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Anonymous HR

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Saying you’re ‘commercially-focused’ is fashionable, but it’s hardly ever true


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I’ve been working in HR for over 20 years and the anonymity of this column allows me to voice my despair. A large percentage HR folk claim to be ‘commercially focused’. From LinkedIn profiles, to the conference stage, to every single article I read it seems that everybody is ‘commercially focused’.

There is such a chasm between this ‘commercially-aware’ self-perception and the reality experienced by most organisations that I could weep.

You would think that the recession could have been avoided given the level of HR’s commercial focus and influence on the business. There is such a chasm between this self-perception and the reality experienced by most organisations that I could weep.

For those of you that think you might just be commercially focused here are some pointers:

  • Cutting costs during a recession does not make you commercially focused. You had the hard conversations, but cost cutting and growth aren’t the same thing. You were just doing your job.
  • Of course the CEO mentions ‘people being at the heart of what we do’ at away days and town halls. He nods in your direction and jokes that you will tell him off if he doesn’t. He read in HBR that he should care about this stuff. This doesn’t mean you are commercially focused.
  • An HR dashboard detailing absence levels and cost-to-hire doesn’t make you commercially focused.
  • Cutting training & development (because it’s tricky to articulate ROI) doesn’t make you commercially focused.
  • Making up impressive ROI figures on the assumption that % of performance uplift is due to that coaching course does not make you commercially focused.
  • That ‘Back to the Floor’ event you held in 2012 doesn’t make you commercially focused.
  • That online article you wrote where you insisted you were commercially focused, well… that doesn’t make you commercially focused.
  • Having Business Partners that sit on the edge of meetings and occasionally pipe up with a suggestion of ‘facilitating an away day’ doesn’t make you commercially focused or prove you are aligned.
  • Your ‘3 Year People Plan’ doesn’t make you commercially focused, even if it lines up vaguely with the company strategy if you drop in the CEO’s current buzzwords into alternate sentences.

The reality is that commercial impact is an output, not a series of initiatives. Next time you are tempted to say you are ‘commercially focused’ you better be sure that if a stranger went and asked a decent sample of your business if HR…

  • knew how the business worked
  • was integral to its growth

…then they would say ‘absolutely’. There aren’t many organisations where that is the case.

Those that are should be applauded – those HR teams are truly commercially focused.

4 Responses

  1. I personally think it’s more
    I personally think it’s more to do with people having different perceptions and understandings of what the word ‘commercially’ actually means when it comes to HR interventions. You can spin many aspects of what you do to try and sit within this broad definition. But I totally agree with the output comment. You’re pretty screwed as an HR person if you can’t answer those questions right? ‘face-palm’

  2. A great comment from Gareth
    A great comment from Gareth Williams on our LinkedIn page:

    I like your commentary and I too would admit to falling into the traps you identify – love it, because we’ve been teaching “HRBP’s” to be more commercially focussed for years now, and all of the above also applies.

    However, one observation I would make (apart from the fact that some commentary is rather patronising, e.g. CEO joke about HR and adding the odd comment at meetings about team events) is this, I have worked with many very good HR people who demonstrate the commercial awareness (lets use that term for this group) to drive and deliver business plans, I’ve met very few who could write one though.

    But in support of those of us who did try to take the step from awareness to focus, it is all about understanding the business you are working in and driving activities of recruiting new skills that maybe some of your board colleagues hadn’t realised were needed in next phase of business growth. Many decisions are and should be taken by the triumvirate of CEO, FD and HRD, and in this group widened to the other Directors many serious “commercially focused” decisions could be taken.

    On a last point I have worked in business where MD, and Co don’t particularly want HR to commercially aware, let alone focused, as this isn’t their role. In these cases the commercially focused HR person will begin by seeking to change attitudes and understanding of HR role and potential contribution – this requires real commercial focus, and not a little persuasion skills. Get early wins by suggesting opportunities they haven’t even considered – great fun.

    End of rant, phew that was fun too…

  3. Hear hear, HR absolutley
    Hear hear, HR absolutley needs to be as clued up on the businesses actual customers as it is on it’s own “internal” customers.

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