Get Off the Phone and Remember: HR Is NOT Just an Order Taker

HR must stop being order takers.”

Browsing the Internet this week, I came across this quote from my good friend, Josh Bersin. It caused me to stop as I read the accompanying article.

My first foray into Human Resources was through Training & Development as I eventually ended up running one of IBM’s business units, Catapult. Yes, we took orders. When I eventually moved to an in-house T&D role, I felt that I could change the trajectory.

However, this was easier said than done. Yes, I was the Corporate Training Manager but I was still on the phone from time to time filling request. “Leadership development is what he needs,” I was told. However, six months or so later, there was no change in leadership skills.

Therefore, I decided to change my focus.

When the order came in, I requested a meeting to discuss it further. My No 1 question was: How did you arrive at the conclusion that this person needed leadership development training?  That was when I started to notice something.

The Rx Model

The manager was now kind of caught off guard and had to pause to try and enunciate “why.” Their thought process, while somewhat valid, often showed flaws as it was a rush to give a prescription without validating all the symptoms.

After honing this questioning process over time, we both became more effective. The manager’s request were now put through a fact-finding process which enabled us to evaluate the real needs and examine all the symptoms.

Then —  and only then — would we prescribe what was needed. What we found out over a period of time was that our prescription was totally different from what the original request would have been.

Is your phone ringing off the hook?

If you find that the majority of your time spent connected to that phone is fulfilling requests, then maybe you should rethink your approach. If you find that, after analysis, you somehow looked at the subject of all those calls and concluded that they were in fact just a process request, it may be time to rethink the role of your department.

While we all want to be in the strategic space, being tethered to that phone fielding requests is not the answer.

At a recent HR conference, as a part of my keynote, I asked the following questions:

  • What are the major disruptors of your industry?
  • What are the key challenges your organization is facing?
  • What are the strategic goals of your organization?

At each question, I only got a few hands that went up and those were tentative. However, if we could track those individuals in their workspace we would probably find that they too are on the “process phone” the vast majority of their day.

Making the transition

I remember working in the publishing industry years ago and we were being massively disrupted by the new “digital phenomenon.”  This disruptor basically changed publishing and it has not, and will not, recover for a long time.

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However, this caused our HR department to become more aware of the digital tsunami that was headed our way.

It caused us to change our talent focus, rearrange our internal Learning & Development, skill sets, and competencies. Our focus changed because our business was changing. This caused us to spend a lot of time talking this change through and thinking about how we could guide our organization.

This massive change caused us to pivot and change our focus and our strategic participation level. So when you can’t answer questions about what your organization is facing or what your goals are, there is absolutely no need to have big dreams of being a player when you can’t even participate in the discussion.

A business focus for HR

This is why all of us in HR we need to be more business focused. I also wonder how many HR pros read the business section of their local newspaper, or closely follow the national news? How many watch CNBC or some other business channel?

The answers I get are always disappointing.

An athlete trains to become a better athlete. Writers write to become better writers.  Doctors practice to become better doctors. HR is no different.

We have to train to become better practitioners, and our patient is our organization as well as our employees. This is who we diagnose on a daily basis to try and bring about organizational success. We can’t do that by filling requests on the phone, or by not being cognizant of what our organizations are facing.

So remember: Get off the phone and get busy!

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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