How to Achieve Real HR Transformation

For more than 25 years, business leaders and human resources professionals have been attempting to transform HR.

In that time, we’ve moved from personnel to HR to people officers. We’ve established business partner roles, matrix organizations and centers of excellence. We’ve started initiatives on culture, leadership development and talent management. And we’ve outsourced, insourced and rotated talent.

Yet, HR still has a perception problem. As renowned business adviser and author Ram Charan wrote in a July 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review,the prevailing opinion is that most CEOs are disappointed in HR. “What they can’t do very well is relate HR to real-world business needs,” he wrote.

I believe HR leaders have underestimated what transformation takes — not as much on an organizational level but on a personal level. Put simply, HR will never experience true transformation until there is a transformation in HR practitioners themselves.

More than tools, more than skills and more than support, what is most important for any HR organization seeking to shift how it operates is the ability of every practitioner to shift how they “show up.” 

There are three areas that HR practitioners should master to shift the perception of their value. 

Enhance Business Savvy

One of my first assignments as an HR practitioner was supporting two pharmaceutical sales divisions. On my first day, the general manager told me, “If you’re in your office more than 40 percent of the time, I’ll fire you.”

I remember thinking, “Where will I be the other 60 percent of the time?” Once I realized I had to know the business to be of value, the path forward became clear. There was absolutely no way I could learn the business stuck in my office, so I hit the road traveling with sales leaders.

Be passionate about knowing your clients’ customers, strategies and products. What are they trying to make happen? What will accelerate that goal? Then, before you begin anything, ask, “What business problems are we trying to solve?”

Let those insights guide your choice of tools and actions. Lead first through the business lens and then through the HR lens. This will position you more as a business thought partner than an HR facilitator.

Be Intentional

HR practitioners are increasingly asked to function as internal consultants, a role thatrequires them to rely upon influence and expertise. This can be a significant shift for those accustomed to a more transactional model.

To build your influence as an HR professional, recognize that everything you do sends a message. As such, being aware of your effect on others and the tone you set is the first step in operating with more intention in your leadership. It’s a matter of choice. You are the completely controllable variable in any interaction. Be aware of how you “show up” and choose your behavior with care and discipline.

Grow, Grow, Grow

The pace of change in business increases each year. Staying current requires an ongoing commitment to learning. Here are four ways to keep growing:

  • Build your professional library. Always be on the lookout for books, magazines and other sources that can expand your knowledge and challenge your thinking.
  • Set up an archive for your anecdotes. Stories are good teachers, and Evernote is a good app to explore for capturing them on the go.
  • Create an idea or tool book. Highly skilled HR practitioners have a deep bag of tricks they can draw upon, so they can choose the tools that will best suit a given business context.
  • Build a learning cohort. Whether within your HR team or your extended network, start a small learning community of peers. Meet regularly to discuss current thinking, challenge each other and share perspectives.

 Real transformation requires large-scale alignment of resources, leaders and individual development. HR practitioners needn’t wait for the vision and permission of senior leaders to begin making a difference. The moment you choose to shape both yourself and the perceived value of HR is the moment when change begins.