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HR must transform – fast!



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Microsoft Philippines HR Director Sheel Majumdar addresses need for HR to become more strategic. He lists down the changes that need to be done.

A lot is being said and expressed around the assertion – HR needs to transform and get more strategic. As much as, the statement in itself is powerful, yet a lot of the practitioners from the fraternity is struggling to demystify the real elements of this journey.

Recently, during a day long brainstorming with a few co-practitioners, I was engaged in a fascinating and energizing debate around this topic. Thankfully, a few CEO and business leaders also participated in this debate, making the dialog more meaningful. We got a real-time business validation of some of our thinking.

Some of the key questions that we deliberated upon were: What really is this transformation? Can we put some definition and specificity to this conversation? If so, what would be some of the top drawer ones?

Based on that discussion, I started jotting down some of the changes that we need to bring into our HR work, relatively fast. These aren’t gospel, they may or may not resonate with many. But it’s important to table them to initiate a conversation, that will be a reflective take on what we need to do as a fraternity to be more relevant.

Let’s take a look at them:

Understand, what business (CEO) “doesn’t” want to know or care

A lot that we do under the quintessential HR job is running rhythmic processes, programs and scorecards, which though are critical in nature, but the business (CEO) doesn’t care much about. They know these are important, and needs to be carried out, but they don’t want to know what we are doing and how we are doing these. A lion share of our time goes into doing and maintaining these, but the reality is, for business or CEOs, these are HR issues (which they wouldn’t want to spend too much time on) and not business issues. HR will need to ensure these happen as clockwork to the right quality and compliance need, but also understand these alone wouldn’t mean much from a functional relevance standpoint.

Clearly, identify and recognize what “is” important

Business (read CEO) are interested in business / revenue/ profitability growth. To that end, they look across the table to HR to own the talent, organization capability and culture roadmap needed towards these. CEOs are more focused on business and talent issues, not HR issues. For HR, the key opportunity to be the most relevant executive function is to address the questions:

  • Where do we want the business to go?
  • Where are we today to that end state?
  • What do we do to organization capability, talent, and culture to accelerate this journey?

It’s here CEOs derive (or expect to derive) the real value from HR as a function.

Time to listen and absorb

Traditional HR of telling and governing, HR processes and policies, are changing rapidly. Since the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, organizations the world over have been intentionally transforming HR to be much more than just process / policy advocates. In the modern day context, it’s important for HR to “get it (what the business is and what it needs)”. I have repeatedly heard this grouse from the business leadership – of HR not getting it, and being happy in their cocoon. That may sound a tad generalized and a carpet-bombing statement; however, that, to a greater extent, is a reality. A very tiny section of the HR community “gets it”. Its time, we change our approach to inculcate habits of:

  • Being at the business forefront, attentively listening to business conversations (identifying the talent, organization and culture needs), employees (identifying opportunities to simplify systems and culture to enable high engagement and collaboration), external market (learning from different ecosystems and embracing the new world of work)
  • Understand the end-to-end business value chain (system) – in and out (what are the systemic parts, how it all works, the present state and opportunities therefore)
  • Absorb insights – from leaders, from the organization at large and market information
  • Have a strategic (ears to the ground) point of view

Questions to elevate growth

To me, the biggest ammunition in the HR arsenal is the ability to ask powerful questions, that:

  • Creates deeper strategic conversation about growing the business (capability, new market, new business, transforming our present business model, etc.)
  • Pushes the status quo – thus elevating the quality of leadership, decision making, unearthing growth opportunities, being self-critical of our blind spots, etc.
  • Generates more insights on cultural mindsets, barriers, fears, vulnerabilities that uncovers opportunities for intrinsic growth
  • Enhances my (HR’s) alignment to business and strategy
  • Helps to create a key facilitative and highly credible space for HR on the executive table

In the modern day context, it’s highly important for HR (business partners) to build this skill and their “questions” that will enable them to play a more impactful role towards growing businesses.

Understanding the “customer” context

For us to have a strong point of view on the future state organization, it’s important to know how we are landing with our customers today and what needs to change there. Most successful organizations align all their internal decision systems and results with the impact on the customer. It is this impact which needs to ultimately increase, and HR needs to understand how the present talent, organization and culture strategy is playing out in this pursuit, and what can improve. HR will need to spend a lot of time listening to the customers and partners, and this will help enhance their presence and effectiveness in the executive conversations.

