HR must push its way into the boardroom

Almost everyone in HR wants to be strategic. But to do that, other people have to want you to be strategic. And that’s the problem.

HR departments continue to be frustrated by old-guard senior executives who undervalue the potential contributions of good human resources management and shut them out of strategic planning.

About four out of five CEOs haven’t realized how much HR can contribute to business success, says David Bratton, HR consultant and author.

According to research conducted for his upcoming book, Best Practices in HR Strategy, 86 per cent of HR professionals feel it is very important to be a strategic partner but just 20 per cent say upper management sees HR playing a strategic partner role.

Asked about the barriers to becoming a strategic partner, time and again respondents to a survey conducted for Bratton’s book blame senior executives for undervaluing the potential contributions of the HR department.

Among the common complaints: traditionally held views among “old school” managers that HR is an administrative function, senior management’s weak understanding of the importance of HR as a strategic partner and difficulty converting those who see HR as an administrative function.

That is likely to change — slowly — as an increasing number of companies realize the importance of good people management.
“I recommend going into the profession to anyone right now because it is so exciting,” says Bratton.

There is little doubt that some of the greatest challenges business will face for some time will be people issues and human resources professionals will increasingly find themselves called upon to assist companies in meeting those challenges.

But there are also those organizations that are slow in coming to that realization.

At those companies HR finds itself blocked at the door to the b
boardroom by recalcitrant decision-makers who still refer to the function as personnel. Bratton has one suggestion: “HR has to push back.”

HR professionals have to do a number of things if they are going to force themselves to the table: learn to speak the language of business, develop an HR strategy for your own department, and learn how to do strategic planning and get away from administration. This often requires more training. Most importantly strive to educate the CEO about the value of HR to the strategic plan.

Get the CEOs out of the office and stand beside them as they take a look around, says Bratton. The changes of the past few years are so unbelievable they often cannot adjust to them all, says Bratton. But the HR person can help them to understand and to bridge the gap between what today’s workers are asking for and what the CEO may be use to.

For instance, people who have been in business for a while often get caught up in rigid compensation practices and have less of an understanding of the attraction of total compensation packages.

“It is a seller’s market for talent in the knowledge economy. HR can say, ‘we understand that and we have a process to attract and retain that talent.’”

Succession planning is often an eye-opener, says Bratton. In one instance he produced an organizational chart for a chief officer who realized that five of the eight people that were slated as potential successors could not do his job and were unlikely to ever be capable of performing the task.

The issue of talent development suddenly became a much more important concern for the organization and not only in terms of succession planning but people issues generally.

To be taken seriously by the other business partners, Bratton also advises HR to draft its own strategic policy for human resources management linked to the bigger organizational picture.
Ideally, HR should be present when it comes time to draft corporate strategy, but if they are not they typically have all the necessary organizational information to figure out what will become the pressing people issues resulting from the larger corporate strategy.

Most importantly, put it down in writing. What would the board say if the CEO showed up without a strategic plan in his hand, he asks.

And make sure the plan includes deliverables that will prove the contributions sound HR can make. Develop a benefits or compensation plan with a targeted reduction in turnover, for example.

Of course, like everyone else, the greatest difficulty may be finding enough hours in the day to do all of this.

“You have to find time to be strategic,” says David Bratton. “What happens generally is that in the world of HR, there’s a lot of urgent stuff. You have to recruit people, you have to pay people. That’s what’s called transactional stuff, the urgent stuff that affects people’s lives. But those activities crowd out the important strategic stuff,” he says.

“You’ve got to take time out of your day and work to plan,” he says.

“There is a trend to outsource the functions that aren’t value added. In the larger organizations it is inevitable and if you can afford to do it, you should do it,” he says. In this way HR professionals can give themselves more time for the important instead of being caught up with the urgent.

While the recruitment of good people may be value-added, it is difficult to go out into the market and get knowledge workers, so it makes sense to use a recruitment firm with a proven track record that is in the marketplace all the time and knows where to find the best talent and how to most efficiently land them.

When this is the case, it frees HR department resources to concentrate on creating an organization that is renowned for its people practices and therefore an employer of choice. “Find out what the customer wants, in this case the talent, and deliver it to them,” says Bratton. He points to Nortel as an example of an organization that has been thinking this way.

When the telecommunications giant wanted to become the automatic first choice for electrical engineers looking for work, they loaned someone from the marketing department to HR for two years to develop the brand of Nortel as an employer in the same way they brand their products in the marketplace. “They want every electronic engineer to think about Nortel when they thought about changing jobs,” says Bratton.

Best Practices in HR Strategy is scheduled for release this fall by Carswell. For more information contact 1-800-387-5164.

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