June 21, 2018

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HR Guilt, Roles and Opportunities 3 - Who Has Common Sense?

OK, I'm venting. HR is taken for granted. At best we're seen as just using common sense and everyone else feels they're just as good at that and often better. But are they?

Elliott Jaques recent passing reminds me that our strategic tasks include some of the longest, if not all of the longest-term endeavors in any organization - ultimately to change the entire culture to something more effective. Jacques argued the highest job is reserved for the executive who has to struggle effectively with the longest-term strategies. I vote for HR, especially with all the short-term focus now plaguing organizations. We're about the only people left with truly long time horizons. Are we out of step for that? Or is that part of the job and part of the reason for us being unrecognized? To a certain extent we legitimately have to overlook some small, immediate stuff to promote bigger goals.

We now know from research and from growing interest by CEOs in having executive coaches that pressure at the top is getting to senior executives. The heaviest pressure comes from short term thinking forced by the tyranny of quarterly results when people would prefer to strategize for the long term. Daily pressure builds for quick solutions. HR answers are anything but quick in most cases. This frustrates everyone, but it's a fact.

True, we win points when we merge two company cultures successfully (or what sets things up in the short term to create success), when we beat the latest union drive, when a particular training program gets great feedback or when we rapidly provide the CEO with the benefit information needed for their kids' dental work. But lots of daily stuff swoops by with its ups and downs while the projects we long to excel at come along only occasionally and usually take a long time to unfold. We often feel left out because we're still quietly integrating the last five projects while the top team has moved on to plan the next coup.

HR roles range from sublime to ridiculous. It's easy to see why we're an add-on at strategy meetings. Senior line executives need to believe it's possible to staff properly to meet whatever strategy they come up with. For instance, the fact that there may be a shortage of trained people is simply a hurdle that must and will be HR. That's the job, right? Planners take lots for granted. In this worst case scenario, they expect HR to create a strategy of working with training institutions and schools to set up new programs and expedite new graduates that can be hired.

Such HR programs are strategic, but they're not considered driving or limiting strategies. Many senior strategies get put together will less than detailed attention to such "minor" challenges. They flow from decisions at the senior strategy table to move the business in a new direction that needs more new graduates, to follow this example. The best an SVP HR can expect is for the top line people to look down the table and say, "You can do this, right?" No one is expecting a "no," nor are they likely to pay a lot of attention to it. They're equally expert in "common sense" remember. They know.

For the people part of any puzzle executives depend on the fact that human beings are flexible and trainable and can be motivated to do almost anything...and soon...or so they think. Frankly they're more suspicious of long-term HR strategies. That results from the fact they've never seen one carried through. With short term pressures, rapid changes of direction and the expectation that HR will "show its business acumen" by switching its programs to visibly support the latest vision and mission statements, it wouldn't surprise anyone to know that long-term HR programs are rare. We get accused of following fads, but we know who reads the latest management book, wants that author as a speaker at the next annual conference and expects HR to apply those ideas right now. Remember process re-engineering as an example.

A great consultant, who writes regularly for was not above commenting in a recent column on what's wrong with HR people. His comments struck me rather pointedly. He blamed an HR director for not telling off a CEO who asked for leadership training for a group of senior executives who "eat presenters alive." He had no advice for the presenter. He doesn't blame the CEO for failing to discipline the rowdy executives or for requesting something that may not be reasonable. He blames HR, assuming that it's HR's job to tell off the CEO (maybe) and that HR didn't (unlikely - in my experience - though perhaps not as forcibly as some blustery line executive might need or respond to).

Certainly HR can get caught in the middle without having done its job. Chances are this HR director did tell the CEO it would not work. Chances are the CEO, who doesn't fully regard HR as worthy of a "seat at the table," told the HR director to get it done. I used to be told regularly by any number of my 70,000 associates that I "should say" x, y or z to the CEO and if it wasn't agreed to I should threaten to resign. People love to say, "Someone should tell them." If I'd resigned every time, I'd have had an endless string of jobs lasting no more than a few weeks. Instead, of course, I soldiered on, making some things work that surprised me (occasionally those CEO's are right) and accepting that mediocre results would stem from even the best college try in a few other cases.

Surely the role of HR is to keep the long term in focus while struggling to impact the short term thinking around them. We aren't going to win every debate about short term, quick fixes...and we shouldn't. Sometimes people are quirky. In the consultant's example, perhaps the right presenter can help those "eat 'em alive" executives see some light. If the choice is try it or resign, I'd generally recommend the HR director try it. If they've stated their reservations and it fails, they might even win a point.

Great HR people who understand what is and isn't possible in terms of changing their company's culture are scarce enough. In this example, the director should advise the presenter, coach what they can, offer support and sympathy if it doesn't turn out perfectly and try to make sure everyone learns something. It sounded to me like that's what was happening.

It's easy to express our frustration that people aren't perfect and list what else could be done. It's also important that those of us who have worked at senior levels of this profession take a stand in pointing out that HR's biggest role is finding a balance in tough situations - in ways that help everyone learn to be better next time. Clearly some of us have been doing that job well or the statistical reports wouldn't be proving, as they are, that HR makes a difference to the bottom line and share value. We need to remind ourselves that overall there's some success showing in HR results! Keep it up and we might even win respect.


-Dave Crisp