HR is not a supplement to a business. It’s at the beating heart of every organisation. An organisational strategy expert shares her thoughts.
A few years ago I attended a workshop exploring how HR could become more relevant and ‘get a seat at the table’.
Typically, we explored what the problem was with HR and how we could ‘fix’ it. In the final plenary session, sitting in a wide circle of fifty executives, we were sharing insights and learnings from the day. The head of a retail division (a non-HR Exec) of a company said,
“I get this, because I used to work in HR, then a few years ago I got out of HR and went into running the business…”
I was so struck by this comment. I don’t remember what he said after. I thought, aren’t HR professionals part of running the business? In that moment I realised this was the real problem HR faces.
This executive saw HR as separate from the business, so much so that in his mind if you wanted to run, or be in the business, you had to get out of HR. What struck me even more was that most people sitting in our circle were senior HR executives, and they all nodded their heads in agreement. No one challenged his theory. Was no one else surprised by this statement? Or were they just as nervous as I was to call him out?
I agonised for a few minutes wondering if I should say something. I didn’t want to challenge him in the group, but I knew what he had said was a ‘gift’ that shouldn’t be passed up. I realised it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t just his assumption. It was a deeply embedded collective systemic hypothesis.
Reframing the collective assumptions and map of HR
HR professionals would never have a ‘seat at the table’ if this was the collective assumption held both by HR and other business executives. Until that moment this had not been visible to me. I believe that HR is a vital part of the business and has a critical role to play in ensuring business success. The business was not a separate entity that HR served.
I found my voice, and the courage to speak:
“That’s the real problem. You don’t get out of HR to run the business, in my mind HR is a vital part of running the business and of it being successful.”
He blushed and acknowledged his error. There was a collective disquiet and murmuring around the circle, as the implicit assumptions we were all holding were revealed. The veil was lifted, it was an uncomfortable but important discovery.
Not just a technical change
I left the workshop with a new understanding that the real challenge that HR and organisations faced was an adaptive one. It wasn’t a technical fix, but a complete reset of the role of HR and where it was positioned in the business ecosystem, that was required.
This event happened a few years ago now, but this narrative is not history, it’s still very current. It’s my understanding that this collective systemic hypothesis is still running us.
There are a few organisations where the green shoots of a new system are emerging, but it’s still the dominant systemic contract embedded implicitly in our HR operating models and in the language, which I hear consistently in HR teams – “we had a meeting with the business” or “the business doesn’t want that”. It’s also reflected in HR job titles and roles, the predominant one being the HR business partner.
You could technically ban the business partner title, change the job and call it HR consultant or HR manager, which I agree would be good, but it could also change nothing in terms of how HR is seen or positioned in the system, as we know happens with many other job changes or restructures.
We shouldn’t confuse the job of HR business partner, with the role of the HR subsystem in the business. Paradoxically, we could keep the title of HR business partner but reframe its meaning.
HR business partners could become true partners in the business, having a symmetrical place in the business leadership team with commercial accountability, rather than being partners to the business.
The real work we need to do is to completely reset both the roles of HR and non-HR executives, and how they relate and connect to each other, with regard to the people, organisational and business imperatives.
We need a new systemic contract, a shift away from HR being a “service provider” and “order taker”, to HR being real partners in the business, with mutual accountability for commercial business outcomes.
At the same time, we need to give the non-HR executives co-accountability for the people and culture agenda in their teams and the wider organisation. Perhaps the time has come to stop letting non-HR executives off the hook for this too. Undoubtedly, we need to move out of the binary pattern, getting all leaders to be both people, culture and business leaders simultaneously.
The traditional HR operating model needs to be disrupted, but equally that implies that the way the whole people, culture and organisation agenda is managed and lead will need to shift too. There is as much work to do with non-HR executives as there is with HR.
Joan Lurie is the CEO of Orgonomix.
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