The Industrial Relations Centre at Queen’s University, which offers useful HR and Labour Relations training, asked if I’d write a piece for their revamped web launch. The chance to write something longer was intriguing. A logical subject seemed to be how important it is to keep learning if you want to advance in HR (or any executive role today for that matter). In the end the piece was more personal than anticipated… my own chief interest has always been continual learning.
In the piece I tried to get at areas where HR professionals in particular have continued learning challenges. Certainly there are organizational issues to keep up with – strategies in your industry, a myriad of facets of HR services and a continual evolution in understanding people and how they manage differently in today’s organizations for greatest results. There’s personal challenge, too. Many chose HR-related careers to avoid math, for one thing, but need it to understand and communicate effectively with other executives and to understand ‘business’ issues.
One intriguing aspect of writing is that new ideas surface as you struggle to put words around concepts that float in your thinking while you pull bits together. In the middle somewhere I found myself writing this: “Everyone says HR strategy should build around and align with the business strategy. That’s all well and good, but it has to go further than just supporting and being consistent with the need to make money. HR strategy helps lead and focus the business toward higher objectives than annual targets – the development and utilization of the full potential of every employee as well as a vision or mission they can be inspired about.”
For years I have to say my focus remained on our HR operations being the best ‘support’ for business objectives and other executives that I could muster. After all, don’t we refer to HR and others as ‘support functions.’ Unfortunately we then relegate them to ‘also ran’ status, not like the important ‘line’ operations that actually contribute to the ‘bottom line.’
Of course that should have changed with all the evidence that the ‘soft’ side of management can contribute far more than hard analysis, strategy and other traditional ‘line’ functions, provided all the pieces align and coordinate. Indeed the distinction between support and line should, by now, have become almost indistinguishable. Both groups need both sets of skills. There just isn’t a way to fully divide these responsibilities and get the best using specialists in separate silos. True I may spend my days on recruiting issues while you pore over P&L reports, but if we can’t both see the whole leadership/management function set the same way, we are going to be in a lot of trouble maximizing output from our organization and staff.
I feel better voicing the problem like this. For some reason I haven’t in the past, but have focused more on what HR needs to do or, separately, especially what line managers need to do to get us into the 21st century with the higher levels of productivity we know we need. It isn’t even so much that we all like to point the finger at the other guy as the problem is we haven’t stopped to think we both have the problem and we both have to solve it. Maybe I’m preaching to the converted, but if HR is going to be a partner at the big ‘table’ we need to start seeing that it is equal partners, with equal challenges, not us struggling to get recognized and hang on. We can get CEOs adapted to this view if we manage to believe in it ourselves – a team of equals, some specializing, some having more of an overview, but working as equals. I venture to guess there aren’t many senior teams that operate this way.