Aligning HR with the Business: What to do

We recently conducted focus groups with our research members and one of the topics which comes up frequently is the question:  how can we better align with our business leaders?    Let me discuss a few important comments here (we have much more coming on this topic), and give you a “short guide to becoming aligned with the business.”

Business leaders are easy to understand.  HR people are hard to understand.

Business leaders have fairly simple goals:  make their numbers.  The VP of Sales is primarily interested in doing whatever he or she can to make the quota.  The head of manufacturing is worrying about quality and production targets.  The CIO is interested in making sure that systems are delivered on time and uptime is 100%.  These are easy to understand, measurable things… and any good business leader has their personal list.

HR and L&D people, on the other hand, use words like “competencies,” “skills,” “performance,” and “alignment.”  These words mean a lot to us, but they mean very little to a business person.  When you talk with or present to a business leader, you must strip out these words and think more clearly – and answer two simple questions:

1.  What is in it for them?  How will it help them make their “numbers?”

2.  What are the specific, actionable steps you would like a business person to take?

Answering these questions is much harder than you think.  In fact, I believe this is the biggest value our research often provides. 

Working with Line Managers – an Example

Let’s use a simple example.  Suppose you are rolling out a new performance management process, and it involves the use of cascading goals (buzzword), development planning (buzzword), 9-box grids (REALLY a buzzword), and calibration sessions (c’mon, noone will understand what that means).  You want to get buy-in from line managers on the new process. 

What is it you really want to say to a line manager in manufacturing operations?  And what is it you want to say to the Senior VP of Manufacturing to gain his support?

Your First Challenge:  Clearly explain the benefits in their business terms. 

The first “translation” you must make is clearly explaining the benefits of your new program in their business terms:

“We know that your organization is behind its manufacturing targets this year, and we know that one of the reasons for this shortage is that you have had a lot of turnover in critical positions.  Turnover is typically caused by either hiring the wrong person for the position, or a breakdown in the relationship between the manager and the employee.  We have developed a very simple process to help managers sit down and better coach their employees.  It will only take a few hours of your time – and we know it will help you improve the retention in your team.  Can i ask you to schedule a 30 minute conference call to walk your team through the basics?”

Prepare for the following objections:

I can just imagine a line manager saying to himself “sheesh, here comes HR with another one of their great ideas.  What I really need is a way to make sure i’m hiring better people!”  So as you craft these benefits conversations, think hard about the objections you expect to hear.  

A)  I dont have time for this.  

Prepare yourself for this comment.  First of all, make sure you know what your line managers are already doing and make sure the process you are rollling out is not overly complex!  Next, you have to disarm this objection.  Your answer should include comments like “when Joe over in production did this, his turnover dropped by 30%” or “let me show you how you can do this in only 20 minutes” or “do you remember how you felt when you sat down with your manager?.” 

Every single HR and learning program we develop competes for business peoples’ time.  Every single one.  You must help people understand that these are business processes that create improvements in production volume, quality, and efficiency – not just “HR stuff.”  Give examples of how others in the organization have benefitted greatly, and remind them that a small amount of time working on the right things is far more important than spending a lot of time on things that do not work very well.  (Peter Drucker’s famous book “The Effective Executive” is my bible in this area. )

I believe that your effectiveness as an HR or Learning manager or executive is heavily dependent on your ability to show line management how their time spent on your programs provides positive return to their business metrics.  If you can convince yourself, and line management, that this new program will increase sales, improve quality, or reduce expenses, then they will find time to do it.

B)  What you’re talking about won’t work here. 

This one is also very common.  The essence of this objection is that “our organization is different.”  There are two issues at work here.  First of all, you as an HR or L&D manager must have the umbrella of support from top executive leadership.   If you have not yet convinced the CEO or other business leaders that the process, system, or program you have developed is valuable, then you will find many line managers pushing back.  Executive “air cover” is critical.  (We will write an article on this topic later.)

Second, many organizations and managers feel that they are truly “different.”  This gets to the issue of corporate strategy and corporate culture.  Organizations succeed because of two essential elements:  strategy and execution.  Strategy defines what markets you serve, how you differentiate yourself from alternatives, and specifically what products, services, and processes you deliver.  Execution defines how you go about delivering on these strategies. 

