This is a particular hobbyhorse of mine. Put simply we don’t spend enough time in the business.
HR as a profession has long been criticised for failure to really understand and contribute to business strategy or to align HR to corporate objectives. This is much more than just being able to understand the financials, we need to spend more time in the business to understand the commercial imperatives. What’s the point of competition, what choices does the business have with regard to strategy, and what’s the competition’s HR strategy? Getting to the position of HRD in the post-Ulrich environment is not easy. It is my contention that aspiring HRDs required significant time in a non HR function. Preferably by gaining exposure to customers, in a sales or marketing role with a client relationship management focus, as opposed to in IT or finance. Customer service is the best place to learn about the business. You need to understand business drivers. The implication of this is that you need to make the decision relatively early in your career as to the sector in which you build your experience. Business development activities Deepen your understanding of the business and its economic and political context and of the levers and risks that threaten and drive value. A first step may be offering to lead an non-HR project, go out with sales to see clients, analyse complaints, for example. You need to spend time in the business, and you need to be curious – sadly, very often, our peers don’t think HR are – because we don’t seek out information from around the business. Being a good strategist requires curiosity and imagination and it requires a broad perspective. There’s a lot you can do in your own time to expand your professional expertise and general business education. Volunteering is a great way to learn new skills, working for a charity or not for profit enterprise can help you widen your business experience. Take part in some business development activities. Read the business gurus, scan the quality business magazines, go on a course, get a mentor. Volunteer for task forces that include people outside your area of expertise. Read the annual reports of competitor companies and study their strategies. Consider studying for an MBA. HR professionals are well placed to add value, we understand the people dynamic and can learn what drives the business – put them together to figure out what really matters. Build credibility within the business by being seen to want to learn and by asking questions. Don’t just ask for things; find common ground where you can provide help, not just ask for it. Can you help another business unit by way of problem solving or information? Take timeout within the organisation to study the business and taker a broader view. Walk the floor It’s not difficult, get out more. Spend time in the call centre, if you have one, to really understand the business. How can HR design jobs without knowing the business environment? Walk the floor. Top executives in retail regularly walk the floor, they get out of the office, head to one of their stores and spend the morning talking to staff, watching shoppers and helping out on the floor or in the warehouse. The challenge for any business is to understand your customer, and organise your business accordingly. If you are serious about taking a place at the top table you will be familiar with the organisation’s business plan, strategy, performance goals and the drivers of and barriers to organisational success. Then you can truly champion HR across the organisation by developing strategies and plans to effectively service business and commercial realities and customer needs. One added benefit of taking time out in the business is that you will build your network of non HR people. Remember that it is the CEO and FD who are ultimately the point of purchase of the appointment of the HRD. Being well networked with business leaders, having a reputation for understanding the business and delivering business results will lead to future offers of employment. So get out more, spend time trying to understand the business and focus on HR initiatives that bring demonstrable business benefits.
Michael Moran is chief executive of performance improvement consultancy, 10Eighty.
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