Attention HR: Managers need help

If HR wants to be in the boardroom, helping ordinary managers in ordinary departments become more efficient might be the perfect place to start

Professionals in human resources could sit around, hoping to come up with that big idea that will get them to the boardroom table. That will work for about one per cent of HR people. The other 99 per cent can take a route that is less idealistic but more likely to succeed. They can help ordinary managers, in ordinary departments, become more efficient.

HR’s real value to a company comes through applying its tools, such as organization effectiveness, to less-efficient departments to help managers improve performance. Many managers feel helpless, as though external factors will always prevent them from achieving their goals, their budgets and deadlines. They don’t have enough money, they don’t have enough staff, they don’t have enough time or outside help or whatever it is they want to point a finger at. HR likely can’t give them more money, head count or resources. But HR can help managers prioritize — to focus on what their true goals are and should be.

A good HR professional can help managers look at what they’ve done right in the past, analyze those projects, identify what helped them succeed and apply what they’ve learned from past successes to present-day projects. A manager who is spinning his wheels, achieving average productivity, will almost always accept assistance from an HR professional who, rather than taking over and forcing herself on the department, simply offers her organizational effectiveness knowledge as a conduit to improved performance.

Even high-performing companies experience delays, errors, miscommunication, delivery failures, turf battles, dysfunctional management styles and other execution shortfalls. HR needs to help managers improve their departments’ capability to execute successfully, to achieve goals on time and on budget.

But how? First, HR needs to engage managers by helping them estimate their company’s productivity losses and the potential gains for the organization in improving execution. Managers should think about the kinds of execution shortfalls and management dysfunction they have experienced and then consider projects they’ve been part of that went well — recovery from a crisis, getting a new product out to a vital customer ahead of schedule or making that extraordinary delivery against tough obstacles. Finally, they should look at the gap between their day-to-day performance and the successful performance. The HR professional who can help a manager see what he’s done right in the past, and how the elements of those successes could be applied in the present, will have everyone’s attention, including that of the CEO.

Improving execution is an opportunity that can be easily exploited without major investments in facilities, equipment or massive cultural change programs. It can be done by making execution improvement explicit and making a commitment to incorporate execution improvement into the company’s work-life.

There are four major steps to take:

Focus the organization on a few major priorities — those things that must happen and which will have the greatest impact on bottom-line results and growth. A few very sharp, very clear and very urgent priority objectives can set the stage for extraordinary execution. Many managers are overwhelmed by all of the things they feel “must” get done, when in fact senior management is likely only focused on a handful of measurable items. The HR professional can help to bridge the gap between the CEO’s expectations and the everyday reality of a manager’s department.

Help the manager focus on some specific, short-term projects. These can be 30-, 60- or 100-day projects that are relatively easy to do and can be learning experiences.

Provide rigorous support to help managers tackle the short-term projects to learn the basic disciplines of proper execution.

Be sure reward processes are in place to recognize people for their successes.

Teaching and coaching, as well as on-the-job experience are needed to build better execution capabilities. There are several major categories of execution discipline to be learned:

Designing work: Think through the job to be done and design it to succeed. This requires helping the manager think through assignments and work with his core team to create an effective strategy.

Dealing with tough issues: Resourceful managers learn how to handle real-life challenges along the way to the goal, managing political ins and outs and problem-solving to overcome unexpected delays and obstacles.

Learning from experience: Openness to learning is at the heart of it all. Learning should be built into every project.

A manager’s goals should be measurable. Take, for example, a manager who is aiming to get a website up and running by a specific date to generate sales orders. Every day of delay is a day of lost revenue. It may be tempting to blame the delay on the IT group or a web designer or a marketing person, but it is the responsibility of the prime project manager to see that everyone else delivers and the project is completed on time. Ensuring that manager has the necessary execution skills will enable the project manager to fulfill that responsibility.

HR can help a company get on the road to extraordinary performance by practicing these skills on progressively tougher and more ambitious goals.

Robert Neiman is a member of Robert Schaffer & Associates in Stamford, Conn., and author of Execution Plain and Simple – Twelve Steps to Achieving Any Goal on Time and on Budget. Rudi A. Siddik is a member of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates in Toronto. Their website is

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