Some silos were built to last. Trying to poke a hole through one isn’t always easy, especially in those reinforced by years of isolation and self-preservation. Jim, a human resource manager just assigned to a new general manager and business unit, found that out.
I coached Jim to help him get the most from his new assignment. I taught him what it means to be a business person instead of just another HR professional with a bucket of HR tools. He learned that if he looked for problems in the operations, he could make a real difference—he just needed to find the opportunities and figure out how to help operations solve the problems. Jim got it. He was excited to show the general manager what he could do.
I encouraged Jim to contact the general manager to learn the business as soon as possible. I told Jim that the general manager probably wouldn’t be used getting a call from a human resource manager asking about the business, so Jim should be prepared for that. He should expect to have to push a bit to get the GM to open up and talk shop instead of human resources.
A week or so later, Jim called to tell me how the conversation went.
He said that when he called the general manager, he asked him to tell him about the business and challenges he was facing. All he got was silence on the other end of the line. Jim tried to ask again. The general manager responded that he wasn’t sure what he could say that would be relevant to human resource management.
It was a defining moment. The general manager saw Jim in his silo as a person who administers HR programs. Jim had a chance to challenge that perception, but he didn’t. He backed down and rephrased his question to suggest they talk about labor costs. You see, Jim wasn’t used to having the conversation about the business with the general manager any more than the general manager was used to discussing business with a human resources manager. The general manager didn’t think he could have the conversation about the business because he didn’t believe Jim could understand or relate to it. And, as far as the general manager was concerned, Jim couldn’t do anything about it, anyway. In other words, Jim wasn’t relevant to the business.
But Jim could be relevant. The general manager didn’t see how because he couldn’t know what Jim knew. And Jim wasn’t used to fully leveraging his expertise to help operations. That made venturing into business waters kind of scary and kept Jim in his silo.
Years of segregating human resource expertise from operations had created the proverbial silo Jim was trying to breach and he was learning that demolishing it wasn’t a simple exercise. He had to take responsibility for taking a whack or two if he expected to change things. But in his exchange with his general manager, Jim missed an opportunity to begin breaking down the wall.
The general manager struggled to see HR’s relevance to the business because all he knew about HR were the usual administrative tasks pertaining to recruiting, benefits administration, and performance reviews. What the general manager missed was that Jim knows a whole lot more. Jim understands that sometimes quality and productivity problems happen because people don’t know enough about the product they’re building. Jim also understands how good supervision can drive good team performance and how bad supervision can drag down production. Jim knows how to help a supervisor with poor team performance fix that. If Jim learns the business, he can identify some of those problems and do something about them to give the general manager better business results. But to do that, he needs to understand what the team needs to accomplish, and why, as well as what’s getting in the way so he can identify the opportunities.
So Jim needs to take another shot at learning the business from his general manager. He has to push harder to get his general manager to talk shop. Otherwise, he’ll never understand enough to find those opportunities. I told Jim to keep his objectives for the conversation in front of him the next time they talk. At the top of his list should be learning how the business operates, becoming knowledgeable about key measures of success, and finding out what causes the general manager’s biggest headaches. I told Jim that when the general manager tries to talk about what he thinks belongs in the HR silo, he needs to push back and let the general manager know that conversation is for another time. Jim needs to tell him that right now he wants to learn how the business works including production bottlenecks, equipment problems, cost concerns, and anything else that’s important for him to understand operations.
Jim understands what he needs to do. He’s bright, talented, and determined to integrate with operations. I’m confident his next discussion will go differently and start to break down silos for both of them. If he succeeds, Jim can become better able to help his general manager run the business as a true unit partner instead of letting the general manager’s views of HR define who he is and limit what he’s capable of contributing to the business unit.
Trying it on for fit:
Consider trying to apply pointers I gave to Jim.
- Force the conversation with those you support in operations in order to learn the business inside and out.
- Spend most of your time in the operations looking for business problems to solve whether it’s a poor performing individual or team, product rework problem, customer complaint, or other problem impacting business results.
- Learn to consult to operations gathering information and using what you know about workplace behavior, leadership, motivation, employee involvement, learning, and other facets of your expertise to solve problems.
Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!
Ascent Management Consulting is found at www.ascentmgt.com and specializes in performance turnarounds, leadership coaching, and appraisal-less performance management.