Our research continuously shows that strategy and execution are linked hand in glove.  If your organizational strategy is to deliver fast, cost-efficient air travel (e.g. Southwest Airlines), then your execution plan will include things like single point-to-point flights, no assigned seating, and heavy discounts for online booking.  These “execution” elements are not independent of strategy (which differs greatly from many business consultants) – in fact they are directly linked.  And your HR and L&D programs must also align with this strategy.  (Our High Impact Talent Management framework describes this process in detail.)

Therefore when you hear the objection “this wont work here” what you are hearing is a breakdown in the linkage between strategy and execution.  Either your program itself is not truly consistent with the company’s strategy, or this particular manager does not understand the company’s strategy. 

Here is an excellent example.  One of the most successful accounting consulting firms (I will keep them confidential) has a strong stated culture of quality and customer satisfaction.  Yet in the actual execution of projects, business managers focus primarily on utilization and profitability of projects.  Execution is not well linked to strategy.  The Chief Learning Officer, being close to the strategy conversations, developed a highly intensive program on client project management for all the top consultants.  This program was rolled out over the last several years, and resulted in high levels of accolades from the staff, yet low levels of support from middle management.  Upper management was stressing utilization and profitability to the detriment of quality.  Management was not “linking strategy to execution” well.

Your role in these situations is to point these things out and push back wherever necessary.  You as an HR or L&D leader must constantly be vigilant for such disconnections.  If you want to have a role as a business partner, you must clearly illustrate examples of such disconnect, and point out the actual business losses from such broken linkages.

C)  Is this mandatory? (Do I really have to?  Once you walk out of the door i’ll put it on the bottom of the pile).

This comment is a reflection that you have mis-positioned your program as a “compliance program.”  Frankly, in many cases this is a good thing.  Often times the most valuable way to implement change management is to force change, and provide the communications, training, and support to make sure it is done well.  People later realize that the “new process” is a good thing.

Again, if you focus on A) and B) above you may not end up with C.

Your second challenge:  Clearly explain precisely what you want the business manager to do.

Finally, remember that business people really are busy.  You must develop a clear action plan (which varies widely from first line manager to top executive) which tells them precisely what you want them to do.  And this must be simple and easy to follow. 

If your performance management process is a brand new 16-step process which takes 45 minutes to complete, beware.  Keep it simple.  Give each of your constituents a very simple and clear set of steps which you ask – and if it takes more than a page or two, consider trimming it down.

Now look at the action items and put on your “manage by the numbers” filter.  Does this list of actions feel like it will help these managers make their numbers?  Can you clearly translate why and how these actions drive results?  You should think this through in advance, before you roll out the new program.

Bottom Line:  Learn to think like a Business Person – Not an HR person

I know that many of us in the HR and L&D profession are here because we love the work we do.  And this is the reason we work in one of the most dynamic and interesting areas of the economy.  But you must remember that you are part of a business enterprise — and if you are not regularly thinking like a business person, you will rarely play a strategic role.

Here is a good example of the challenge.  I recently gave a keynote speech at the annual “State of HR” meeting for a large global insurance company.  I was talking about the topic of integrated talent management, best-practices, and the increasingly important role it plays in today’s economy.  At the beginning of the speech I asked the audience “how many of you regulary read the Wall Street Journal?”

The response was shocking.  Of the 220 or so senior HR managers and directors in the room, only about 20 raised their hands.  There is no excuse for this.  If you are not interested in the business you are in, get interested in it!  Read the trade press, ask your business counterparts what challenges they are having, read the company’s business plan, and take some time to educate yourself on the industry. 

Business is all about people.  It is not “dry-boring money-making” – it is one of the most interesting, people-centric parts of the world economy.  If you do not understand your industry, your company’s strategy, and your organization’s key business inititiatives and business models, you are working with your hands tied behind your back.  The most valuable role you can play is as the “translator” between people strategy and business strategy — taking the jargon we use every day and making it simple, meaningful, and actionable for business people.

Our 2008 research conference IMPACT 2008:  The Business of Talent® – is all about this process.  Let this be one of your personal goals for the coming year.  I welcome your comments and feedback.