Over the last couple of weeks, a small team of us were working with a client in Australia (yeah tough life!) on an assignment to help accelerate their HR Transformation, as well as build some specialised HR capability in the field of OD.

As part of this engagement, we interviewed a whole range of people; HR (in many roles) and Business line clients. Interestingly, whenever they used the word “strategic” to describe the HR role, or some of the HR activities, they all (without exception) used “air quotes”. For those of us without teenagers, these are the little gestures you make with your hands to indicate the quote marks around a word.

After a few people had done this, we began to ask individuals why – what did it mean? There were two answers: it was being used either sarcastically, to indicate that the work was about as far from strategic  as Australia is from the rest of the world, or that it was because they really had no idea how to define strategic work – what it is or what made it different from “non-strategic” work.

A challenge indeed.  Particularly if your job title is Strategic HRBP. So, how do you help them? I wouldn’t say we have THE answer, but what the HR team began to find useful was the result of a discussion about the nature of the work that was intended to be done under this “strategic” banner.

To help them categorise work as strategic, we agreed with the team on three key descriptors:

  1. Work that’s strategic is more likely to have impact or visible effects in the long term. i.e. any initiatives would take 2-3 years to demonstrate tangible, repeatable and attributable results. This helps everyone “go slow to go fast”. Knowing that this is the effective timeline, we’re less inclined to rush to a solution or miss key stakeholders in our diagnosis or solutioning process.
  2. The scope of this work will be directly linked to the business strategy or people strategy. In this company, they had some quite brilliant, clear strategies on a page. These one-pagers detailed the key strategic objectives for the business, with a similar document for the HR function. The HR Function’s strategic objectives addressed 4 clear themes; The HR team agreed that if the work wasn’t directly linked to one of these objectives, then it wasn’t strategic.
  3. Finally, it’s unlikely to be a frequent element of one’s day-to-day work. If you follow the above logic, then there will be few initiatives, of limited scope, but high impact. This would enable one HRBP to cover a relatively high number of clients, ensuring consistency, alignment and continued focus.

Whilst unplanned,  this undoubtedly turned out to be a helpful exercise – perhaps when we’re there next, this might become so ingrained that the “strategic air quotes” are a thing of the past.

“Here’s hoping!”

Have a great week.

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