What challenges do HR leaders face and how can they be successful in 2017?

What are the particular challenges that HR directors face right now opposed to other senior executives and what should they do to be successful? These were the topics for discussion at a recent Connor HR leaders forum in London.

Every organisation is dealing with a business environment that is becoming increasingly volatile, complex and ambiguous. Throw in the current political and economic uncertainty and 2017 looks likely to be a turbulent year. We got a group of HR leaders together to answer these questions and this is what they told us.

The HR leadership challenges

1. You deliver through other people and have multiple stakeholders

Other board members deliver through their teams but not through the entire workforce. An HR leader’s success depends largely on the capability of the managers around them. There was a consensus that positive change happens when managers take personal responsibility for culture, values and people management and that’s the key problem to solve at the top of the organisation.

HR leaders explained that they often have a wide range of stakeholders (whether by region, business unit or product line), who have different needs and expectations of HR.

2. Managing a varied, multi-generational workforce

The reality of ‘a job for life’ is a thing of the past but some employees are looking for this and that’s hard to manage. HR leaders have to balance demands from people starting their careers with those nearing retirement, while ensuring they fill any future gaps (a particular concern for sectors such as manufacturing and engineering).

When the subject of resilience was touched upon, many HR leaders linked this to health and safety and wellbeing. The majority of organisations had a sophisticated programme that looked to address mental and physical health. The forum agreed that this can’t be forced and people who use such programmes tend to be those who are healthy and interested. But there are success stories and these types of activities can become infectious. One HR leader talked about running machine desks and an employee who had lost three stone since their health and wellness programme had been introduced a little over six months ago.

Another HR director revealed an interesting story about a senior executive being off work with stress related to looking after a parent. When the organisation quizzed another group of employees on the same issue, about half said they were also dealing with care issues for their parents. A challenge for today’s HR leader is to understand the impact that society has on their organisation’s people.

“Complexity and pace can bring pressure in organisations and HR leaders want to take responsibility for addressing it.”Julia Nickless, client partner, Connor

3. Having capacity now and in the future

Organisations grow and change. HR leaders have immediate capability and medium and long term capability in their thoughts. In a fast changing world, it is difficult to predict what’s going to happen. Complexity and pace can bring pressure and HR leaders want to take responsibility for addressing it.

4. Dealing with a broad, often international, remit

A number of HR leaders worked for organisations that were internationally owned, meaning they often need to overcome culture clashes or to adapt policies so they are more accepted by the UK business.

The forum also reflected on how, with an HR leader having wide responsibilities, it’s about looking after yourself too. HR leaders are privy to grievances and disciplinary matters so they are close to stress and often know what’s going on with every other member of the board.

What HR leaders need to do to be successful

1. Give yourself the time and space to be an effective HR leader

Whether it was removing obstacles to help their team to perform or taking the time to come up with a plan to develop emerging talent – all the HR leaders at the forum recognised they needed to build capacity to fulfil their responsibilities.

Getting involved in the detail of every project isn’t sustainable. A number of people kept coming back to the notion of taking ‘a helicopter view’ of the organisation and forcing themselves to slow down, to be a ‘thoughtful HR leader’.

Coaching and influencing the other members of the leadership team so they listen to and act on advice was another key area of focus.

2. Have a bottom up and top down approach to selling ideas

Asking employees what they want and listening to their view gives weight to initiatives and establishes credibility. Equally, you don’t want senior people to undo the good ideas grassroots people often have so it’s about achieving clarity and support at all levels.

One HR leader put their senior people on a two day coaching programme and also asked them to take on a coachee. This made it easier to sell the concept of coaching for others because these colleagues directly understood it.

3. Have the right involvement in employee relations issues

The forum discussed the merits or otherwise of managing employee relations through an outsourced partner or an internal shared services approach.

While it was agreed that it can be cost efficient to outsource, it was pointed out that you can miss opportunities to coach. These are the times when the HR department has the attention of the business and they want your help. A good balance is to have a solution for basic employee relations and more sophisticated HR involvement for more complex ones.

4. Make yourself surplus to requirements

HR is a service and because you want to deliver a good one, there is always a danger that, as the senior HR figure within your organisation, you do the job for your people.

Leadership was a key thing for everyone and one HR director put it best when she concluded: “We’ve all heard the phrase ‘I’ve got an HR issue’ and the reality is, no you haven’t, you’ve got a leadership issue. The HR leader’s role is not to deal with an issue but to coach people to deal with it themselves. Success is when you’ve made people good leaders and HR is largely redundant.”

Connor HR leaders forums are exclusive breakfast events for senior HR people.

We are running a series of forums across the UK in 2017, with the next one in London on Wednesday 29 March – get in touch with me to find out more about booking your place at a future Connor HR leaders forum.


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