Now we know where we’re headed (Guest commentary)

HR rapidly closing in on very good tipping point

It’s always valuable to hear from the experts, in this case Susan Robinson of Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions concerning The Role and Future of HR: The CEO’s Perspective, a study it did for the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA), backed by two CEOs and one CFO. (See “HR is at the table: CEOs,” page 1.)

At an event for the release of the study in Toronto in May, everyone emphasized the benefits of having capable senior HR executives and what it takes to meet their needs. Hearing that in person always broadens and drives home what you read.

HR has been steadily evolving, if somewhat invisibly, for several decades. The proverbial “seat at the table” now emphatically exists for executives with the right approach. This study provides a clearer picture of what that requires.

But let’s step back for a moment. One reason the results are so positive is the recent recession, which has made heroes of those vice-presidents of HR who could find creative solutions. Some companies downsized massively for survival under urgent crisis deadlines while others recruited from this newly available pool of talent, almost equally rapidly, to move their organizations (the ones that had or were creating cash due to good or lucky pre-recession planning) to the forefront of their industries. Where’s HR when you need it? Right on the money, apparently. Who knew (outside of HR)?

It’s an ill wind that blows no good, they say, and a harsh recession is no exception. While weaker, unprepared players appreciated their HR team’s ability to bail them out, those in a position to take advantage highly valued HR’s ability to scoop up great players quickly. In other words, when you’re sorely needed, it’s a great opportunity to show just how much value you can contribute and many HR executives rose to the challenge.

Let’s hope these same line executives who just learned to appreciate us don’t have short memories. As the economy improves, baby boomers may finally start to retire in the massive numbers we have all been led to believe, thus keeping the focus on HR’s value. Certainly talent management and succession planning remain at the top of CEOs’ concerns, along with their related worry: Effective leadership development, especially with younger generations, seeming to puzzle many companies (though exactly why that is isn’t completely clear). Yet another critical role for HR is to explain and buffer the social media and youth phenomena for bemused senior teams. Can we get out in front of this?

From my perspective, there is very useful material in the study for future HR blogs. Although it isn’t possible to cover all the implications in a brief article, one somewhat hidden observation that particularly struck home was a bit paradoxical in two respects. One critical contribution these senior executives really value is HR’s ability (if we do it right) to actually implement key programs at the front line. But they emphasized repeatedly that some HR people can’t do this and aren’t in touch with line needs at the point where action truly happens.

Apparently, senior teams see HR as the key critical communicator that can truly reach this level and make stuff happen when they can’t. Another top HR role, in their eyes, is to facilitate greater effectiveness among the most senior executives whom they characterize as overlooking both what’s needed to engage front-line staff and what’s needed to build co-operation among each other since they’re distracted by urgent, daily operational matters. So, at the highest and lowest levels in organizations, they hope HR can help.

Wow, from being seen as contributing little to being seen as potential saviours on such a diverse scale is almost more than we might want to be held accountable for — except many of us believe we can and have been stepping up to it. From the sound of it, we’re rapidly closing in on the tipping point at which HR is recognized as the most important contributor it truly can be.

Perhaps that’s been speeded up by circumstances but, once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no going back. It was definitely high time to get this out on the table.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based consultant with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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