Balancing HR’s relevance

by 01 May 2007

IN ORDER to better engage with CEOs and be seen as trusted advisors, HR directors need to speak the language of chief executives while focusing on leadership practices, according to Ross Fowler, vice president of Cisco Systems.

“If you’ve got an HR leader focusing on creating the right sort of conversations to get breakthrough results, balancing their activities over the short, medium and long-term and they’ve got a real focus on leadership practices, that actually helps them get into the core phase in terms of organisational processes,” said Fowler.

Speaking at a recent HR Partners/Staff & Exec breakfast, he referred to specific models available to give HR directors some basic ideas and tools on how they can make HR more strategic.

Focussing on what makes the business relevant to customers while differentiating it from competitors is important, he said.

“From my perspective, HR directors require certain attributes. Firstly, they need to understand how the business ticks. That means understanding who the business is, its culture and what the business does to make money.”

With the belief that HR directors need to focus on leadership at all levels, Fowler referred to a business model that starts with leaders and flows down to create employee results that in turn, deliver customer results and ultimately provide business results.

The model, used by Cisco and based on a concept in the book Dealing with Darwin by Geoffrey Moore, divides business processes into four categories:

• core processes that create differentiation

• other context issues

• mission critical processes whose shortfall can create serious and immediate risk, and

• non-mission critical processes.

While many organisations may decide between core and context processes, Fowler said they often do not separate their mission critical and non mission critical processes.

A lot of CEOs spend time on core processes when they are failing, he said. As a result, Fowler said it was important for HR directors to get the balance right.

“They need to ask themselves if they have enough of their engagement with the CEO in that core mission critical and core non mission critical activity,” he said.

“Essentially they need to put forth processes that say to the CEO, this is how it will help your business be more competitive and differentiated in the marketplace..”

There are no shortcuts to business results, Fowler said, noting that companies must usually go through the typical cycle of leadership practices, employer results, customer results and business results.

As such, it was important for HR directors to ensure that they’ve got the right leadership practices inside an organisation, he said.

The most successful businesses also manage their business over the short, medium and long term, which all require very different styles and often different teams, he said.

HR directors that can adapt their style and get a good balance with the engagement of the CEO over short, medium and long term activities are more likely to be successful, Fowler said.

“Often, if they are stuck in horizon one – about fixing today’s problems they’re unlikely to be core in the mind of the CEO,” he said.

The most inspiring leaders are therefore those that create conversations around breakthroughs and talk about possibilities – not what should be, but what could be.

“I think HR leaders have a responsibility in conjunction with the CEO to help create the right conversations in the organisation that deliver the culture, that deliver the actions and results, essentially creating a breakthrough type mentality.”

He also said all leaders should maintain a sense of change within organisations. “The job of any leader or HR director is to ensure they are creating the conversations, the leadership practices and the culture that people are never satisfied with the status quo.”

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