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Kate Phelon

Sift Media

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Focusing on the big idea


Big ideaHR typically has dozens and sometimes hundreds of projects on the agenda at any one time, yet focussing on a few big ideas rather than many small ones can often make a difference. Jan Hills discusses what needs to change, and highlights some of the techniques you can adopt to meet the challenge.

A recent piece of HR careers research, conducted by Orion Partners, threw up some very interesting results; it found that people who had reached HR director level had all been involved in a major change project that was important to the business before receiving the position. Many of them could directly link the change process with their new role.

Not all HR people will have the opportunity to work on a major change project, but they should see this research as an excellent example of how picking to work on a project that has major strategic significance to the business can be an exceptionally good career move.

What’s more, whether you relish or dread the idea of working on bigger-picture strategic projects, there will come a time in most careers where you have no choice in the matter, so it’s important to be well prepared to embrace the challenge rather than shrink back from it.

“Ultimately, HR needs to evaluate itself by measuring the success of projects and their results against the business goals.”

Of course, the clients themselves often don’t help the case for streamlined strategy; it’s a fact of life that any customer will always ask for more than they need if they think that they can get it for the price they are prepared to pay – this is no different in the business world and HR’s customers are a prime example.

Historically, HR’s definition of customer service has been responding to customer requests. But part of HR’s role is to determine which requests move the business towards its strategic goals and which ones are red herrings. And so what makes HR successful is responding to the right requests or demonstrating to the business that they need something they hadn’t actually asked for.

So before agreeing to a request, HRs need to ask themselves: what value will this piece of work add to the strategic goals of the business area? Furthermore, is this the most effective and efficient way to achieve them?

Ultimately, HR needs to evaluate itself by measuring the success of projects and their results against the business goals, and not by simply calculating the number of requests fulfilled. HR also needs to undertake those requests that do make business sense in the most efficient way – both in terms of HR’s and the client’s time.

Just say no

So what do HRs need to do? They need to start by saying no. HR should be able to hold a mirror up to the business, helping clients see what their requests are likely to achieve. If they are not moving the business towards its goals then the task is not to complete them regardless, but to help the client to understand why they’re not such a good idea. It’s vital to be able to be persuasive about taking on only the projects that move towards the goals and to explain how they will help the business achieve its goals in business, rather than HR terms.

Learn to challenge an insistent client who has a pet project; ask them about why they want to do it and what value it is going to add to the business. Additionally, HR must control its own inclinations to follow the latest new and sexy idea, the new ‘best practice’, when there is no business rationale for it, or it’s not the best way of fulfilling the business rationale that you have.

“Make sure that HR as a whole understands what success looks like.”

The techniques that will help to meet this challenge will vary depending on whether you are a head of HR or a HR business partner (HRBP).

If you are a head of HR then you need to look at how you reward people and what they are rewarded for: consider rewarding behaviours that challenge the business and help it to achieve its goals. Communicate the objective of focussing on ideas that align with the strategic goals of the business both to your function, but also to the wider business.

Make sure that HR as a whole understands what success looks like. Develop your team; give them the skills and confidence to say no, or to challenge the latest idea and make sure that they are supported when they do it. Our research shows that people who have had training that gives them a self-belief that they’re making a difference, results in people who are more successful and can divert attention to the more important projects.

HRBPs or aspiring HRBPs often find they need to say no artfully by saying yes to the thing that is most important. For example, you could say to a client: ‘What I really want to do is to achieve the business goals that are x, y, and z, and I can do that by a, b, and c, but if I do what you’re requesting then it will divert attention, time and resources away from those things, so let’s concentrate on the things that are going to make your department more successful’.

Be clear about your priorities; understand your part of the organisation and how it contributes to the overall business strategy and communicate with your client about what you’re doing and how it helps them to achieve their goals. Be clear about what needs to be done for your business area, be confident in your beliefs and develop the skill to say no and to explain why. Challenge people who request things that are simply their latest ‘hot button’ or new trendy idea and control yourself to not become distracted in the same way.

Jan Hills is director of HR with Guts and partner in Orion Partners.

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Kate Phelon

Content manager

Read more from Kate Phelon