Can HR Gain Strategic Influence? Only If It Gets Real Skin in the Game

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Jul 19, 2012

Human Resources has become the red-headed stepchild of the business world.

It breaks my heart, but despite the fact that our role is to facilitate the management of the organziation’s most potent resource, we still aren’t taken seriously in far too many organizations.

It’s not that we aren’t needed, because we are and we feel needed for things like payroll and staffing. We just aren’t usually as involved in the high stakes decisions making within the organizations as we should be (assuming we really know our stuff).

Why HR struggles for strategic influence

This is a situation that has always perplexed me. I’ve sought to understand why this continues to be the case despite so many people knowing it’s the case and striving to make change.

There are a lot of reasons why HR continues to struggle for true strategic influence:

  • We don’t have enough true business management experience.
  • We spend too much time focused on process and efficiency and not enough time working on talent.
  • We’ve become infatuated with best practices and have lost site of driving meaningful business results through our work.
  • We lack some keys skills in influence and political savvy that are required to play at the executive level.

The list is long and I think that all of these things contribute to the situation. But. I’ve come to believe that the biggest issue facing HR is that we lack the same kinds of natural consequences within our work that the other functions experience.

In HR, there are no natural consequences

When the sales team loses a major account or screw up their forecasts badly, it could cripple the company. When the CFO’s team gets numbers wrong or files a faulty report with regulators, people can end up in legal trouble. When the network crashes or the phone system goes down, business grinds to a halt and the business starts losing money by the second. and IT feels the wrath of the organization

These are consequences that keep you focused. Now, let’s look at HR.

When it comes to some of our processes (performance appraisals anyone?), people may actually be better off if some of our systems crashed. When we make mistakes in HR, people might be inconvenienced, but it’s hardly crippling to the business. The possible exceptions are administration of benefits and 401 (k)-type programs which are increasingly outsourced anyway, which keeps us away from the heavy consequences of failures or mistakes (we can blame our vendor when the stuff hits the fan).

What are the consequences to the head of HR if the wellness initiative fails? Or what about the new high potential leadership program you were so adament about implementing?

It’s all about influence

Some of this isn’t really anyone’s fault. The work of HR, by nature of being focused on human beings, is both difficult to measure and takes a while to show any real results. So when we fail, by the time the results show up, we’ve forgotten where that pain came from (the same is true, however, for success).

In addition, we don’t even really have direct responsibility for too many things we claim as our work. Our work is about influence.

We can provide training programs, but managers have to develop their people. We can teach and outline a model of leadership, but the leaders have to actually do it. And, we’ve gotten good at shifting the accountability to them, which is the appropriate thing to do.

The problem then boils down to the fact that we don’t have much upside or downside consequences attached to our jobs. We go to HR conferences and read articles that tell us that talent is the most critical resource within our organizations, but I’ve not seen too many companies where HR is truly on the line for talent. We are tapped with the responsibility for providing tools and approaches for talent management, but the organization typically claims ownership for talent.

The executives who head other areas see this issue and that’s why they don’t embrace HR in the same way the do the other areas. They recognize that HR gets to be in the process to recruit and hire important talent, but when that talent backfires, HR isn’t held responsible for the hire. HR just rides in to help create an appropriate severance package and then start the process over again.

If the IT department makes a major software purchase that turns out to be a lemon, the CIO may be fired over it. When a sales team starts losing major clients, the head of sales might lose her job. But when people are flocking out the doors, or big players are leaving our company, does the head of HR ever pay the price? Not usually.

Put some skin in the game

As you think about this, consider that the other discipline within our organization that has a similiar credibility problem to HR is marketing and I think it’s for many of the same reasons.

So, what to do?

In my opinion, if you really want to elevate yourself to the executive table and take your game up to comparable levels with other top executives, you have to raise your hand and take on some real accountability for talent within your organization.

When is the last time you were willing to put your job on the line over an initiative or approach that you believed would truly impact the bottom line? I think that our CEO’s are longing to see this type of conviction and commitment to results.

I think we have to put some real skin in the game in order to be invited to sit down at the table and play.

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