Don’t Fall in Love with HR

By David Creelman

Secrets of Human-Capital Management

Don’t fall in love with HRThe biggest trap for HR professionals is becoming immersed in the world of HR. If you read HR books, take HR courses and hang out with other HR specialists you may lose sight of the real needs of your business. This is a common failing. It may be getting worse as HR becomes more of a profession and where people see themselves first and foremost as HR specialists rather than as a manager who happens to run HR.

The deadly allure of an HR perspective
Since we know engagement, training, and wellness are ‘good things’ it is tempting to push the organization to invest in them. However, you should never lead with the HR perspective. HR initiatives should come in response to clear business needs like increasing sales or reducing defects. Training, engagement or some other HR program may help achieve those goals. The trouble is that many HR professionals skip straight to promoting HR initiatives with only a foggy notion of what business problem those programs are meant to address. In fact, HR initiatives are best when they are in response to specific needs like “reduce errors in billing in the eastern region” or “get new cashiers up to speed faster”.

Successful chief HR officers are irritated by HR’s constant refrain that they need a seat at the table. The seat is already there, open and waiting for HR to step up. However the seat is only for someone who can help solve the problems facing the business, not for someone with a lot of pet HR initiatives.

It can be disturbing for HR specialists to discover that while they know how to run “best practice” HR programs they are not sure how to help the business get results. It is tempting to back away and return to doing the HR stuff you have been taught—hoping that in some indirect way it will help. That is a temptation to be resisted. The best HR professionals accept that their mission is to help managers solve their specific problems and work hard on those messy, difficult issues.  Everything we do in HR is a means to an end. We need to immerse ourselves in the end goals and not get overly enamoured with the means.

How to enhance your business mindset

The most powerful vaccine against an inward looking HR focus is to have worked as a line manager. Even a few years in line management, early in your career, can colour your perspective for a lifetime. If you missed that opportunity it may be possible to take on an operational responsibility in addition to your usual HR roles. It does not matter so much what that operational role is, it just needs to be something that takes you out of the HR world and immerses you in the kind of business challenges your managers face.

Another route it so spend as much time as possible in the operations. If you do not have the opportunity to be a plant manager then at least spend time in the plant. Get a visceral feel of what it is like. Bring your laptop and work out of that location for a few days. You will absorb a great deal of tacit insight into how things work.

The third route is to spend time with business leaders who are not HR peers and make a point of trying to see the world through their eyes. Notice the questions they ask, the points that are top of mind, and the things that worry them. Embracing this perspective, so that it becomes second nature, will help you avoid the trap of seeing HR as an end in itself.

We have all seen finance people who understand the numbers but not the human reality behind them; lawyers who tell you what you cannot do instead of how to do what needs to be done; and IT professionals so excited by new technology that they do not care how much it disrupts the real work. HR can be a victim of this same tendency to care more about their profession than the business. Successful HR leaders are always saying “I’m a business person who happens to work in HR”. They say it partly to be a role model for others in the profession, and partly to remind themselves of the trap of falling too much in love with HR.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.