Know where you are going and figure out how to get there

HR wants to make it to the table, but they had better be prepared when they get the call

As president of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta, Roxy Shulha-McKay hears from a lot of HR people about becoming a strategic player.

“The interesting thing about strategic HR is that it means different things to different people. It all depends on where you are starting from,” says Shulha-McKay.

There are still a lot of organizations out there that just want a good functional HR department, never mind the strategy. That’s not necessarily a good thing and it’s an attitude that could undermine performance, but they’re still there nonetheless.

For somebody in a traditional role, the first step to becoming strategic is simply establishing the credibility of HR and gaining a voice throughout the organization. Not easy when time is consumed with the challenges of maintaining the day-to-day details of a functional HR department.

And then, if and when, the small victories come in the form of added responsibility and more say in the organization, the day-to-day details don’t disappear.

“I think sometimes we are under-recognized,” she says. “But we are our own worst enemy because we haven’t built in the value.” A lot of human resources people complain that it is taking too long to be invited to the table but people in other departments say it’s HR’s own fault for not preparing itself to take that position. “They say ‘We’ll invite them to the table anytime they want, but they have to be participative, they can’t just be there as an observer.’”

And don’t expect to get help from your employer to develop HR expertise. You’ll have to take care of that yourself.

“It used to be if you were keen and you had some interest they’d hire you, but now they’re not doing that with HR.” Businesses want their HR people to be experts in what they do, so that they can combine that expertise with new knowledge of other functions. “They’re saying you need to come fully developed in the HR part and we’ll help you develop the other things.”

Today, Shulha-Mckay feels she gets to play a strategic role in her day job as director of HR for the Alberta Workers Compensation Board, in Edmonton. She reports directly to the president and is intimately involved with strategic planning. But it wasn’t always the way at the WCB. Even three or four years ago, the HR department had a marginal role there, she says.

“We tried to do everything. We were involved with everything but we were good at nothing,” she explains.

The key was to get really good at the basics and once that was accomplished, they were increasingly invited to move onto grander things.

They took a look at what they were doing with leadership development and succession planning for example and decided they were missing the mark.

“In the past we tried to do leadership development at the PhD level. We tried to create an outstanding plan but we were missing some basic supervisory stuff. It was the undergraduate stuff we needed.”

Once that was established the next important realization was that they were wasting their time trying to do that in-house when Grant McEwen College, just down the street, could give their employees all of those skills in their already established supervisors’ program.

An aggressive succession planning program was launched that went right up to the vice-president level where skill gaps were identified and development programs crafted.

And of course, it always comes down to providing deliverables. HR has to be able to measure their results and prove they are adding value, she says, whether that is in the form of employee satisfaction, reduced turnover or even improved customer satisfaction. And give the decision-makers numbers, trends and pictures, not 52 pages of verbose explanation. That’s not what they want.

Similar HR stories are being told across the country. Some of frustration from people at businesses where HR still feels under-valued.

But there seems little question that HR is coming into its own. The war-for-talent demands it. The question is whether or not HR professionals are ready. The Canadian HR Reporter talked to a number of senior HR people and asked them what it means to have a strategic role and perhaps more importantly, how they are making a real impact at their companies.

Michel Cadieux, vice-president

of human resources, ATI Technologies

“In many ways being strategic means you have to understand the business. You have to understand what the drivers are in the business and see what the vulnerabilities and the risks are,” says Michel Cadieux, vice-president of human resources at ATI Technologies, a graphics and multimedia solutions provider.

Being strategic is looking for the indicators of future success. Looking at past performance is of little value. “Looking at profits is like looking in the rearview mirror,” he says.

Execution is all about people, he adds. Prescient HR professionals will ask themselves “Where are we today? Where do you we to be to win in the market place? What are the risks associated with getting there?” And then figure out how employees can execute on the answers to those questions. That is how HR can contribute to the bottom line success of the company.

He knows a lot of HR professionals still aren’t given that opportunity, but they have to be ready when they are called to the table. “Make sure they’re not just throwing fluff out at the meeting but actually contributing.”

Resist using HR speak, nobody wants to hear about the latest HR flavour of the month. CEOs hate that.

There is no point in going into a meeting with the senior team and telling them about competencies, says Cadieux. Instead translate that into what it means for the business plan and how the company can meet its strategic goals.

Gail Lebel, regional director

of human resources, Cendant Canada Inc.

Becoming a strategic player means being meticulous and gnawing over the specifics. A strategic plan should include specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-dated goals, says Gail Lebel, regional director of HR, Cendant Canada Inc. in New Brunswick.

For example, set a goal (becoming the employer of choice) and then set objectives to achieve this goal (expand employee referral program; improve recruiting process by updating exit interview summary form) and then build in your measurement tools (80 per cent positive survey results from new hire training classes; 75 per cent favourable responses to exit interview questions).

It’s a huge undertaking but necessary in order to play strategically, says Lebel.

And it’s critical for HR to forge partnerships in order to begin to take on that role.

“We have to make sure our efforts are focused in the right direction if we are to be effective. HR’s goal is to have a vision with regard to employees, facilities, public outreach,” says Lebel, who oversees two HR departments.

Andy Kroen, executive vice-

president of human resources, Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc.

The first step to getting to the table? According to Andy Kroen, executive vice-president of human resources at Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc. HR has to take care of the knitting.

HR does want and need to be at the table. But until HR can prove they can take care of the HR basics very well they won’t be given the opportunity to be strategic. The administrative stuff — what he calls the knitting — comes first. “Whether we like to admit it or not, we have to be able to do those correctly first.”

Once you get that done, you can move onto bigger things like having every employee in the world able to work anytime anywhere. That’s what Kroen will be working on now. By the year 2004, Sun hopes to have every employee, potentially 70,000 by then, outfitted with the capability of working at anytime from anywhere in the world.

