What’s the difference between an HR practitioner and an HR leader? Our expert has identified 12 traits, and here are two.
By John Schierer
Yesterday, human resources (HR) supported the business. Tomorrow, however, HR will drive it. In fact, a 2012 survey by HR consultancy KPMG found that 59 percent of senior executives believe HR will grow in strategic importance. Unfortunately, just 17 percent say HR does a good job demonstrating its value. That comes as no surprise to John Schierer. Vice President of HR at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, he has more than 25 years of experience as a senior HR executive, during which time, he has learned a great deal about human capital. Those who manage it best, he says, have a dozen behaviors in common. Here, he outlines for Forefront how to master two of the 12, empowering HR leaders to take their organization from yesterday to tomorrow. — Forefront Editors
Listen and Do Not Interrupt
This is a particularly easy trap to fall into as you advance in your career. An employee comes in to see you, and you have heard this problem (or one very similar) many times before. You have a phone call to return and a person waiting to see you. Your greatest temptation is to solve the problem and move on. The greatest HR practitioners understand that people come to HR to be heard.
You may indeed be able to solve the problem at hand, but the voice they need to hear is their own. If they solve their own problem, it is not only likely to be an enduring solution, but it builds their confidence and self-esteem. If you solve it for them, they now have a crutch—and an easy person to blame if the solution does not work. A good rule of thumb is to establish a mental gauge that informally measures the amount of time you spend talking. If the gauge gets past the point where you are talking more than a third of the time, just stop talking and let the other person speak.
Some in HR have a built a career out of fixing problems, but often these solutions are not enduring. If you really do not have the time, schedule it so that the person has your undivided attention. Be straightforward and say, “Your situation deserves my full and undivided attention. Let’s pick a time when I can give you the time you need.” You will be surprised at the positive reaction you get from such a practice. It also gives the person additional time to reflect and think through what they want to say. But above all, when they do return, be sure you are listening. Don’t interrupt until they are done. Don’t answer the phone. Just listen. Good HR people solve problems; great ones enable the solution.
Understand What Drives Success and Revenue in Your Business
If you do not know the last three years’ sales and profitability, how you make money and your top three customers, you cannot play. That is the ante at the table.
In my first HR leadership role, the CEO bemoaned the fact that as he visited customers, their HR Departments appeared to be more proactive and connected to the business; he asked that his HR Department be repositioned within the organization to contribute beyond an administrative role. He gave me free reign to make any changes in personnel to effect the transformation.
In my first days there, I quizzed the HR team. Who are our customers? How do we make money? What customers are growing or shrinking? Who are our best and worst suppliers? What has changed in our market over the last three years? How much money is spent on research and development (R&D), and how do we decide where to spend R&D money?
Not surprisingly, no one knew the answers to those questions. As a new employee, I did not know the answers myself, but I asked the team if they were curious about the answers. Fortunately, they were bright and eager and curious. They were dying to find out. Along the way, we learned that even the broader organization did not know all those answers. In time, we assigned different team members to investigate and give reports to the entire HR team. Everyone was asked to give their interpretation of the implications of what they found.
This was the key to repositioning HR within the broader organization. As the HR team fanned out and asked questions, they were now seen as interested in all facets of the business and their solutions were better informed and accepted. They went beyond the routine administration of forms to redesigning forms so that they could be more easily used and less prone to error. They were informed and could answer the “Why?” question when confronted about an HR policy.
To give one more illustration of this point, I once worked in a company with a large Customer Service Department. About one-third of their time was spent correcting invoice errors that could be as little as a few cents. As business expanded, there was a tremendous surge in hiring in the area. Plans were made to add desks, break down walls and even add capacity to the cafeteria for break times. HR could have just run ads and done the hiring. Instead, they worked with the managers in Customer Service to identify the most common billing errors and change the order input processes. By eliminating the errors and the work at the source, it made the department’s reps more efficient, increased customer satisfaction and reduced the labor costs. In addition, team members now were able to spend more time dealing with the customer in a positive fashion.
Transactional HR people do not function on this plane, but those who understand the business can make such an impact.
With these tips in your toolbox, you’ hae taken two steps toward HR supremacy. Now, take 10 more—a giant leap—by learning all 12 of Schierer’s HR leadership best practices. The full list is available here.
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- Part 4: The 4 Great Myths about Transparency… and the Reality - March 30, 2015