Demonstrating HR’s value

by 15 May 2007

HR needs to be able to communicate the value that it brings to the table. Craig Donaldson speaks with David Sykes, CEO of Symantec, about the value HR can add and how it can best demonstrate this

How effective do you think HR is?

Within Symantec, HR is very effective. I’ve been with Symantec for eight years now, and I think we’re lucky that we have a HR team that isn’t backward in coming forward here. HR is an intrinsic part of our leadership team and I have a regular weekly meeting with my HR leader. I view them in the same way I’d view one of my senior sales leaders or my finance director.

I can’t imagine making a significant business decision that affects our region without having our HR representative part of it. For example, I run an internal board of directors called our “sales council”, and Kit Middleton, our HR director, is part of every significant decision made there.

HR has introduced some key initiatives that have helped us measure our effectiveness with our people. Kit has been a great advocate of the Best Employers survey and things like that, so we place a lot of store on employee engagement and building that engagement, for example.

Outside of Symantec, what is your impression of HR?

If I was to make any observation on a general basis, I would say that HR needs to walk a fine line at times.

On one hand, we want HR actively engaged in business decisions and providing advice on the people impacted by these decisions. But they also have a custodian role when it comes to a lot of the regulations, legislation and perceptions of how decisions will affect people. HR has got to be able to talk to that and really think about what they do in the broader context of the business.

For example, Symantec is now the fourth largest independent software company in the world. We play on a global stage and a lot of the directives and general direction of HR comes from our global Symantec obligations. This is an example where HR can bring that balance to the table as part of their input into decision-making.

So it’s about understanding what it is you want from HR and then making sure that it is not only given the opportunity to bring that value to the table, but also perceived by the rest of the leadership team in that way.

What do you think holds HR back from being an effective business partner?

The only thing that would hold HR back would be if it was put in a position where it wasn’t being listened to. I think it’s pretty important for CEOs to make sure that HR are brought to the table and to make sure that everyone understands they have an equal voice there.

At the same time, I think there’s a level of sophistication required from HR as well. They have to acknowledge that they’ve got to do so some selling as well. If I put HR at the table with the rest of my senior business leaders, they need to be able to back up their point of view and sell us the benefits of their ideas from a business perspective. A lot of it’s about HR acknowledging that they have to sell to myself and to the leadership team, in the same way any other business leader would have to if they’re putting up a proposal or a project that needs executive support.

So the effectiveness of HR depends very much on the support that it receives from the CEO and leaders of a business. There are two very broad ends of the spectrum when it comes to leadership and HR. There are certainly some leaders out there who view HR predominantly as a transactional-based, paper-pushing, policy compliance kind of function. You have got the people who see HR as a necessary evil. Then you have the other end of the spectrum where HR is seen as a strategic business partner.

What steps does HR need to take in order to become a more effective business partner in general?

It’s all about understanding the business needs. The thing that I really look for is an understanding of the external market. For example, how are we paying our people compared to the rest of the market? Are our compensation packages and benefits competitive? Are we doing the right things to retain and develop people, so that we don’t lose good people to companies who are doing it better?

I look to HR to be able to give me those frames of reference and to be able to back it up with data and clear understanding. I hope I create an environment where they are active business participants and I expect that, as a result, they have a solid understanding of the business needs and can respond to those proactively.

Sure, we may not necessarily agree on some occasions, but we all have input into decisions. So we might be looking at a reorganisation, for example, and my HR representatives will weigh-in and advise that it would need to be done over a period of time, ensure that we communicate every step of the way, that people are all comfortable with it, and that engagement levels are kept high through the process.

However, the reality might be that we have to drive change harder and faster, so HR has the opportunity to step up to the plate and help us cover those engagement bases, for example. We always listen to what HR says and we take that on board, and there’s always an opportunity for HR to contribute.

How can HR best communicate its value to the business?

It is about selling. At the end of the day, we’ve been blessed in that we have some pretty competent HR people and they’ve been able to effectively deliver their views and their messages. They do have an understanding of the business, and they have not only had the opportunity to do that, but responded and delivered.

So there’s a responsibility on the part of HR to sell the value that they bring and to be able to couch it in terms that others will understand. Sometimes the issues that HR has to deal with can appear a little abstract, and our HR representatives are very good at helping us to understand what it means to our people and how we would feel if we were in the same situation. “How would you feel if this happened? What would you think if this is what you saw? What makes you think your crew is going to think differently?”

HR needs to recognise the fact that it’s got to sell and be able to couch its concerns and issues in terms that business leaders can understand. Sometimes it’s personal: “how would you feel; what would you think?” And sometimes its not: “do you realise the impact that you could have on productivity or the bottom line?” So HR needs to be across the business issues in a more personal way and communicate them to leaders in a way that will have the most impact.