“The Next Question” Is the Hallmark of the Transformational Human Resources Leader

John Schierer Foresight Contributors, Human Resources Leave a Comment

In looking at the evolution of the Human Resources role, a question often arises about the transactional professional versus the transformative professional.  These terms are used frequently, but, in practical terms, what do they mean and how would you know it if you saw the different approaches?

The preference for a transformative Human Resources professional is obvious almost to the point of being rhetorical.  The transactional professional has been derided and devalued. But before we dismiss the transactional professional, it should be made clear: the role and ability to be transformational is built upon a firm transactional foundation. Just as a ballerina’s most intricate and beautiful movements are built upon thousands of repetitions of the most basic exercises, the Human Resource function and credibility are built upon reliable transactional integrity. What employee will trust us to guide their career if we cannot get their paycheck right, their benefits correct and their 401K statement delivered reliably to the right address? Transactional excellence and reliability is the cornerstone capability that enables the transformational professional to flourish. It is like pulling weeds. The garden of professional excellence must be tended with the effort that can only come as a result of transactional capability and reliability.

That said- what marks the capability of the transformational Human Resources professional? In short: it is the capability to ask The Next Question.

To illustrate the power of The Next Question let’s look at two examples that illustrate the point

Pushing Paper Or Solutions?

A national electronics chain was experiencing rapid growth and the HR Team received requisitions to hire 15 additional Customer Service Representatives (CSR’s)- about a 25% increase in headcount.  While the recruiting staff saw a pile of requisitions as an aggressive challenge to locate, interview and select viable candidates, the HR manager took the opportunity to venture into the area of transformation and asked the next question: Why do we need the additional staff?

Working with the Customer Service Manager and some of the CSR’s themselves, they looked deeply into what activities consumed the day of the CSR’s.  The study found the majority of issues addressed were corrections of input errors made by the field sales personnel. Taking it one step further, the errors in the field were driven by an order format that was flawed and untouched in ages. By revamping the input process and retraining field service personnel, order input errors dropped drastically. These changes resulted in the need for only three new hires. The labor savings were only a fraction of the value derived. The ability to ask The Next Question also meant 12 fewer desks and computers, reduced office renovation costs, lower insurance  costs and maintenance and additional real estate  lease costs and  were postponed. In addition, the current CSR’s processed fewer errors, leading to improved customer relationships.

The purely transactional HR professional might look at how to process the requisitions faster.  The transformational leader understands the business environment well enough to ask The Next Question and bring enduring value to the organization.

Autopsy Of A Dead Process

In another case an engineering firm had a large Program Management department that drove the business success by keeping complex projects on time and under budget.  In the course of a year, three successive hires failed to meet expectations and either were terminated or quit in frustration. Morale was at a low point and the turnover strained the remaining staff. The HR professional assigned to recruit talent in the area had a well-established process with a history of successful hires. It was tempting to chalk the recent failures to bad luck and circumstance. Instead, she chose to transform the process to ask The Next Question: What made a good Program Manager and how could the interview process identify one?

This transformative leader saw the interview process was ultra-traditional. The hiring manager vetted piles of resumes; phone screened, interviewed and selected the best of those interviewed.  To go a step further, she interviewed the incumbents and the manger and found out two things about the most successful program managers: They were able to present complex data and challenges in short, informative presentations and they shared data freely with other Program Managers.

By asking The Next Question, she revamped the hiring process drastically. She created panel interviews of peers. This meant the team could evaluate the ability of the candidate to share and cooperate. It also invested the entire team in the success of the new person and created a more trusting and welcoming environment for the new hire.  However the biggest change was a requirement for  the prospective employee make a 20 minute presentation to the hiring panel about their career, key accomplishments and view of the market. This presentation was a real-life demonstration of the key presentation and analytical skills required to be successful. The panel interview and presentation was transformative and allowed the team to form a consensus from observable skills key to successful performance on the job. Subsequent hires were highly successful.


Words like “Transformational Human Resources” can be abstract. Practically speaking, we see HR leaders able to transform the organization when they understand the business well enough to ask The Next Question. It is easy to create adhere to our processes and accept traditional roles. However,  leaders  fearless enough to question their own  processes and capabilities -in spite of historical success- are truly transformational.

John Schierer

John Schierer

John Schierer is a senior Human Resources Consultant with over 25 years’ experience with such companies as Thomas and Betts, Kyocera America, Cobham Sensor Systems, and Cubic. His HR teams create strong cultures of employee engagement resulting in record-setting financial performance.His teams were awarded the Workplace Excellence Award by the San Diego Society of Human Resources (SDSHRM) in 2008 and 2010 and the National Business Research Award in 2009 for wholesale gains in employee engagement results.
John Schierer

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