Lessons from the boardroom
You might be thinking that a role as crucial as HR shouldn't take any shortcuts. And I agree, but a hack, at least the way I am defining it, is not a shortcut. My ‘Four Hacks’ highlight the importance of managing one's time and daily activities more efficiently and translating HR actions into CEO language, enabling further strategic projects to be approved and actioned.
I learned these lessons early in my career. I still vividly remember presenting, what I thought was, a breakthrough idea on improving employee health and drastically reducing cost to a group of senior leaders at a Quarterly Business Review meeting. Instead of being cheered on by the senior leaders for my out-of-the-box thinking, I was laughed out of the board room. After the meeting I thought long and hard about what went wrong and what I should have done different for my pitch. After re-thinking my approach, and re-pitching to the board, the project was approved and implemented, achieving a total cost avoidance of $42M in year one.
This showed me that a great idea won't make it out of the starting block if you go about it the wrong way. As the adage goes, "Your best teacher is your last mistake" I analyzed what had happened and identified four critical steps to turn embarrassment into victory – my ‘Four Hacks’.
Hack #1: Creating Capacity
In today's world, HR has significantly more responsibilities than ten years ago. Even before the pandemic, Human Resources was trying to get their arms around a new set of dynamic employee expectations introduced by recent generations entering the workforce. On top of that, HR is facing the constantly increasing pace of change and data creation that has taken its toll on the people function.
This issue has been further accentuated by the fact that many HR departments are still operating their entire process manually and therefore spend most of their time on transactional tasks. Even their slightly advanced peers that have implemented multiple standalone software solutions are not better off as they spend much of their precious time consolidating data between digitally disconnected system. The classic case of humans acting as the glue between systems.
The demand for HR to be a strategic partner to the business is higher than ever before, but we all have to come to grips with the fact that HR's opportunity to be a strategic partner is largely driven by HR's capacity to be strategic.
How much of your time is committed to dealing with ‘transactional activities’ vs strategic projects?
While there is no silver bullet, HR's best friend to create capacity, and an urgently needed reduction in workload of 20%+, is technology that can automate transactional tasks and the creation of employee-centric processes.
Hack #2: Strategy Alignment
"It doesn't really matter how fast you are going if you are heading in the wrong direction." This quote, attributed to Steven Covey, is the perfect introduction to hack #2. For HR to be effective and be seen as a strategic partner, HR needs to be in lockstep with the business.
What does that mean?
The most basic and fundamental requirement is for HR to have a line of sight, as well as a comprehensive understanding, of the 3 to 5 most important business objectives. This is a non-negotiable point.
Suppose HR doesn't have visibility or doesn't understand the business objectives on a deep intimate level. This would make it nearly impossible for HR to be in full alignment with the business. In my view, this is why we have seen so many complaints from senior leaders about HR's lack of support to the business in past years.
In the remaining to hacks you will learn how to address this issue through achieving a better alignment with business objectives and speaking the language of senior leaders.
Hack #3: Focused Action
Once you have created the capacity to be strategic and now are in lockstep with the business, it’s time to put on your seatbelt, grab hold of the steering wheel, and put your foot on the accelerator. This is where the rubber meets the road.
What follows is a simple and fun exercise that the entire HR team can participate in.
With the business objectives well understood and visible to everyone, facilitate a brainstorming session on how HR can support the business's strategic objectives. All the standard rules of brainstorming apply, and your goal should be to create a list of at least 20+ ideas. For example, suppose the business objective is to reduce overhead costs by 5%. In that case, HR's brainstorming list could include reducing healthcare cast, reducing insurance premiums, adjusting compensation, reducing payroll errors, etc.
After the first round of brainstorming, select the most promising ideas and go through a second round of brainstorming, now looking for concrete actions that can be taken in each of the identified areas of focus.
Hack #4: Connecting the Dots
My final hack links back to my original boardroom story from 20 years ago; how to speak in CEO language. This hack is critically important, and I recommend following a simple three step approach.
As Steve Job once said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”. And that is exactly what we are going to do. It doesn’t matter how much capacity HR has or how well aligned HR is with the business objectives, if the opportunity to make these connections is missed and your communication with senior leaders is ineffective, all your actions could be wasted.
Connecting the dots is about translating HR actions into CEO language. The process is disarmingly simple.
- Step one: document and highlight the actions that were taken
- Step two: show the impact on your people, while at the same time trying to quantify any monetary impact
- Step three: highlight the impact on the business and to link the outcome that HR has produced to one or more of the strategic business objectives of the business.
Every single one of my ‘Four Hacks’ fulfills a critical role in becoming a strategic partner to the business. This model provides HR functions the opportunity to dismiss the antiquated notion that HR is only an administrational back-office function and emerge as the strategic powerhouse that can drive business outcomes and create competitive advantage.
For more information, watch my ‘Four Hacks’ webinar with HR Zone on-demand using this link.