Blow Up HR Again?

Reading Harvard Business Review and The Atlantic provides an illusion that I possess at least an additional 10 points of IQ. Last year, HRB published, “It’s Time To Blow Up HR and build something new.” This time, the venerable institution offered little in terms of new thought and missed the boat on a number of key issues. I find these periodic attacks on human resources seems like a blame game at a time where effectively dealing with the human side of the business determines whether we succeed or fail.

I serve a sizeable number of human resource professionals as individual clients as well as internal business partners. I tell all of them, “If the CEO or business owner isn’t taking charge of the culture, keep your bags packed.” I also tell engagement clients that if the CEO doesn’t take charge of engagement save your face and your money – don’t do it.

When a CEO takes charge of a culture, human resources has plenty to do and it is more valuable and interesting work. This can include developing right fit with all hires. For example, many of hiring managers are shooting employee engagement in the foot simply because they are not connected to their own bias and have dreadful hiring skills. Many talent acquisition departments treat candidates like cattle. While process improvement ought to be a given, we could become far more involved in strategic business decisions with the CEO. But, when a human resources executive takes on responsibilities from a CEO such as culture and engagement, they will usually, at some point, be thrown under the bus because “they failed” at taking over the culture.

But, there is also a mindset within a big portion of the human resource profession that needs the kind of improvements that usually begin with self-awareness. A quote from the HBR article:

“Recent complaints about the HR function have touched a nerve in a large; sympathetic audience, particularly in the United States. The most vocal critics say that HR managers focus too much on “administrivia” and lack vision and strategic insight.”

We knew that.

Many members of the human resources profession want to find themselves “at the table” but membership isn’t based on activity, it is based on demonstrating sound business skills and strategy. The entrance doesn’t happen when someone hides behind loads of activity and complains they are not being “recognized” for all they contribute. But, many of us, with any form of objectivity, can see that tasks and “administrivia” are being taken over by software and technology so wake-up, smell or swallow a good dose of coffee and start taking some risks such as getting clear on strategy and speaking up.

At times, it is difficult to tell if HBR’s intended reader is the HR executive or the CEO. This leads to the crux of a major problem. Much of HBR’s articles speak to CEOs in how to evaluate the function of human resources. But, the average CEO needs a new outlook as well. We ought to be forging an entirely new relationship between the CEO and Chief Human Resource Officer that is based on mutual accountability.

For example, a CEO often walks into the human resources department and tells everyone to fix the employee engagement problem. By the time that person reaches the door, he or she is disengaged from engagement. Many chief human resources officers need to grow the capacity to coach the CEO and tell them, “This will not work. For an initiative this big, we need a united front and you need to lead it.” Unfortunately, the doers, the ones who see can’t seem to break away from the “administrivia” formula will smile, nod and issue an employee survey.

We learn nothing of value by studying dysfunction. Category leaders and organizations that routinely hit the “best places to work” lists have cultures led by CEOs and business owners.

Many of us tend to hide in our existing competencies. Many CEOs are not especially comfortable in dealing with people. They are so busy pleasing shareholders and the board that human issues may feel intrusive and bothersome. But, giving culture or employee engagement over to human resources is a big strategic mistake. Why? The employees will look over the shoulders of HR executives to the business owner or CEO. When they see “business as usual” the culture will not improve and the engagement initiative will simply fail. Usually, CEOs in these scenarios will take little, if any responsibility for that failure.

Many of my clients have come to avoid more certifications in many professional associations because these courses are not teaching them how to become business leaders. They are doing a “check the box” run through in becoming a strong generalist. For those that want to get to the table, try developing a strong business voice. Develop the bearing and viewpoints of C-level executives. Take some course that might engender fear such as presentations and consultative sales skills. Learn how to elevate social networking skills to an art form. Build communities that not only move you forward but also serve as a solution network for the company.

Developing the art of influence and accountability will represent far greater value than making sure everything payroll, insurance, talent process is running smoothly.

Have the courage to walk into the CEO and state, “This will not work! Here is what is in it for you if we try another approach.” And, make sure you have developed to the point where the selected strategy is a win for everyone and not just the employee population. On the other hand, becoming a dark angel isn’t very balanced either! No, the world needs courageous business leaders handling the talent, engagement, growth and change in front of us.

Blow HR up again?

Rather, I suggest an awakening. Wake up to the real power you have to help build a culture that does its very best. If you want to sit next to the CEO, learn how to talk to the CEO and influence his or her life for the better. They will never see the world through your eyes, but they have to bring their authority to portions of your world. Curate their commitment for their benefit, for yours and for everyone that is in front of you.

By the way, those “soft” skills I am recommending are not at all soft. They require courage and more than anything, human resource professionals who want to move to the front of the line need big doses of courage. It doesn’t matter if they are afraid or not, there will never be a shortcut to trusting one’s voice and using it.

Louis Gerstner once said,

“The world is full of CEOs that think that just because they write a memo or they write a letter inside an annual report or they give a little video speech that gets sent around to the company, they think that’s what’s really going to affect employees.”

It takes so much more.

The best chief human resource officers in our community instill that awareness on the CEO and they usually understand that fears of getting tossed out will only delay getting shown the door for taking responsibility that does not belong to them.

Transform your organization? Learn how to develop strong human capital strategies that transform business strategy. Learn how to present your point-of-view in a compellingly effective manner. Become the voice in the CEO’s circle that promotes truth-consciousness and awareness.

Blow up HR again? No. Blow up old behavior. If you do this, you have just stepped into a new world.


David Harder
David Harder
DAVID founded Inspired Work in 1990, which has helped over 42,000 professionals transform their relationship towards work. Individuals from all walks of life attend Inspired Work’s public programs to launch new careers, new business or to become more successful in their existing role. He views work as a profound opportunity to become more fulfilled, contributive and effective. Mr. Harder’s leadership, employee engagement, executive development and social networking programs are used in a wide variety of organizations including The Walt Disney Company, HBO, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, The United Church of Religious Science, Morgan Stanley, and many others. Inspired Work’s leadership programs, career development and team building programs produce some of the worlds most outstanding satisfaction numbers in any business: 92.6% out of a hundred. David has appeared on many business and human-interest programs including CNN, KTLA News, KFWB News and Business News Network. David’s book, new book, The Workplace Engagement Solution (Career Press) offers an entire “crack-the-code” approach to engagement.

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  1. Human resource (HR) officers don’t treat human resources as capital or as assets so they have no common context with other executives. Marketing officers have customer capital. Operations officers have capital and assets. IT officers have IT capital and assets. For HR officers to be traditional officers human resources need to be valuated and invested in as traditional capital and traditional assets.