Embrace data and intelligence

As HR gets into the driver seat to influence and shape the organizational strategy and growth plans, it will need to be equipped with some in-depth intelligence that will help push the arguments and conversation further. Talent, organization and culture, have been measured (mostly) using very surface level numbers (traditionally) – attrition analysis, diversity, spans, employee satisfaction scores, etc. Increasingly, the need is getting amplified to go deeper and bring out intelligence around growth indicators, for example:

  • What kind of transformational talent do we need?
  • What’s the impact of such talent in transforming and growing business?
  • What kind of managers are being talent magnets that feeds to the organization growth plans?
  • What are the voices from the employees to the environment of taking risks and tolerance for failure, etc.

The capabilities of analytics have gone through a radical uplift over the last decade or so – it’s important for HR to start leveraging this capability to seek right intelligence to support our arguments. This one space / capability can be a huge arsenal for HR to earn a critical seat at the strategy table. Many organizations are investing in full time HR business intelligence arms to build this competence; this is an investment worth making for the future.

Leadership coach

Leadership is a lonely place. It has moments of uncertainty, vulnerability and plain blank fear. There’s a lot at stake for a leader in making decisions to grow a business or organization. In the modern day context, a true HR business partner will need to build skills to be the confidante, the white boarding partner, the sounding board, the dispassionate / non-judgmental listening post, the conscience keeper, the mirror, the difficult question bank, who will do the critical job of eliminating doubts and uncertainties, to help the leader operate with confidence. This, in my experience, is yet another critical role the HR business partner plays – specifically to build the adaptive leadership component of a leader or (leadership team). Modern day HR will need to build on the skills of listening, asking thought provoking purposeful questions, giving real-time active feedback (mirror), facilitating difficult decision making conversation (white boarding partner), combined with values of trust and integrity to be effective in this space. This ability can generate a lot of credible space for the HR professional, especially in these times.

Talent magnet

Lastly, it’s all about talent. Talent with a future in mind:

  • What kind of talent we need to grow the business?
  • What kind of leadership is needed to transform and win?
  • What are some of the new capabilities we need to focus on that aren’t there today (or are limited) but is needed more in the future context?

Modern day HR needs to rise above the limitations of functional roles like talent acquisition, and be talent magnets. I believe (again from experience), one of the best way to know about the “what’s happening in the market” and “how attractive is our organization story” is by meeting and conversing with external talent. Many times, we are driven by need to fill open roles – hence our interviews get focused on searching and hiring for that opening. A true talent magnet meets people without any immediate need, agenda or opening. It’s an ongoing habit to search for and meet the best transformative talent. Furthermore, we will need to have lenses defined on what we need to look for in the future talent, to actualize our growth ambitions. And relentlessly go on telling our story and listening to theirs, thus building our perspective and talent insights.

How do we know it is working?

My simple visual measure for this is:

  • How many conversations to future growth am I being invited to?
  • How many times does the CEO (client leader) seek my opinion or seek me out to discuss / share their line of thinking – to further seek feedback or counsel on decisions?
  • What share of my time am I working on future growth agenda – business strategy, talent management, organization capability, culture, leadership coaching, customer / talent meetings?
  • What’s the feedback from your client leadership (CEO)? What am I hearing? Where are they experiencing my impact more – Tactical? Transitional? Transformational?
  • How sought after am I – with the leadership team (for leadership coaching / organization development)?
  • How often am I able to elevate leadership conversations with purposeful, future focused questions?
  • How often am I leveraging intelligence based insights to prepare for a conversation (to advocate my argument)? How am I building this competence?

These are exciting times for HR. Today, more than ever before, HR is becoming “the” most prominent voice at the executive table. There is still a long way to go in this journey to be more strategic, impactful and relevant. The question is – do we want to be that?



Human Resources Online is heading to Bangkok with the Accelerate HR conference on November 26-27.
HR leaders from Agoda, DKSH, Fonterra, FWD, Kasikornbank, Minor Food, Nissan Motor and more have already confirmed to speak.
Early-bird tickets are still available.

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