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rudder hands off

Over the past few years it seems many within our HR senior ranks appear fixated to convince all who listen that HR should be fighting to lead, control & guide business strategy. Is this really an admirable ambition or perspective ?

I am not so sure.

In many ways this view infers an endemic incapability within business leaders to harness the hearts, minds and performance potential of the people they lead.

Yes, the view plays well to HR’s professional ego as it fashions a greater purpose for our being…’they need us…they just don’t fully realise it yet’…a term I have heard more than once . A compelling view to the HR professional, perhaps, but in my humble opinion, its essentially doomed thinking.

My experience so far tells me that if our HR profession wishes to sustainably influence Business Leadership…we must first appreciate that our current positional power where HR leaders ‘chaperone’ experienced line leaders is actually a false prophet .

This can breed an arrogance in us as ‘Big Company” HR professionals, that we are ‘needed’ by our respective business leader…when in reality , certainly in the beginning of our tenure, we have just been ‘allocated’. There is a difference.

Now, before I am lynched from the nearest tree…this isn’t to say for a moment that our profession doesn’t have a critical role to play in delivering real business advantage…it absolutely does…its just that our power is leveraged and importantly sustained when it bases its entry point on a clearer and better definition of ‘Business Partner’

If you will allow me a few moments , let’s look at a different picture

When I look back to the high percentage of high potential HR business partners I have worked with over the years across 5 multinationals and a number of industries many share 3 similar experiences, namely:

1) Their respective business leaders rarely had discussion/involvement in their own appointment

2) Many spent time complaining [within the safety of the HR walls] how exasperating their business leaders could be in how they led … and how they ‘have to take their leaders on a journey’ …

3) Most were actively encouraged by their HR hierarchy to ‘own the people agenda’ for the people that their business leaders lead – almost as if this was an internal battle for hearts and minds.

I suggest that each of the above are actually worrying examples of an ‘Alice through the looking glass’ approach to true Business Partnering…lets take each of the above in turn…

1 ) In modern democratic culture, …how often are partnerships, whether professional or personal personified by surprise/non consulted appointment ?…Is it therefore any surprise that ‘allocated’ HR Business Partners’ experience early relationship tensions with their Operational Leader? The more enlightened businesses engage the Business Leader in the appointment

2 ) Effective Trusting Partnerships face up to and resolve tensions, disagreements together, in the moment and avoid career politics and offline functional (aka corridor) moans and groans. Most will agree that harmful distrust builds through uncontrolled gossip, and offline gripes. Grapevines in the wrong soil can be quite destructive.

3 ) HR should simply never try to ‘own the People agenda’…Business Leaders need coaches, critical friends and credible advisors…not someone who wastes energy and focus trying to wrestle the Rudder from their grasp.

In my career to date I have still yet to meet an operational team member, supervisor or manager in a manufacturing / service or commercial environment who genuinely identifies his/her “ Leader” as their HR Director.

I know, Its a very painful truth. HR has little credibility in this front stage leadership role.

It’s a very small stage, too many performers here just confuses the audience.

No, our power and influence comes from a different place. Our critical role is back stage, to coach, guide and motivate (and occasionally even replace) the real people leader…there is only one Rudder on a ship for a reason.

rudder5

So, how can a HR professional deliver true value as a Business Partner?

I believe there are 4 important growth phases for any successful Business partner:

1 GAIN TRUST… FIRST

2 ATTAIN CREDIBILITY…QUICKLY

3 OFFER INFLUENCE… DON’T PUSH IT

4 BUILD VALUE…NOT BARRIERS

1. Gain TRUST… FIRST : Through rapport, develop relationships informed by, not simply dictated by clear roles and responsibilities. The entry point to the relationship must be based on a shared contracted understanding of how the HR Business Partner and their Business leader will work and support each other .

Trust comes through being clear and open on your positive intent to work collaboratively and then importantly doing what you say you will do. Be clear and consistent on how you will address and challenge each other when you fall short. If there is no trust – there can be no partnership.

It’s a common truth that when one human being does not trust another, occasionally they listen but rarely do they hear…words without a receptive ear is just noise. For the HR Business Partner here it follows that you cannot influence if they are not listening.

2. ATTAIN CREDIBILITY… QUICKLY : With commercial acumen – seek early wins directly focussed on the business issue highlighted by your business leader…your agenda is only on the table AFTER you have helped him/her deliver theirs.

Base line your interventions on clear Return on investment measures …then show how you are helping them (eg lower attrition / absence rates, raising engagement & performance, lowering costs etc). In essence help them shine….remember “You can only influence them if they are listening’…in my experience do this and business leaders don’t just listen…they actively seek your opinion and help.

3 )… OFFER INFLUENCE, don’t PUSH it:  Power and influence are fickle things…the moment you believe you have it is precisely the most dangerous point of losing it. I am reminded of the story of the shipwrecked man who after swimming hard to reach a lifeboat, relaxed, fell asleep only to be awoken by the shock of the cold sea water as he slipped back in to shark infested waters. Complacency kills.

For the Trusted, Credible, HR Business Partner.the opportunity to Influence here presents a constant opportunity to help the Captain steer their boat, not a single opportunity to grab that rudder.

So, check yourself to ensure that you are still working on delivering an aligned plan – if you are not 100% sure – the doubt should tell you something. Stop. Recalibrate. Realign. At this point the Leader is listening, the Business Partner is their counsel… a position of real influence. The biggest danger now here for the Trusted, Credible HR Business Partner is actually ego.

4) BUILD VALUE…NOT BARRIERS : When you are in a position of influence…don’t fall into the trap of believing you should be the only counsel to your leader . Stephen Covey talks about ‘ the sense of abundance’…win/win opportunities, where successful people look to synergise with others to deliver win/win results – so look for others who can help you help the business….don’t be just open to this …be proactive.

Too often we see even the most capable HR Business Partners set up walls around their relationship with their leaders to prevent others from access, protecting their relationship and influence, almost as if by letting others in their own trusted relationship will weaken.

This is an interesting paradox…as such possessive behaviour actually weakens the relationship at the exact point when it should be at its strongest. Why? No-one likes possessive behaviour. Whilst initially feeling like a compliment , it quickly becomes a suffocating concern.

The moment a Business Leader senses a limit to their HR Partner’s expertise & offering they will be seduced to look to others for new ideas. It is here we see Leaders infuriating traditional HR Partners by not consulting them before actively engaging thought leadership via third parties to help shape their thinking.

For the HR Partner, such dalliances feels like “Fad thinking”…for the Business Leader its can just feel like freedom.

plot course

Once the Power Of Influence is attained, world class HR Partners here quickly realise their role now is to be a conduit for future thinking….secure as a trusted filter for new planning & strategy.

The focus has switched now to scanning the external landscape to identify opportunities and thought leaders that will add value to the journey, there is no fear to explore new thinking and learn alongside their business Leader,

Here the HR Partner is at their most powerful.

Here they help the Captain best by bringing in others into the boat, clearly explaining the course we are on, their role on the journey and passing out the oars to add speed to the journey.

Here the HR Business Partner realises there was never a need to grab that rudder when you have helped plot the course.

Closing thoughts :

When did you last try to grab the rudder? What happened?

Do you know where you currently are on the journey become a truly credible advisor to your business leader?

…If you’re not sure, the doubt may tell you something.

Luckily there is a very simple way to get your bearings … Credibility arrives regularly with unprompted calls for help & advice….

…when did your phone last ring?

steer the ship

Carl Fitzsimons FCIPD, MIOD
HR Director

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