Six strategic roles for HR to fill

HR executives must wear these six hats in order to become full-fledged members of the senior management team.

How long will it be before HR executives are full-fledged members of the senior management team? I thought that HR was finally making it to the “table” in the later half of the 1990s.

The war for talent and increasing staff shortages were making people management a strategic issue for many organizations. But, as Canadian HR Reporter’s recent survey HR’s Quest for Status shows, there is still a gap between HR’s desire to be full strategic business partners and the reality that the majority of human resources practitioners are not. Of 540 survey respondents, only one-third stated they have a major role in strategic business planning.

Joining the senior management team has been a long-standing challenge for HR executives. I have participated in discussions about HR getting to the “table” for virtually my entire career. What then is the barrier? Have HR executives not yet figured how to behave as senior executives, do HR executives lack the needed capabilities or is it that HR doesn’t deserve to be part of the senior management team?

Let’s look at the six roles HR executives must fill to become full-fledged members of senior management teams.

First, HR executives must make sense of how external and internal developments will impact the organization. This includes understanding an issue’s implications for the organization as a whole, on major business areas and on people management. Strategic leadership focuses on understanding and preparing for the future, not on managing the present.

Today’s most common strategic challenge is to understand the business and people-related implications an organization can expect once the current recession ends. The operational challenge is surviving the recession and minimizing the long-term damage of the short-term actions that the organization must take.

Second, HR needs to be analytical in its approach to assessing the people and labour costs related to business opportunities and challenges facing the organization. HR executives need to think of themselves as business executives and approach strategic management in the same manner that other senior executives do.

There are several important analytical perspectives that need to be provided by HR. One perspective is how people and HR management practices affect organizational performance. Another is how organizational decisions will impact workforce capability, engagement and productivity.

Third, HR needs to be informative. HR executives need to provide senior executives with information that is relevant, and valuable in managing the organization. HR information needs to be accompanied by new ideas, suggestions, guidance, solutions and strategies as appropriate.

Unfortunately today, too many HR reports consist of tables of data that must be interpreted and translated by managers without the help of HR. It is the HR executive who needs to be interpreting and advocating the strategic and operational value of people to the organization

Fourth, HR needs to be involved in the design and implementation of the organization’s information systems. Organizations are investing large amounts of operating and capital funds into information technology. However information systems are only of value when work processes, roles and work culture are transformed to make the most cost-effective use of automation.

Fifth is HR leadership in the design and implementation of innovative learning and development practices in the organization. Research over the last 10 years has demonstrated that traditional training programs do not deliver the range of content, context and skills needed to effectively perform in most work settings. It has also been demonstrated that organizations do not learn like individuals, nor is the capability naturally inherent in work groups. A critical role for HR is teaching an organization how to learn.

Sixth, HR professionals need to excel at assisting managers to be effective people managers. For HR executives their clients consist of the board, CEO and the senior management team. The most effective HR executive is one that functions as a management consultant and executive coach.

For HR executives the trick is to balance potentially conflicting roles as a senior business executive, an employee advocate, a strategist and analyst, an executive coach and a steward of corporate values and culture. Balancing these roles demands high levels of emotional intelligence, objectivity, and flexibility. No other senior executive has the complexity of being a part of the senior management team while at the same time maintaining a trust-based client working relationship with each member of the team. An added complication is that the HR executive must address any “personnel” issues associated with one’s peers.

Perhaps the most important competency for an effective HR executive is the ability to remain sane amidst the turmoil encountered in most organizations today.

Brian Orr is the vice-president of human resources, learning and communications at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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