HR professionals: know thy business

by 27 Nov 2007

IF HR professionals want to be involved in the strategic planning of a business, they have to know and understand the entire business, according to Ann Sherry, CEO of cruise company Carnival Australia.

In her speech at a recent HR breakfast briefing, the former group executive of people & performance of Westpac described what she looks for in a good HR person, and said the capacity to measure and being commercially savvy were paramount.

HR directors must come to the table with ideas backed up with figures, she said, and they must understand the dynamics of the business. Having been an HR professional herself, Sherry found the most radical of HR ideas can reach the top once they are translated into the language of the organisation.

HR directors must be able to give their ideas a better rationale, she said. “Go with an idea and put numbers to it. Financial literacy and measurement is really important for HR. If you don’t have this you are running in a parallel universe.”

Apart from being financially and commercially literate, Sherry also described other characteristics of a good HR professional.

Knowing how to make things work is a simple but very important element of HR. Sherry spoke about HR professionals wanting to be part of the strategy of the business, but she said the basic operations have to be right first. She used the examples of getting payroll right and drafting letters well.

“Everyone wants to let go of the little things and move on to the big things, but you have to get the basics right first – crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. This is what sets a company apart,” she said.

Innovation in the context of HR policy is also important, according to Sherry. As a CEO, she would look for someone who comes up with innovative ways to manage generations X and Y, how to hire and retain staff and develop first-class succession plans. However, the ideas don’t necessarily have to be your own, she said.

“There’s nothing wrong with stealing good ideas. If you see a policy in another company that is working, take it, adapt it and use it,” she said.

She also said that HR professionals need to look further afield, not just domestically, for their ideas and inspiration. “HR folk are great people, good hearts, but they need to get out more,” she said.

The breakfast briefing, which was organised by Directioneering, looked at key elements of an effective CEO/HR relationship. While Sherry spoke about what is needed from the HR side, Rob Lourey, former global head of HR for Lend Lease and The BOC Group, spoke about what is needed from a CEO.

A good understanding of people and high expectations are two key characteristics that a CEO needs for improved relations with HR.

While finance is traditionally seen as the lexicon of business drivers, Lourey said that a CEO must realise that it is people who drive business and must understand the crucial role they can play.

“Somebody said to me recently, ‘The war for talent is over. Talent has won’. That is why it is essential that a good CEO recognises what a good HR person looks like. Most CEOs don’t,” he said.

This is often a problem with many CEOs, according to Lourey, in that they don’t know what to expect from their HR department. “I want a CEO to have a high expectation of the HR director. I want the CEO to demand results,” he said.

Lourey said vision, passion for the people within an organisation, accessibility, discretion, trust and respect were other characteristics of an ideal CEO.

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