The right pill to take

by 17 Apr 2007

HR needs the support of the CEO if it is to be successful, but HR also needs to deliver on executive expectations. Craig Donaldson speaks with Blackmores GM and COO Jennifer Tait about the relationship between HR and the business

What is your experience with HR at Blackmores?

People, product and passion are the cornerstones for building the Blackmores business. Two of those fall quite neatly into the HR area: passion and people. So you can relate those to making sure you’ve got the right people, that you’re retaining the right people, you’ve got the right culture in place and making sure that culture is aligned with what you want to achieve in the business. So HR has been very successful in those two areas in building business effectiveness.

At Blackmores, we believe people management is an integral part of any manager’s role, so we don’t have a big HR function but we have a firmly grounded belief in HR principles. I’ve worked in other companies where there have been very strong and effective HR departments. We convinced management of the need for good HR – we waved the flag and championed the whole process, and at the time that’s exactly what was needed.

So HR is decentralised at Blackmores?

We have a decentralised HR function and line managers are absolutely critical to execution around HR. Our HR function mainly tries to provide the tools and support that they would need, but they don’t own the HR relationship. The relationship with the staff is the manager’s function and, I suppose at the end of the day, the buck stops with me and our CEO Marcus Blackmore. I absolutely believe in what we need to do with our people and how we manage our people.

At Blackmores, most of our management are seen as an HR resource, because HR is integrated into the business. We don’t have a big HR function. In fact, if it gets too big, I think there’s a risk that people management will be seen as HR’s job and HR can actually become less integrated into the business.

It’s important to understand that Blackmores does probably have a different approach to HR than a classic large company. We believe it is the role of every manager to be an effective HR manager, and we try and give them the training, through our HR function, to do that. But we don’t let them ever abdicate HR responsibilities to HR. The parts of HR that are centralised are leadership and culture management. Blackmores culture is clearly my responsibility.

What is your impression of HR in other businesses?

I suspect it’s an under-rated function. I think there are a lot of companies that pay lip service to the classic tools, like climate surveys and performance reviews. Some companies don’t buy into HR and it’s not an integral part of their thinking. It’s a really hard road for HR people in those situations.

We’re very fortunate in that regard. Our people are focused and motivated to achieve business results. For example, when we did our most recent climate survey, our score on employee engagement was 88 per cent. When we did our collective agreement last May, there was a lot of negative press about industrial relations and workplace agreements. We put our collective agreement to a vote in June and we had 97.5 per cent of the staff vote for it.

Both of those are examples of staff buying into what you’re trying to achieve, and when you’ve got that environment, the business results really start to show because staff are motivated and we’re not just fighting bushfires all the time.

How can HR contribute more effectively to business in general?

They have to be able to talk the language of the people they need to convince. If that’s the CEO, then they need to be well versed in the broad business and not purely HR. You need to be able to present a business argument and integrate your argument into the business direction. You don’t do HR for HR’s sake.

At the very senior level, if people aren’t seen as a critical issue for a CEO, that creates a gap. If this is pushed even further down the line, then it creates even more of a problem for an organisation. So HR needs to be able to converse with the CEO and managers and present arguments in a way they understand.

At the same time, the CEO has got to provide leadership as well as an example and direction to line managers. I think it’s a very hard road for a line manager to believe in HR if the top level support is not already there.

What steps can HR take to become an effective business partner with CEOs?

HR needs broad-based business experience, which will stand them in good stead in terms of interacting with the CEO and getting HR onto the agenda. While it’s good for HR to have the ear of the CEO, I do believe the CEO has to get out there and know what the people are thinking. HR is in tune with the business here and they have their ear to the ground. One thing I do believe HR does well is providing insightful counsel.

Another thing HR does quite well here is in getting that alignment between values, performance management, culture and climate survey results. HR spends a lot of time on this and communicating about how they all work together.

We’ve got a small HR department and it’s decentralised, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do the classic thing in terms of making sure we’ve got the right values in place. We talk about the values all the time with our people. We do climate surveys. So HR can be a great enabler, but HR needs to have the drive and resources to work with the CEO from a business perspective.