comes to the success of their businesses.

HR is not a drain on the bottom line or simply a transactional function to be used for hiring and firing — it plays an essential role in driving business results. So it was truly satisfying to hear from CEOs who rely on HR as trusted advisors and essential strategic business partners who sit at their leadership tables as equals.

This kind of recognition can only take place with the full support of the person at the top. Jamie Moody, president of Tree of Life Canada, said he sees HR as a key driver at the organization and considers the business and people agenda as one and the same. And when Anne Martin became the first female president of United Van Lines Canada, a company where 100 per cent of its affiliates are owned by entrepreneurial men, she brought HR into the business for the first time, a move she considers part of her legacy.

All of these leaders spoke forcefully at the SCNetwork event about the importance they place on values. They were not talking about putting the values on their corporate website for all to see but about really living them, including recognizing the role the values play in driving corporate culture.

Two of the CEOs spoke about the necessity of managing even long-term employees or top performers out of the organization, and they gave examples of times they chose to dismiss individuals because they failed to live up to corporate values.

While some of the means used to reinforce the values were nothing new (distributing cards, posters and mouse pads), the CEOs’ commitment to moving values from being static, esoteric ideals to ones that empower everyone in the organization to be responsible for living and maintaining them is admirable.

For organizations to truly succeed, CEOs need to exemplify courageous leadership in action — they must be open to both giving and receiving difficult feedback and they must regularly take the pulse of the organization and be prepared to act accordingly. HR leaders are expected to provide an independent, balanced perspective, make tough decisions and set clear priorities in an otherwise crowded agenda.

Many of the issues at the top of these leaders’ agendas are ones we’re familiar with — managing different generations in the workplace (particularly generation Y), succession planning, the growing complexity of the regulatory environment and talent management.

The question that now remains is how to get other CEOs to do the same.

Barbara Kofman is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and founding principal of CareerTrails, a strategic coaching and HR Solutions organization focused on enabling individuals and organizations to resolve their career-related challenges. She has held senior roles in resourcing, strategy and outplacement, and taught at the university and college level. Barbara can be reached at

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3 areas of development for HR to move beyond transactional (Strategic Capability)

By Karen Gorsline

HR has aspired to be a business partner and have a seat at the table for more than a decade. Over this time, some inroads have been made, including management becoming more aware of the contribution human resources can make and giving HR a seat at the executive table.

However, it is still a struggle for functional managers to see HR as anything other than a group involved in transactions — such as hiring and firing — and in programs such as performance management and safety. The fact that the theme for the recent SCNetwork event was “What CEOs Want From HR” indicates more is needed to integrate people management with business management.

HR has an opportunity to develop in three areas to enhance its role as a strategic business partner:

Leverage executive-level commitment and awareness: When HR is at the executive table, it is exposed to the leaders of most functional areas. Each executive needs to see HR as capable of operating at multiple levels including:

• corporate strategic (values, where the business is going and what it needs to get there)

• functional strategic (how a particular function contributes to the success of the organization as a whole, what it needs to grow and develop, and what it requires to achieve that change)

• program management (talent management, succession, safety and employee assistance programs)

• transactional support (recruitment, pay, benefits and exits).

If the functional executives see HR as a department that is capable of vital contribution, they can champion HR within their functions.

Run HR as a business: Nothing builds a stronger appreciation for business practices and challenges in a traditional staff department than HR adopting the discipline of operating like a business itself. This means HR needs a strategic plan and an operational plan (hopefully integrated and aligned).

There needs to be a focus on return on investment (ROI) and an understanding difficult choices may have to be made to align HR’s activity with the needs of the overall business. Metrics can be established for activities, from transactional to strategic.

An HR annual report can provide a platform to demonstrate accountability, provide education, communicate future directions and celebrate accomplishments.

Prioritize, manage change both in the business and in-house: Regardless of how supportive an executive team is of HR, an organization is normally not in the HR business, although the business has a mission and purpose that is advanced by HR. The business produces products or services and operates in a competitive environment.

HR needs to be aware everything cannot be done at once — at least not done well. It is necessary to prioritize and sequence activities in a way that supports the business, acknowledges every position and department has its own priorities, and paces activity to allow the organization to absorb and benefit from changes.

Even within the HR function, there is a limit to new activities and changes that can be absorbed while maintaining operational and program efficiency and integrity. Nothing undermines the credibility of HR more than failing to get people paid properly or other blatant operational glitches.

If HR can’t keep its own house in order, how can the functions trust HR’s advice and leadership?

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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Mastering the balance (Leadership in Action)

By Trish Maguire

All three CEOs at the SCNetwork event unanimously endorsed HR as an integral and equal business partner to their organization’s success.

Even though HR continues to reinvent itself, all three leaders reinforced that HR must collaborate with the C-suite, understand the organization’s goals and then translate these goals into employment needs and projected employee performance outcomes. And all three CEOs said HR’s critical mission was to determine how best to fulfill talent needs over the next three to five years.

Of equal interest was the need for HR to be the initiator of new ways to create loyalty, attract top talent and lead talent development strategies to improve workforce performance, employee engagement and business results. Is it possible the C-suite is beginning to fully appreciate how the current destabilization of the labour market is impacting a workforce with four generations and, therefore, the bottom line? Is it also possible the C-suite is beginning to realize it needs talented HR professionals who can proactively and effectively address critical people issues?

It’s certainly gratifying to hear the C-suite needs HR to demonstrate its conceptual and strategic-thinking capacities. Demonstrating the ability to focus on strategic concerns and taking a holistic view may serve as a catalyst for HR professionals. On the other hand, moving away from operational, administrative and functional activities will require a significant shift in thinking and behaviour by others.

All three CEOs reinforced the need for HR to excel and deliver on core business competencies such as: business savvy; strategy development and execution; an open and global mindset; maximizing organizational capacity; proficiency in organizational design and development; optimizing internal and external resources for influential decision-making; and building positive and collaborative relationships, both internally and externally.

HR has an opportunity to demonstrate its value proposition by mastering the balance between being a CEO’s trusted advisor, speaking a CFO’s language and championing people’s talents and potential.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial organizations and can be reached at

Video of Glenn Laverty discussing what CEOs want from HR professionals

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