Dave Ulrich: Six principles that can improve HR operating models

Written by
Dave Ulrich

29 Sep 2015

29 Sep 2015 • by Dave Ulrich

Share a common purpose

Partners in a relationship have different roles to play, but they succeed when they realise that they are much stronger together than apart because they have superordinate and binding goals (for example, raising children). Couples stay together when they share dreams, find meaning, and create a culture of joint rituals and goals, while respecting individual skills. Likewise, in HR, each role has unique expertise (service centres with technology-driven efficiency, centres of expertise with specialised HR insights, embedded HR with business insights). 

The challenge is to find a unifying purpose that brings together these different parts into a greater whole. This binding purpose may be business performance (strategic HR) or improving customer or investor value (outside-in HR). Each component of HR operations contributes unique value to serving customers, improving market value, and delivering business results.


Respect differences

In couple therapy, each partner is encouraged to identify and appreciate the strengths of their partner. Couples succeed when they communicate more positively than negatively. Gottman found a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative comments in successful couples. Others have found in work settings that leaders are more successful with a three-to-one positive to negative relationship ratio. 

Couples also succeed when they know and respond to their partner’s “love maps”, or what matters to their other half. While it might be awkward to talk about “HR’s love maps”, the same logic applies. Clearly, different parts of the HR operating model focus on different activities, with HR service centres emphasising standardised, consistent and cost-efficient solutions and embedded HR generalists working to create tailored HR solutions for unique business requirements. 

Embedded HR professionals define the talent, leadership, and cultural requirements to deliver business goals. Those working in centres of expertise have pride in their deep functional knowledge. Service centre HR professionals ensure that the ‘trains run on time’ (systems do what they should). 

When these different groups respect each other, focus on what is right more than what is wrong, and yield to the influence of the other, they can form relationships that supersede their separate roles. When differences are respected, dissent becomes a positive, not negative, because there is tension without contention, disagreement without being disagreeable, dialogue without being demeaning, confronting without being confrontational, challenge without condemning. Each of the groups within an HR operating model is a ‘partner’ because each brings unique value to the overall goals.

Govern, accept, connect

Much relationship success comes from managing expectations. Researchers have found that 65% to 70% of relationship problems are never “solved” but “managed”. Most problems early in a relationship are worked around (e.g. spending habits, raising children, doing chores). 

It’s important to solve solvable problems and not obsess about those that seem to persist. Likewise, in HR, we may falsely assume that relationships among parts of HR will be congenial and solved. 

More realistic expectations recognise that the processes used to govern HR will be more important than the solutions. For example, managing decision rights is less about who makes a decision and more about a process for who makes a decision because the decision ‘right’ may vary over time. When different parts of an HR operating function can focus on creating a growth mindset, they worry less about the right answer and more about learning to negotiate and discuss. Managing differences with calmness, curiosity, and caring will help build connection among HR parts.

Care for the other

The most important questions that solidify a relationship are: Can I rely on you? Are you safe? Will you be there for me when I need you? Without positive answers to these questions, relationships will crumble under pressure. With positive answers, partners build trust and celebrate their successes. 

In HR departments, it’s important that different parts of the operating model care for each other. There needs to be confidence that HR transaction work will be done on time and accurately. Centres of expertise need to be trusted that they will not impose answers, but collaborate to discover innovative solutions. 

Trust in the HR function should be high due to each area being predictable, dependable, available, accessible, and reliable. ‘We’ language should replace ‘my’ language as the metaphor is for HR unity more than isolation.

Share experiences together

In any relationship, things go wrong. A partner has personal or professional disappointments or a couple has stresses. To build stronger personal relationships, partners are encouraged to turn to each other in times of difficulty, to yield to the influence of their partner, to make bids to each other (in successful relationships more than 80% of bids are responded to), and to be emotionally vulnerable, to share deeper feelings with each other. Spending time together and investing emotionally in each other strengthens relationships. 

In HR, it’s easy to isolate oneself in one’s operating group. It’s helpful to work across groups. This may mean career rotation from COEs (centres of excellence) to embedded HR roles and vice versa, group HR meetings where the groups share concerns and celebrate successes, problem-solving groups with representatives from each HR team, or informal contacts where HR bids are quickly attended to. In addition, when things go wrong in the HR operating model (and they will), rather than blame, complain, or hide, have the emotional confidence to admit there is a problem and seek a joint solution.

Grow together

Anyone in a successful relationship can look back to see progress. Relationships morph and each partner learns and grows. Some growth comes from focusing on the future and what can be, letting go of grievances, recognising vicious cycles and breaking them. Couples with positive relationships recognise growth looking backward and anticipate future growth looking forward. 

HR departments must learn from the past. HR success stories can be woven together into an historical narrative of how an HR department has progressed. Sometimes, HR groups don’t recognise the progress they’ve made. But their historical narrative should be a basis for growth. When the HR department’s development focuses on the shared purpose of delivering sustainable business value, when differences are respected and governance managed, when caring occurs, and when HR professionals share time, growth will likely be sustained.