Becoming a Strategic HR Professional

~~ One in an intermittent series about strategic HR. If you have a fantastic story of strategic HR you’d like to see featured here, let me know! ~~

I’ve talked with many people about what strategic HR means. Most people seem confused.

“It’s having a seat at the table,” say some. What the HR professional does once in that seat isn’t clear. Others say it’s about making HR decisions from a financial perspective. In other words, cut long-term employees whose salaries have increased, but who are no longer innovating (while the root causes of lack of innovation go unexamined). Neither of these approaches leads to strategic HR. In fact, both of these perspectives completely miss the boat.

How to Become Strategic

My colleague, Dave Jamieson (one of my co-editors for Handbook for Strategic HR) identified some of the shifts needed to achieve strategic HR.

Vision of a Future World by Syd Mead

Vision of a Future World by Syd Mead

From Past-Focused to Future-Focused

To be strategic, HR professionals need to think ahead and anticipate the future needs of the organization. Then they align HR practices to support those future needs. Good questions to ask include:

  • It is ten years in the future and you’re building the company from scratch. What would be the most important skills you’d need in your new hires?
  • What trend is most likely to uproot the company’s business model or staffing structure? What can HR do to help?
  • What strategies are business units pursuing? What skills, knowledge, process, and structure will they need to succeed?

From an HR Professional Within a Business to a Business Person with HR Knowledge

Strategic HR professionals lead with the business, and then think about how HR can help. Their first concern is helping the organization succeed; HR is simply the domain in which they operate to achieve business goals. Good questions to ask include:

  • Who do we serve? What would make our customers fire our competitors and give 100% of their business to us? How can HR help make this happen?
  • Why do our customers stay with us? What’s our value proposition to them? How can HR enhance the value we provide?
  • How do we get in the way of our customers? What could we do to make their lives better? How can HR support this? (If you’re jazzed by these questions, check out Fran Peavy’s Strategic Questioning guide or Lisa Bodell’s website).

From Authoritative to Consultative

The HR departments of the past were mostly transactional. They processed benefits, arranged payroll, organized pay scales, managed performance review systems, and took care of employee relations issues. A business leader said, “We need this.” HR said, “OK.”

Strategic HR is not about changing the conversation from “OK” to “no.” Instead, it’s about moving between roles as needed. Sometimes, the business needs HR to serve as an adviser and coach. Other times, the business needs HR expertise. And, yes, sometimes the business needs an implementer. The best HR professionals know when to use each role and move effortlessly between them. Most importantly, they’re not just order takers.

HR Strategy in Action

All of this remains academic until you see it in action. I just heard a story yesterday about strategic HR in action.

A colleague and friend, head of HR for an international consumer goods company, realized upon joining the company that the leadership team wasn’t aligned. In fact, everyone had a different vision of where the company should go. He realized that this lack of alignment would have long-term, negative effects on the company (imagine a six way tug-of-war!). So he suggested an alignment session. The first time he asked, the CEO said no. The second time he raised the issue, the CEO listened, but declined. The third time, the CEO said yes.

The head of HR planned and facilitated the meeting himself. Together, the CEO, CFO, and VPs of Marketing, Sales, Manufacturing, and Research convened to articulate company strengths, threats, opportunities, and priorities. They left the meeting aligned: they had a common understanding of the organization’s purpose, direction, and vision.

In this case, the head of HR used all three strategic qualities Jamieson describes. He thought about the future impact of misalignment to the company. He positioned himself as a business person first; the typical HR disciplines (benefits, compensation, employee relations, recruitment, learning and development) didn’t enter into the conversation. Finally, he used a consultative approach, moving between styles and continuing to advocate for what he thought best for the company despite a few initial “no” responses.

What’s your best story about strategic HR in action?

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