The HR directors ivory tower
We regularly ask HR professionals at various levels: ‘what is your understanding of the overall HR strategy for your business?’ Often we hear vague answers about cost reduction programmes, employee engagement initiatives, and various HR transformation schemes.
While these are important HR initiatives, there’s often a lack of clarity on what their HR team’s agenda actually is. We then get to the thorny issue of what their HR director is currently working on. Overall, there’s general consensus that the role of the HR director and the work they do is not often very visible across their HR teams, an issue that often leads to the HR director being placed in a virtual ‘ivory tower’.
The coal-face of HR - the HRD perspective
Q. What’s the objective of your role & what does your working day look like?
JL: My role in simple terms is to ensure that BLP attract, develop and retain the right people to help us deliver exceptional client service and achieve our strategic objectives. I’m actively involved in issues associated with resourcing, reward, development and a whole range of operational issues. An average day would involve 4/5 meetings; dealing with c150 emails and working on various projects/papers for the board/strategy committee.
BH: I lead, listen, coach and advise. I encourage, recognise, recruit, mediate and terminate. I’m the organisation’s conscience, confidante, interrogator and occasional trouble-shooter. I spend a lot of time ‘doing change’. There’s no average week, day or hour – but there are always a lot of meetings (something I try to minimise). I could say it’s strategic, but it isn’t always – sometimes it’s tactical, trivial and tedious – but all of it is important because it affects people and how they feel about work and the workplace.
Q. Do you agree that the HR director’s role is purely strategic, operating on ‘blue sky thinking’ initiatives rather than being at the coalface? Should the HRD still keep their hand in with daily operations?
JL: Clearly a lot will depend upon the organisation however, from a personal perspective I prefer smaller organisations where you can achieve a balance between the strategic and the operational and where I can still connect with people at all levels on a day to day basis. Consequently, I’m still actively involved in a number of operational issues and enjoy it.
BH: As a leader you have to delegate or you’re not a leader – you’re a micro-manager, so yes I do delegate, but delegation is accompanied by trust and support and I like to think I delegate well. I don’t see the operational/strategic question as an ‘either/or’ – it’s both. We can all have strategic (long term and impactful) elements to our work, and we all have operational responsibilities that help the business function more smoothly. As a parent I don’t engage only in the strategic upbringing of my children – I find a balance that means they grow up to be good, decent human beings – and so it is at work. I focus most of my time on the things that I have been asked to do – and as HRD that is leading change and delivering service. Undertaking very operational tasks would mean I wasn't performing my role properly and worse still I’d be denying someone in my team the opportunity to learn and develop their operational skills.
Q. As an HR director, do you need to be visible and do your team need to have a clear understanding of what you’re doing on a day to day basis?
JL: HRDs need to be visible within their own functions. It’s essential that we set the tone for how we want our departments to operate. As tempting as it might be to seek to be co-located with the managing partner I have good access to him and feel that there is a better return from being co- located with the bulk of the HR department.
Likewise, it’s vital that I communicate regularly with the team. I have monthly departmental meetings where I give an update on the financial performance of the firm and highlight any key trends, issues or items of particular relevance and importance. Once a quarter we’ll ask each team to prepare a short summary of their top 3 priorities for the quarter ahead. In addition I have a monthly meeting – following on from the board meeting - with all of my direct reports and regular (weekly or fortnightly) 1:1s with my direct reports.
BH: This isn’t an HR question. Leaders need followers and hiding away is not the best way to achieve this. Being visible, setting standards, leading by example and making sure I’m connected with the real issues in the team is my preferred style and it seems to work for me.
My team doesn’t need to know about everything I am doing any more than I need to know about their every action. I think the mature approach is to focus on the outputs rather than the inputs and yes, making sure the team are aware of the outputs I am working to and vice versa is the approach that works best for us.
Q. Why do you think so many HR professionals have little or no understanding of their HR director’s agenda?
JL: Everyone within HR should be aware of the HR agenda/people strategy as they’ll be responsible for delivering significant aspects of it – it is not simply ‘what we do’ but also ‘how we do it’ that will make a difference.
For example, about 6 months after I joined BLP I took the whole department away for an offsite meeting at which I shared my vision for HR and we worked through what good would look like, individually and collectively, and how we would work together. We followed this up with a series of sessions in the functional teams (operations/reward/resourcing/development) and have now moved onto delivering a series of modular based training programmes to build confidence and capability across the department.
BH: Some people choose to bury their heads, but I truly believe that everyone wants to have meaning and context at work – it’s the cornerstone of any organisational construct. It’s my job to lead with vision and purpose and provide people with a sense of direction and belonging so they can all perform to the best of their abilities.
Q. When you were an HR manager/ business partner, did you always have full understanding of what your HR directors were involved in and their HR strategies?
JL: There was no such thing as a business partner when I started in HR, or ‘personnel’ as it was then known! In my first role at British Aerospace I wasn’t aware of the broader agenda or strategic issues for anything outside of my specific area of responsibility. When I moved to Schlumberger I was fortunate enough to have a boss who was very inclusive and who kept me up to date with matters of strategic importance and also gave me stretching assignments to develop my skills and knowledge.
BH: I didn’t really enter HR via this route; I was a line manager and then came into HR in a leading role, so I can’t answer this from an HR perspective. I can say that all the really good managers and leaders that I have worked for have always clearly articulated the over-riding goals and where I fit into this bigger picture.
The evolving role of the HRD
Q. Do you think the role of HR directors has changed over the last few years and how do you see it evolving over the coming years?
JL: It has changed enormously and I think it’s inevitable that ‘what’ we do will continue to change, whether this is driven by the changing nature and expectations of the workforce of the future, technology, the regulatory framework within which we operate or further internationalisation/globalisation.
Having said that, I think that some of the core elements of ‘how’ we transact our roles will remain constant, e.g. the need for a commercial approach to problem solving, the requirement to develop good strong working relationships at various levels within the organisation and the need to innovate.
BH: The role has changed massively – it is no longer enough to deliver operational excellence. In fact, over time I wouldn’t be surprised if “operational HR” no longer falls under the remit of the HRD but more of a shared services director role encompassing finance and other back office administration. The role now and in the future is more about being a leader of the present and a creator of the business future.