Do CEOs want HR to be more strategic?

Wishes of line managers, executives send mixed messages

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

In spite of all the talk about HR’s need to become more strategic, I’m not sure most line managers or even senior business leaders would agree. However, as HR professionals it’s in our best interests — and our employers — to convince them they’re wrong.

That’s not to say we need to lecture them about why HR needs to be more strategic, or talk at length about what we actually mean by “strategic HR.” Someone once said it’s not in the interests of HR practitioners to be constantly prattling on about how human resources should be or has become more strategic — at least not when dealing with line managers and executives in other areas.

That’s good advice because many line managers don't even understand what strategic HR actually means. They’re also unlikely to care how strategic their HR department is when HR can't fill job requisitions in a timely manner or deliver the types of training programs needed by employees.

HR executives need to ensure they get the transactional stuff right before they think about moving into the realm of strategy — and certainly before they announce such a campaign outside the HR department.

What line managers want from HR

Some line managers are starting to see HR’s increasingly strategic focus as a threat. That’s partially because more organizations are “downsourcing” a lot of tasks traditionally handled by HR to line managers — especially through the use of technology such as manager self-serve (MSS), time and attendance, compensation decisioning and talent management systems.

One article I read recently argued line managers are actually losing confidence in HR because they’re increasingly having to take on more HR responsibilities. The author of the article, David Woods, argues this is paradoxical because HR is most effective when it becomes more strategic, yet that’s not what line managers seem to want.

Part of the problem, according to Woods, is many managers don’t actually want to concentrate on the work of being a manager. Instead, they prefer to concentrate more on the functional, professional, planning or budgeting sides of their roles.

This possibly relates to the types of people we generally promote into management roles — usually those who were highly effective as individual contributors. And until very recently, even academic programs such as MBAs didn’t include much material on how to actually manage people. Therefore, many managers aren’t ready for HR to take off the training wheels just yet.

On the other hand, it could also be they’re swamped and don’t have time to take on transactional personnel administration tasks.

What CEOs and senior executives want from HR

What frontline managers want from HR is frequently at odds with what CEOs and other senior executives want. According to a recent study completed by Knightsbridge and the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) entitled The Role and Future of HR: The CEO’s Perspective, while CEOs were generally positive about the contribution of the HR function, they would like to see us become more strategic, focusing on business priorities rather than policies and procedures, and gaining more frontline experience.

The study also noted CEOs feel HR should be involved in helping organizations grow, managing talent and succession planning, employment branding, generational differences in the workplace, employee communications, social media, forecasting and change management.

The way forward for HR

How can HR satisfy both line managers and executives when their needs would appear to be so disparate? The way forward would appear to be in understanding HR can be both transactional and strategic at the same time.

From a transactional perspective, HR needs to concentrate on service delivery and being responsive to the needs of line managers (and employees). It’s no good offloading tasks to managers simply because HR no longer wants to do them or because even junior HR staff want to be “more strategic.”

Not all HR practitioners can or should be functioning at a strategic level. There is still a place for ensuring transactional services are being delivered effectively and in a timely manner.

Even if you want to be more strategic, it’s possible to do so quietly without broadcasting to everyone that’s what you’re doing. And if you do offload something onto managers, be sure to explain what you’re giving them in return, or at least how it’s necessary as part of a cost-cutting measure and not simply to make HR “more strategic.”

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit

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