Kroen — who in January also became corporate director of HR for Sun Microsystems in Latin America — has been a strategic partner since day one.

“I’ve been here for 14 years and I’ve been at the table since day one and I would not have accepted the job unless it had that kind of presence,” he says.

In an industry where turnover rates of 15 per cent are the norm, Sun has kept theirs down around five. Kroen credits the company’s emphasis on their values system as a key to keeping employees.

Each business unit has its own business plan but every business plan starts with the values. Unless employees are committed and happy, no unit will be able to meet it’s goals.

And to keep track of how they are doing on living their values, Kroen and his HR team use a well-honed employee sensing survey. Originally an 80 question, hour-and-a-half long endeavour, they trimmed it down to a 26-question, 20-minute exercise that employees can complete more easily and still allow the company to drill down to a fairly low level. Of course acting upon the findings is key and over the 10 years or so they’ve been doing it a lot of issues have been resolved but new ones always surface. “There’s always something to work on,” he says. The key is to make employees feel valued by giving them an opportunity to make a difference and see that their input is being heard.

John Cross, vice-president

of human resources

Hewlett-Packard Canada

The strategic role takes on an added dimension when you are working for a multinational company. Not only do you need to be aware of what is going on locally, but you must also be aware of the larger, global family.

Every Thursday morning, Hewlett-Packard Canada’s vice-president of HR joins in a teleconference with at least five other HP human resources leaders from across the world to discuss specific worldwide HR initiatives for the computer hardware giant.

“There is a lot of solicitation for comment,” says John Cross, HP’s vice-president of HR.

At home in Canada, the focus is on the uniqueness of the country and HR has proven an indispensable business partner at HP which was ranked as the third best employer in Canada by Report on Business magazine.

HR played an integral role when an HP spin-off company was formed two years ago. The plan was very focused and it took more than 3,000 subtasks to get the job done, says Cross. In the end, HR had successfully helped create Agilent, which took about a quarter of HP’s Canadian workforce and about a third of its worldwide workforce. Cross says HR had a “very, very” focused plan to divide some 16,000 employees between two companies. HP eventually sold the firm.

“There is only one reason why you would spend money on HR and that’s because there is a perceived value in pushing the company forward. HR touches every portion of the business. (Within HP) HR is a very respected entity and given a very senior position,” says Cross.

When HP decided to adopt a uniform HRIS worldwide, HR departments were all involved in the process. It was a strategic business move that, at first, was a little difficult and time consuming, but later proved to provide huge productivity gains.

“At first it slowed us down because we had the Canadian version and it was better for us. Once you get passed all of the initial phases the rewards are just terrific,” says Cross.

But, you still need to get the regular HR things done before you can go forward. Automation of certain HR functions helps.

At HP, they’ve been able to prove themselves on the recruitment and retention side of the equation (HP turnover rates hover around 7.5 per cent).

“But you can’t play at the strategic level if you can’t get those administrative things done,” says Cross.

Brian Demerse, vice-president

of human resources, B.C. Hydro

For a large number of organizations even the most casual look to the future reveals a dramatic spike in retirements as baby boomers near the end of their working days.

The HR department at B.C. Hydro is acting now to at least minimize the effect of the surge in retirements.

“We have a fairly old workforce,” explains Brian Demerse, vice-president of human resources. And by studying the employee population and doing some projecting and forecasting, they’ve identified the occupations and skill sets that will most be effected by the retirement surge. Then by working with the corporate financial people, they built the business cases to do early recruitment and more training in the hopes of smoothing the transition from one group of employees to another.

The result was a decision to invest $6 million in early hires of engineers and technologists and apprentices in different trades, and more people taking entry-level management positions. “We’re trying to faze people in as we faze people out,” he says.

Training and development has taken on a greater importance both as a means to improve immediate performance but also to help attract and retain new workers. Succession planning also very quickly became a priority when they realized that they may not have the bench strength to cover for those looking at retirement.

Leaders to replace the outgoing cohort are being developed and new talent is being brought in now to learn from experienced staffers before they call it quits. All of which has required them to take a much more structured approach to hiring and development.

Leadership competencies are being redefined and they’re using 360-degree feedback to size up current and potential leaders to improve the development process.

John Cardella, vice-president of human resources,

Compaq Canada

Soon after stepping into the role of VP of HR, last October, John Cardella set out to meet with every executive in the company. Why? “To find out what I can do to help them,” he says.

Without question one of the greatest challenges they face as a high-tech company is finding and holding on to key talent. So he needed to learn from them what he could do to make the computer hardware maker Compaq a better place to work. The challenge is delivering.

To do that Cardella believes his HR department has to be able to function as a business partner to the rest of the organization. Helping them with the big picture stuff, while at the same time delivering functional support at the front line without neglecting the administrative stuff.

“I essentially have a go to market model,” he says. The human resources function is divided into three separate realms. The HR business partners are the very senior HR business professionals who focus on business needs analysis, leadership and organizational effectiveness and consulting for each business unit.

The second group comprises the consultancy centre. They have the expertise and understanding in specific practices, compensation and benefits for example, to do program design, delivery and benchmarking across business units. And the third group works in the HR service centre, focusing on service delivery across the organization, program effectiveness and monitoring legal and compliance issues.

And for the last four months he has been meeting with employees across the country to talk with them about what HR has to offer and how it can help them do their jobs better, part of a general effort to develop good communications with employees.

They’ve been doing formalized focus groups with an objective third party to determine how employees feel about programs and initiatives in place.

Really it is all about communications and the culture that you are looking to instill, he says.

Quarterly company-wide communication sessions are held and management teams typically run monthly sessions to share information at the unit level.

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