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We must be the change we seek to see around us

Sandy Wilkie, Head of Organisational Effectiveness - Greenhill HR

“I think the Covid 19 situation has actually helped shine a spotlight on employers’ practices, organisational culture and what kind of contribution HR is actually making. Out of adversity, comes good things. But the spotlight on the latter has touched our professional souls.”

The response of the HR community to the pandemic has been really rather a mixed one. I’ve not seen much in the way of pro-active leadership or guidance to help HR professionals steer their organisations through uncharted waters.  I’ve seen one HRD argue on social media that HR staff should return to the old normal in central workplaces, because if they don’t, they won’t feel relevant anymore. I’ve seen others call for recognition of ‘HR heroes’ at a time when frontline health and care staff, emergency services, teachers and unpaid carers are just about flat out on their feet. They are the real heroes.

These seem strangely self-centered responses, drawing attention to a profession that feels a bit left out – and perhaps has lost its way. Let’s face it, traditional operational HR is just a back-office function that churns out policies and reminds employees of what they can’t do. Is this characterisation really so unfair? I’d like to offer HR a better blueprint for the future.

  1. Being Strategic
    So often I have seen or heard of HR functions that are caught in the detail, firefighting or sadly so removed from the business that they don’t understand the core mission of their organisation. Why have we allowed this to happen?

To be relevant, HR needs to look up and out to the business and its customers. We need to not only understand the business strategy, future directions and the bigger picture, we need to weave this through an impactful and future-focused people strategy.

Gone are the days when we should be trying to lecture the senior team about our precious HR processes and rules. We need to flip this round; start with the critical mission of the organisation, what can HR do to support staff to deliver excellence to our clients, students or patients? What can we do to create the conditions for organisational effectiveness? How can we support our leaders being more effective? How can we influence the organisational culture so that it fosters an excellent people experience?

These are the big-ticket items that we give the HR profession more credibility. If we are not beginning with the end (customer) in mind, then we will be guilty of misdelivering. To paraphrase Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the Mini, if you asked an HR committee to design a horse, they’d produce a camel.

  1. Being Values-led
    The best people functions have actions and behaviours underpinned by clear ethical values. The worst HR functions lose their values in pursuit of senior team approval or in supporting the CEO take some kind of governance shortcut.

When we started Greenhill HR, we wanted to be clear about our values so that they informed or practice. The ones that resonated most with us were Vision, Making a Difference, Integrity, Creativity and Humour. We use these in our work and expect our customers, associates and suppliers to hold similar ones.

Any HR function that fails to uphold Integrity and isn’t making a difference may as well pack up and outsource itself.

  1. Being Agile
    Too often, internal customer feedback about the HR function highlights bureaucracy, the glacial timescales of processes and a lack of empathy. If we were the customer, would we tolerate this?

People functions like HR need to be nimble enablers; listening carefully to what a customer needs, finding ways to deliver solutions that work. Let’s not tell them nine reasons why they might not have what they need when they need it, let’s make it our responsibility to deliver excellence on time.

Greenhill HR took a call on a Thursday evening asking us to design and deliver a full Induction and onboarding event for two new employees we had helped a Theatre CEO recruit. We wrote the material on Saturday night and Sunday morning, took a train to London that afternoon and spent 10 hours working with the employees to embed them into the organisation on the Monday.

Let’s be the function that says ‘yes’ not ‘no. It’s just doing the right thing.

  1. Being Collaborative
    HR can also be criticised for working and thinking within a narrow professional silo. We pride ourselves on being the experts in legislation and staff governance, but the depth of our focus can often narrow our breadth of vision.

‘People’ issues at work are rarely one-dimensional. Workplace and work problems requires us to use a number of different professional lenses – facilities management, internal comms, HR, marketing, IT, finance etc. How much more effective is a holistic, truly multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and solving workplace issues?

Our recent initiative to build a global community of practice around the future of work, Greenhill Workplace, is a response to the need to collaborate & co-create. We are creating a workplace tribe to do this over at Greenhill Workplace.

  1. Being Altruistic
    Any people function within organisations is there to serve and support our people. This requires a number of key attributes; empathy, humility, active listening, a solutions-focus, lateral thinking. This is a customer focused minded, not one driven by own ego or needs for recognition.

Altruism extends to looking out to our wider local communities and good causes. Whether this is through HR encouraging staff to volunteer, or by influencing the senior team to embrace CSR or fundraising initiatives, I believe we have a duty to look to do good for others. We can make better workplaces, but we can also help make a better society around us.

Post Covid-19, sustainability and behavioural change are real opportunities. HR should be starting debates and lighting fires around our organisations during lockdown so that we are equipped to make initiatives happen as the economy starts to open up again.

  1. Being Courageous
    But the type of service I advocate is not a passive one. Too often HR fails to influence the senior team to think differently or do things differently. Good service and support is delivered through asking the right questions that gain insights and prompt lateral thinking. Being the moral compass is not just our obligation, it’s our duty.

Courage also is required to admit mistakes and learning from them. HR can sometimes become defensive about its errors, either justifying them or blaming someone else for the wrong advice. Any decent HRD should be able to take it on the chin, show humility, embrace learning and move on to do better.

The ultimate courage may be to look at ‘HR’ as a function and reach a conclusion on whether it is configured optimally for the organisational needs and contexts. Escaping our historical image of bureaucrats may require us to drop the HR term in favour of something like People and Culture. Let’s have fewer (managerially focused) ‘HR Directors’ and more ‘Chief People Officers’ joining CFOs at the top table.

Getting rid of HR might just be doing the right thing.

  1. Being the Change
    My final theme in his blueprint is a logical extension of the other six. As big picture thinkers, values-led customer focused professionals, we should have the collective courage to lead continual change and renewal.

Neil Usher is the author of Elemental Change (LID Publishing 2020)

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