Chief HR officers: the challenges topping their agendas

If you locked a group of chief human resource officers (CHROs) in a room together for two days, what would they talk about? What are the challenges facing CHROs today?

In June, I had the opportunity to find out when a small group of senior HR executives held an informal retreat. During the retreat the group focused on three themes applicable to every participant. The first related to the challenges of running the HR department as a business. The second theme covered the implications of the rapid pace of technology on HR management practices. The third dealt with the unique aspects of the relationship between the CHRO and the chief executive officer as well the other senior executives in the organization.

Running HR as a business
It was clear from the discussion that running a state-of-the-art HR Department is a challenging, complex operation. Delivery of effective and efficient HR services is a knowledge intensive, volatile business function for several reasons.

First, a credible HR department must deliver high quality, timely “nuts and bolts” services in a cost-effective manner. All day-to-day HR services must be firing on all cylinders. These services need to be adapted to meet the cultural and people-management environment of an organization.

Second, the HR department must deliver innovative HR programs that align with the operational needs of the organization. For organizations to respond to the rapid pace of change today, the effective life span of an HR initiative matches the typical life of a personal desktop computer, or about 18 to 24 months.

Third, HR generalists must deliver valued management consulting support to line managers across the organization. The nature of the support must be flexible to accommodate the capabilities of each line manager as well as the business challenges they face. People increasingly represent the productive engine of the organizations, hence HR management has become the most critical role of the line manager today.

Fourth, the CHRO must be a key participant in the development of strategic initiatives and a vital member of the organization’s executive.

To make this happen, the CHRO executive must develop the productive capacity of the HR department in all four areas, while balancing the mix of services that are provided daily to managers and employees across the organization. Often the most critical limitation facing HR departments is the shortage of highly capable, innovative and experienced HR professionals. Hence every successful CHRO must be investing in attracting, developing, motivating and retaining capable HR staff.

Impact of technology
Much is made today about advances in technology and the resulting impact on organizations. This is especially true in the high-technology industries that have been receiving so much media attention.

What is receiving too little attention in how well an organization makes use of its investments in technology. The only way an organization can benefit from technology is by helping its employees effectively integrate and align work practices with the technology.

Today’s leading HR department’s are recognizing the need to expand their range of services to help organizations better use technology. This can include: expanded training in using technology, work process redesign, role redesign, organizational effectiveness, change management, team leadership and work-group effectiveness, and innovative working conditions policies.

As organizations increase their investments in technology and highly trained employees it becomes critical that HR provide leadership in creative ways to maximize the productive capacity as well as the utilization of employees.

Relations with CEO and other executives
“Occupational marriage” was the term used to describe the relationship between the senior HR executive and the organization. In particular, the nature and scope of the relationship of the CHRO with other members of the senior management team (SMT) is unique among all executive roles in any organization.

The relationship between the CEO and the CHRO can be the most critical individual relationship in any organization. More than any other executive role, the CHRO needs to have a close working relationship and be trusted by the CEO.

Apart from the roles that are similar among members of the SMT, the CHRO is in a position to provide three unique supporting roles to the CEO:

•the CHRO can be a confidential off-the-record, listener to whom the CEO can turn to talk about the personal frustrations, challenges, stress and loneliness associated with heading the organization;

•the CHRO can assist the CEO in thinking through and managing performance issues and working relations between the members of the SMT;

•the CHRO can act as an executive coach or advisor on the CEO’s own performance.

The CHRO can also provide similar support to other members of the SMT in helping them deal with the personal challenges and stresses of their jobs.

The CHRO can provide a conduit to resolving working conflicts between individual executives when they arise. The challenge for the CHRO is to assist the SMT to function more effectively together as a group while remaining neutral on the working relationship issues.

Although the behaviour of all members of the SMT need to reflect the purpose and values of the organization, the CHRO holds a unique position as the “social conscience advocate” in their organization. The executive team must to be in a position to consider and reflect upon all of the implications of any corporate decision.

The professional background and experience of the CHRO places her or him in a unique position to ensure that during the decision-making process, adequate consideration is given to consistency with corporate values as well as the implications for employees.

The role of the CHRO is rapidly expanding in scope and challenge in leading organizations. No longer is HR a low value-added administrative support function. In an increasing number of organizations, the CHRO is now at the executive table. The challenge now is to deliver the potential value that HR can bring to enhancing the effectiveness of the organization to achieve its mission and operational objectives.

Brian Orr is the vice-president of human resources at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] His column appears regularly in Canadian HR Reporter.

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