How much time does strategy deserve?

HR professionals must first decide what ‘strategic’ means

Ask Tracey Starrett how her function as an HR professional has changed over her 20-year career and she’ll take you back to her first job where she was tasked with manually recording attendance records.

“It was just so mindless,” she laughs. “It hadn’t been done for months when I took over the job. I was still living at home, and I used to take it home and my mom and I would sit (down) and do it at night.”

Contrast that with what she does now as a consultant with her own firm, the Starrett Group in Whitby, Ont. These days, she earns her money helping organizations create long-term visions for recruitment or find strategies to deal with liability or equity issues.

Starrett says her position is now much more about being strategic — the big buzzword in HR. Most HR professionals prefer to see themselves as more than just people who fill out paperwork and do the hiring and firing. So, inevitably, the question is arising: How much time should be spent being strategic versus transactional?

Time not the right metric

“Time spent is not the right metric,” says Claude Balthazard, director of HR Excellence with the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario (HRPAO) in Toronto. “For me, ‘being strategic’ is less about time and more about capability. For some, strategic is more what you are than what you do. Just because your role has strategic responsibilities doesn’t mean most of what you do is ‘strategic.’”

Balthazard says the profession is getting a bit ahead of itself, feeling the push to “be strategic,” without necessarily having the right skill sets, range of experience or people to do it — yet.

“It’s not just raw talent,” he says. “It’s talent that has been developed over time. It’s not only a matter of saying, ‘You spend more time doing strategy.’ Some people don’t have the right stuff to do it.”

Balthazard points to a contradiction between the perception of those working in HR and those in management. A 2006 Deloitte study found only 25 per cent of senior business executives felt “HR plays a crucial role in strategic formulation and operational success.” By contrast, 37 per cent of HR leaders said their function plays a crucial role.

“What are the barriers to overcome in terms of becoming strategic partners? People (in the profession) talk about the lack of adequate skills and competencies” says Balthazard. “So if everybody agrees that as a field we still have a long way to go — but we’re all strategic — there’s a disconnect.”

Strategic role requires ‘real upgrading of the profession’

With the new degree requirement for the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation, there’s an implied assumption that everyone must play a strategic role within their organization, says Balthazard.

“It’s not like a superficial tweak. It’s not like spending more time doing strategy, you’ll get there. It’s not that you’ll take a little course on thinking strategically,” he says. “To get there requires a real upgrading of the profession. Upgrading the kind of people you find in the profession.”

Increasing demand for HR to be strategic

All of this said, there is still an increasing demand for HR professionals to be strategic. Ian Hendry, president of the Toronto-based Strategic Capabilities Network (SCNetwork), says determining how much time to devote to that is rooted in understanding how an organization works — how it makes money and what it is to be profitable.

“This challenges you to really get behind the business,” he says. “These are all great things to do, but how do I then figure out what needs to come first? That’s where the acumen comes in, where your ability to experience different environments starts to help you because as you gain experience, you ask the right questions at the right time to get the responses you’re looking for.”

Hendry says it’s also important not to lose sight of the transactional aspect of HR — if you don’t excel at the basic tasks, the strategic opportunity is lost — but he says this doesn’t need to become a time-management issue.

“You can be very astute with your time management because you ask the right questions that you need to and it doesn’t take you a long time to get there.”

In her experience, organizations that succeed do not simply expect everyone to fulfill a strategic role, says Starrett. While working in HR at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Starrett was involved in a weekly orientation program. Initially, everyone in HR took a shift but it soon became apparent that wasn’t a good use of the senior people’s time. The function was handed down to junior HR clerks.

“That gave them transactional-level responsibility that was more than just pushing paper,” she says. “They were actually getting to interface with employees and to interact with people coming into the organization.”

That interaction gave the junior members valuable experience and insight that would serve them later in a strategic role, and freed up senior HR managers to be more focused on immediate strategic issues, says Starrett.

From an individual point of view, HR professionals need to consider the objectives of their role, then conduct a personal inventory to see if they’re managing their time in a way to achieve those goals, she says.

“When you look through your day timer, mentally check off ‘Was that a task or was that strategic?’ You have to know that first,” she suggests. “If you see that every single thing that you did for four weeks in a row was transactional — and you know there are these big issues looming that you’re not getting an opportunity to deal with — then you obviously need to find a way to eliminate the need for you to do them or find a way to carve out your time differently.”

Ultimately, time spent being strategic is as personal as the HR professional doing it. Starrett says it’s up to individuals to find their fit within an organization, and sometimes it simply may not be in a strategic role.

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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