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Annie Hayes

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Figuring things out: Help – I’m the new HR Director, now what?

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You’ve made it. Your dream has been realised, you’re in a senior HR role with a seemingly dynamic company that will provide challenges, working with a CEO that gives every indication of listening and being on your side. And then the realisation of what you’ve taken on really hits home.


A friend of mine once described the challenge of his new HR Director role as similar to arriving at base camp with Mount Everest at your feet, knowing that the goal is to climb it.

Two months into the job he was beginning to realise that what he had taken on was definitely the summit of Mount Everest, but it began to dawn on him that far from being at base camp he was actually at Heathrow waiting for his delayed flight to Kathmandu and, oh by the way, he’d forgotten to pack the oxygen needed for the climb.

Where to start?
The issue for many senior appointees in these sorts of circumstances is knowing exactly where to start.

The requirements of an organisation in which everything seems important and urgent needs careful balancing. And on top of that, there is the added pressure of having to demonstrate value and contribution as soon as possible.

By any measure, the new HR Director has approximately 90 days to show that they were a sound recruitment decision. The key issue, therefore, is to work out where the biggest return for effort exists.

The trouble for many first-time HR Directors is that they want to show brilliance and fix the world. Taking a reality check is worthwhile at this stage. They need to evaluate or assess the current situation first. Any newly appointed HR Director may face one of four scenarios:

  • The HR function has never fully existed, or has had half-hearted support in the past. This is probably a functional start-up situation. The key issues here is securing resources quickly, setting clear, measurable goals and getting on with it quickly while communicating with stakeholders about what is happening.

  • HR restructuring. Here resources are probably being cut. The issue is to get support quickly for reducing the workforce and reshaping the function. Working out the key processes that are going to be kept and which will be outsourced or not tackled at all is the key.

  • The company is going through major change and restructure. The issue for the HR Director in these circumstances is mainly one of realignment. Here the focus is about helping to make the case for change and being clear about the value the function is going to provide through the change, coming out the other side and helping to deal with the people issues.

  • Sustaining a successful function. Being seen as a valuable head of function, bringing in a breath of fresh air to the company is the goal. Coming across as a smarty-pants that seems to be pooh-poohing everything that has gone before is not ideal. The focus should be on keeping and supporting things that have worked well, and refreshing those areas of the function that need attention.



Is anyone listening?
I always recommend paying very close attention to two key features that ultimately any HR Director (or senior manager, for that matter) will be assessed on: Getting a good handle on the business and the company’s organisational effectiveness; and working out how best to work with the boss.

These two issues are key for the simple reason that the HR function has suffered (and seems to continue to suffer) from an image of disconnection from the hardnosed reality of the business.

No new HR Director will be taken seriously if they fail to speak the language of business. To succeed in the job, it is essential to come to an early agreement with the boss about:

  • what the job is really about

  • what its associated challenges and opportunities are

  • the goals and measures of success

  • how to work together and get help in securing required resources

So how do you do that exactly?
Build a collaborative working relationship with the boss by commencing a dialogue that includes the business, expectations, personal style and resources.

The new HR Director has to get the bosses perspective about the business situation they face and achieve a shared understanding. Comprehension, clarity and negotiations regarding joint expectations are also needed.

Working out how to move forward and work together on an on going basis requires some time, and of course let’s not forget the all important bit about what resources will and will not be available.

It’s amazing how many new heads of function, regardless of the department, either just leap ahead busying themselves with all sorts of things that don’t recognisably add value, though they are certainly busy, and fail to spend the time to really engage with their boss on the issues outlined above.

It’s a recipe for disaster. Research conducted by Harvard suggests that between 40% – 60% of new senior appointees in the US and the UK are asked to leave within 18 months. Why? Because they didn’t get up to speed with the important issues within their first three months.

Working with the boss isn’t enough
Unfortunately, working out the on-going relationship with the boss isn’t enough for this simple reason. The conversation about their perspective on the business situation may not be accurate. How often have we found that CEO’s and MD’s views of the world and their organisation are far removed from the realities of employees lower down the structure?

The only answer is to do some organisational diagnostics and quickly. If the new HR Director is to influence the senior team, there needs to be some evidence that the CEO understands what is helping or hindering the company’s ability to deliver the strategy. And this means getting some quantifiable data about how effectively the business is run from a people perspective.

The value of this is immense not only for the business, but for giving credibility to the new HR Director. Now they are able to challenge current thinking, confirm what’s working well, and more importantly, what’s not working and what to do about it. All of a sudden, the new HR Director starts building a credible people strategy, tackling the quick wins (that make them look good by the way), and really making a difference to the business.

Effectively, the new HR Director has just 90 days to become Mr or Mrs Hero. For years the HR community has been bleating on about how it doesn’t get taken seriously enough. Of course, there are lots of examples where the opposite is true, but we are not exactly overwhelmed by the numbers, are we?

The new HR Director should have a game plan for success before they walk into their new office.

A timetable for action and contribution will help. Being considered as a valuable and valued member of the top team is essential.

Getting to know the organisation, like any CEO, finance or operations director does is important but the essential ingredient is the ability to work with the boss.

If HR Directors can make this happen they won’t have to feel quite as lost and rather than crying out for help their call to action will be: “Right, here’s my plan. Let’s get on with it!”

Joe España is MD of Performance Equations

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