Building a relationship for success

by 10 Jul 2007

You can have as many fine HR initiatives as you like, but if you cant sell them to your line managers, theyre not worth the paper theyre written on. Teresa Russell talks with a senior HR manager and a national sales manager about the key elements of a successful HR strategy rollout

It’s always refreshing – sometimes even bracing, to step outside the square. Some HR professionals can be rightly accused of being too internally focused on policy or other cerebral matters. They would rather stay hunkered down in their departments, than raise their heads above the trenches and provide much needed practical help to people in the front lines.

There is no doubt that HR earns the respect of the front line when they respond quickly to the troops on the ground and give them the ammunition they need to put up a good fight. But enough with the war analogy. You don’t have to sound like this when you go and speak with your line managers, but you do have to understand their needs.

Peter O’Keeffe, national sales manager at Nufarm Australia, says he has seen the relationship between HR and sales management build steadily over the last decade. It has now reached the point where it is crucial to the success of the business. “Our GM stresses that human capital is the most important item for discussion at our monthly sales and operations planning meetings,” reports O’Keeffe.

Nufarm, a publicly listed Australian company, manufactures and sells crop protection products in Australiaand worldwide. Its business, which is totally aligned to the farming sector, has seen steady growth in the last decade. It now employs 530 people in Australia in what O’Keeffe describes as a “pretty lean structure”. HR provides a shared services function to the business.

Not long after Sonia La Penna joined Super Cheap Auto Group as its group HR manager 18 months ago, there was a change in managing director and a new team reporting to him. She was tasked with creating a great HR team that would serve the business through to 2010. “I had informal conversations with the MD, the senior management team and every level of the organisation,” says La Penna.

Super Cheap Auto Group (SCA Group) has 245 Super Cheap Auto stores and 30 BCF (boating, camping, fishing) stores across Australia and New Zealand, as well as a sourcing office in China. Its 4,000 employees work in teams of 10–24 in the stores, as well as in group (shared) services in its Brisbane head office.

Issues facing business

It doesn’t matter whether you sell car accessories or herbicides. Both SCA Group and Nufarm have similar problems that reflect the state in many businesses across Australia today. How do we recruit and retain good staff? How can we make time in our week/month to properly develop the talent we have? How do we get the best value for money from training providers?

One of four areas cited as key to SCA’s Vision 2010 strategy, was a focus on management development programs, designed to retain and develop talent across the business. “We’ve just done focus groups following our organisational survey and the common complaints around HR are more about business issues – retention of managers, allocating enough resources (time and money) to HR initiatives and career path issues around development,” says La Penna.

At Nufarm, O’Keeffe says that the biggest issue for him is developing good people managers. “Of the six sales managers I have working for me, none had any people management experience before they were promoted [from the sales force]. I mostly use mentoring to develop them, however we have also done some leadership work this year, understanding what makes a leader versus a manager. We also have quarterly performance management discussions that include a discussion of both business and personal goals. Succession planning is now a part of this,” he says.

The relationship

Key to any successful HR-line manager relationship is communication. “Although the structure of HR is important, success is more about the relationships you build with line managers. Any particular structure that is working now, is reviewed to ensure the HR framework continues to support them,” says La Penna.

Time – and timing – is everything. “HR has to understand that my guys are time poor, so they don’t always get the rapid response from them that they are looking for,” concedes O’Keeffe.

“There are always key operational event times that need to be interwoven with other business activities. There’s no point launching a new HR strategy just when our stores are busy preparing for a catalogue sale, or over the Easter period, which is one of the busiest times of our year. We have to work with the retail management team to roll out initiatives outside these types of important events,”adds La Penna.

Success or failure

“The most important thing needed [to make an HR strategy successful] is having a measurable goal. You also have to communicate what the company is up to – why something is being done and how it is going to benefit the organisation,” says O’Keeffe. He says that a lot of Nufarm’s KPIs are related to staff retention. “It is the ultimate measure of how well we are doing things for our staff.”

In the past, development has been left to functional areas at Nufarm, not driven by HR. However, especially as a result of its succession planning and recruitment initiatives, HR is now deeply involved. “It is important that any programs dovetail into the development programs. HR and the providers have to understand our business and make training relevant. It gets buy-in straight away. It is worth making the extra investment and getting a tailored solution to suit our organisation. Off-the-shelf programs are not as impressive,” says O’Keeffe.

La Penna says that SCA Group recently negotiated and rolled out a new certified agreement which exemplified a successful HR initiative. “We had 14 team members from across the country who negotiated with unions and management. The process involved education, debate and discussion. When it was presented to team members, we got a 76 per cent ‘yes’ vote. It was successful because of the wide consultation with stakeholders, it was realistic and also met the needs of the business,” she says.

La Penna recalls HR initiatives in previous companies she has worked with. “When you don’t have commitment and involvement from across the business, you don’t get the success. Although things get implemented, they turn into just another task. They lack passion,” she recalls.

Lessons learned

In order for HR and line managers to work together to drive successful initiatives through the company, La Penna says that HR needs to learn about the world their line managers live in. “Ask questions, listen, provide timely support. If you share the bigger picture and explain why you are doing what you do, you end up retaining loyal and passionate people,” she says.

From the line management side, O’Keeffe reminds HR that managers may not be people management experts. They often have to have a lot of interaction with HR in order to identify their needs. “They don’t know what they don’t know. They need help to better articulate their needs,” he says.

O’Keeffe believes HR should advise specific solutions when presented with a problem. “Don’t give me 27 options. Just give me a few at most – or make the decision for me, once I’ve been clear about what I need help with,” he asks.