Some human resource leaders are finding out that getting a seat at the table is more than a warm body in a chair when it comes to being part of the team. Quoted in recent articles on HR challenges, a stressed HR executive says his job is now tougher because his executive team’s primary strategy for dealing with the economic downturn was downsizing. Strategic planning was primarily an accounting exercise. HR’s role? Executing the layoff, motivating remaining workers, and gatekeeping the annual merit pay increases (read no raises).
Another HR executive charged with motivating people and keeping labor costs down admits he doesn’t know what to do. Strategic decisions made by the senior team he’s supposed to be part of have created big turnover problems. He’s trying to solve them with employee training, but it’s not working.
Both of these situations beg the question, “Where was HR in the strategic decision process?” Was the senior HR leader present in the meetings? Did he or she collaborate with other leaders and present a plan that capitalized on human ingenuity to drive costs down quickly and position the business for success? Was the HR leader shaping the decision as an integrated member of the senior team? Or did HR simply wait for others to make a decision and instinctively (and figuratively) pick up a broom and dust pan on the way out?
HR leaders are stressed because they’re dealing with collateral damage—after-the-fact problems that happen when the company’s “most valuable assets” are ignored in strategic decisions. In fact, there’s no suggestion in the articles that anybody considered that those assets—people—could be leveraged as part of a strategic plan. Instead, employees were treated as liabilities to be minimized. As a result, employees are jumping ship, which is driving up turnover and creating turmoil in the workplace, further hurting the business.
So what would it look like if senior HR leaders had more than a seat, but a voice at the table, as well? Instead of planning how to support strategic decisions, they would be making them. Instead of discussing how HR can clean up the mess after the fact, HR might actually lead the conversation about how to involve employees in a problem solving process to create lasting breakthroughs in customer satisfaction, cost reductions, and operating efficiencies. Leaders might leverage expertise about leadership, group and individual behavior, personal motivation, and project management to organize work teams charged with saving a product line, streamlining a process, or even turning around a business unit.
This won’t happen until HR leaders not only become knowledgeable about the business, but confident enough as leaders and strategic partners to boldly insert themselves into the decision process. Without HR executives committed to pitching human capital solutions and leading strategic conversations, stressed HR leaders will continue to find themselves playing the role of Strategy Janitor—involved after-the-fact and charged with cleaning up the mess.
TRYING IT ON FOR FIT:
To get a handle on how strategic HR’s involvement is in your company’s executive decisions, examine the executive staff meeting agenda or top-down communications taking note of how much pertains to strategically employing the workforce versus other strategic matters. When HR issues are communicated, do they mainly address administrative requirements, tactical decisions, and workforce training programs? Or do they cover strategic initiatives that increase employee performance capabilities and employee initiative? Look for ways to rally employees around key business initiatives by charging them with developing solutions to production, quality, customer service, and cost challenges providing resources and support to help them succeed.
Kevin Herring is co-author of ‘Practical Guide for Internal Consultants’, and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups and business units.