When I started my first HR job at 26, my boss handed me a stack of books and two pieces of advice. (1) Always read what the client is reading and (2) learn to “talk trucks” (meaning, “learn the business, kid.”) Straight out of grad school and fired up about all I thought I knew, the reading part was perfect for me. I think she was worried I'd be telling the guys three levels up what to read (and think), and far better to meet them where they were with a little humility.
And the second piece of advice, “talking trucks,” learning the business so well that I could add real value and perspective to the conversation, was PRICELESS.
I spent as much time learning the business as I did doing HR. Back then I thought when someone said, “You're the least HR-y HR person I know” that was a compliment. My approach didn't always sit well with some of the old-school HR execs, who would remind me to “Remember who's side I was on.” My team and I stayed the course, and always strove to be business people first, who happen to have expertise in HR.
A decade later when I pivoted from HR exec to a variety of field executive assignments in customer service and sales, I was shocked at how few HR managers supporting my team truly understood the business. They'd come in talking about constraints and rules and time to hire stats that all sounded like a big “why we can't” do the things that, with a bit of HR creativity, we surely could.
Four Ways to Help Your HR Team Be More Strategic
Today we work with a wide range of clients from fast-growing start-ups to those with large corporations with employees scattered around the globe. A clear common denominator of those executing well, growing deliberately in size and margin, and building engaging cultures, is they have a strong, STRATEGIC HR team, who get it, and because they do, they have a seat at the table. They influence from the inside.
If your HR team isn't there quite yet, here are a few good places to start
- Align HR process measures to business outcomes.
When I took over in my first executive HR role, one of the first things we did was change our scorecard to align with business outcomes. Of course, we kept some vital HR favorites (e.g attrition in the first 90 days; time to fill positions; diversity distribution) but we added in revenue and customer experience targets as well. My team went nuts at first. “We can't control NPS, why should our bonus depend on it?” Welcome to every manager you're supporting's world. They can't control it all either. Great teams share common goals, and as HR professionals we need to be part of the team, not outside. How you train new hires impacts the customer experience and sales. The employee engagement support does too. If our programs, policies, and procedures don't ultimately have a business impact, we're focused on the wrong things.
- Share sensitive information.
If you can't trust your HR team with sensitive information, why in the world would you entrust them to manage your companies' most important asset– your people? If you don't have an HR team you can trust, fix that. If you do, err on the side of letting them in. The number one reason people can't think strategically is that they lack information and context. Share what you can. Have them sign internal NDAs if that helps. But the longer you wait on sharing your (fill in the blank here) merger intentions, location closings, reductions in force, new product launches, etc. the less time they have to be proactive and help you plan a solid execution strategy. HR practitioners all over the world complain of being brought in too late in the game to make a difference. They're left punting–doing the best they can with the situation they've been handed and frustrated with what they know they could have done if they only had a few more months to plan and execute.
- Rotate them through a field assignment.
Do you have a high-potential HR manager you're grooming for a larger role? I know it feels like cutting off your right arm now, but an 18-month assignment in a field role could make all the difference. If they come back to HR, great, they'll understand the business pressures so much more. If they chose to stay in the field, they'll be applying all their HR knowledge to building great cultures and leading effective teams. Either way, you win.
A pivotal point in my career was when a senior leader I had been supporting as an HR business partner, looked at me and said, “Karin, you're young in your career (I was then) and if you don't go get some field experience soon, the very best you can be here is a VP of HR. I think you can do more. If you want to go back into HR after the field assignment, cool, you'll be that much stronger.” Three months later I found myself leading a bunch of B2B call centers for which I had no experience. Now I was not telling people how to lead, I was leading from the deep end and learning the business through a fire hose. Then I rotated back into HR for a turnaround effort of the training organization, and then back to the field to lead a 2200 person retail sales team (a role for which every ounce of HR training came in helpful.) If you want your HR team to truly understand the business, let them lead it.
- Foster a “how can we” attitude
I still run into companies that view their HR teams as police or a hurdle to get through. Work with your HR team to listen carefully to new ideas and strategies and start with a “How can we?” attitude to identify creative ideas to be part of the solution.
How can you help your HR team be more strategic?