People functions thrust into the limelight – how are HR leaders meeting their organisation’s needs?

Julia Nickless

By Julia Nickless

03 Apr 2017

People functions thrust into the limelight – how are HR leaders meeting their organisation’s needs?

With responsibility for complex people issues and significant change projects, HR leaders are a real focus of attention at the executive table right now. What are the biggest challenges that HR leaders face today and what do they need to solve them? These were just two of the questions that we posed in our latest HR leaders forum and here are the answers.

What are the biggest challenges for HR leaders?

1. Delivering cultural change and establishing a high performance culture

The HR leaders we spoke to agreed that it is hard to put a timescale when it comes to delivering a significant challenge like culture change. As one member of the forum concluded: "Culture comes from within people's hearts. It's about making change part of every employee's day to day behaviour."

Another HR director discussed how she was trying to develop her organisation's culture. "We're over 150 years old, so it's like digging up an old oak tree. It has all these deep roots everywhere."

2. Helping the organisation to become more customer focused

Some organisations represented at the forum wanted to become more customer focused. One company was widely regarded as the market leader in its sector. Their HR director was therefore facing a leadership team that failed to see why it needed to up its game when it came to looking after their clients.

Another HR leader had a role that also encompassed marketing and IT within a new shared service centre. He was clear about his challenge, which involved a different way of delivering services across his organisation. "The big challenge is overcoming the fear factor that comes with transition. I need to make sure my team know how to deliver services with new systems, processes and internal customers – all inside six months. And while we’re doing it, there's a certain amount of worry around the place about becoming more customer centric."

3. Deliver against the agreed mission and vision

One HR leader had spent six months working with the CEO to agree a five year people strategy for their organisation. Job done, you might think. But her biggest challenge was to make sure the organisation continued to believe in this approach.

"Change is delivered by maintaining emphasis and delivering what you say you are going to do. The challenge for HR is to keep everyone working to the same plan."HR leader, utilities company

She explained: "Senior leaders will challenge whether our people priorities are the right ones. I think they are and I want to focus on our plan, not create a new one if someone doesn't agree with it. Change is delivered by maintaining emphasis and delivering what you say you are going to do. The challenge for HR is to keep everyone working to the same plan."

What do HR leaders need in order to meet these challenges and the expectations of their organisation?

 1. A high performing HR team

So, you've identified your major people challenges and you've even agreed a plan to address them with your executive team. But all of the HR leaders we spoke to agreed that you were destined to fail if your HR team wasn't skilled or resilient enough to deliver it.

One HR leader was candid about how she established the right team. "We asked our people to be strategic, commercial and resilient. We gave them an opportunity to improve but if they didn't live up to it we had to make the tough decision to let them go. It's difficult but if we hadn't done it we wouldn't be seen as commercial and credible – it was fundamental. How could we lead a high performing business if we didn't have a high performing HR team? We couldn't deliver great training or embed a new culture, for instance."

Another forum member shared how she had improved the performance of the HR business partners that she managed. "The clue is in the job title, the emphasis should be on being a true partner for the business. Our approach is different now. Our HR business partners attend more meetings so they learn more and take a greater interest. To be a high performing HR team you have to demonstrate to the business that you understand their world."

2. An engaged leadership team

Forum members agreed that there’s no blueprint for culture change but you always need your leadership team to be supportive of all your people projects. One HR leader summarised the feeling in the room nicely: "Senior leaders must accept that they are accountable for delivering and embedding key messages. I need them to take ownership so projects I deliver are not just seen as HR initiatives. Our work must be seen as business imperative."

When delivering strategic change, there was a consensus that patience was key and again, the board had a role to play. One HR director explained: "I need leaders to be role models for change. It takes years to deliver culture change and I love the work but you need to manage expectations around it. You must be realistic and your senior team can help to tell your people about the particular journey you are going on."

So how do you make sure your leadership team is switched on to the real people issues that you face? The HR leaders in the room had some practical tips for success. One HR director said: "Some of our leaders were not aware of what Glassdoor was. So we showed them the reviews that were being written about us by our current and former employees. We used it as a mirror to say, 'are you proud of this?'. This worked to give our leadership team the sudden realisation that their behaviour has a profound impact on culture. They were engaged when they realised that everything they do is a part of our corporate brand as it can appear online."

3. Employees who can be early adopters and HR ambassadors

When the HR team is responsible for delivering change, support is crucial at all levels. One HR director commented: "I need change agents across the organisation. I need to work with people that want to deliver a service and not just an operation. It's about desire, willingness and wanting to be part of it and inspiring people to be energised about a new way of operating."

"When I was talking about driving change someone said to me: 'I'm going to spread my fairy dust.' And that's exactly what I needed. I need cultural ambassadors."HR director, direct marketing company

Another forum member shared a relevant story with the group on employee engagement with regards to change. "When I was talking about driving change someone said to me: 'I'm going to spread my fairy dust.' And that's exactly what I needed. I need cultural ambassadors, I need people to help to communicate and be open to development opportunities and I need lots of help internally to make things successful."

In conclusion, HR leaders face a mixture of literal and cultural changes in 2017. But whatever the challenge, it was clear that they need a talented HR team and backing from an engaged leadership team to overcome them. Finally, to deliver successful change programmes, HR leaders need support from colleagues at every level to help to solve their people issues.

Connor runs a small number of HR leaders forums. Talk to me about getting an invitation to these exclusive, free breakfast events for senior HR people.

"HR is such a lonely place. I personally enjoy these forums because people’s challenges are similar no matter how different our industries and experiences are. It's refreshing and I feel better."HR director, luxury goods company
"The size of the forum, with everyone round the same table is great. It’s intimate and it’s not like a seminar where you walk around with a coffee and don't talk to anyone."HR director, spread betting firm
Julia Nickless

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