Traditional HR Practitioners: Lessons from the Dinosaur

Written by Larry Fehd, CEO & Founder / HPS

Paleontologists have studied and documented the evolutionary fate of the dinosaur. Anthropologists continue to study the origin and physical, social, and cultural development and behaviors of humans. If we consider the fate of traditional HR practitioners in the context of paleontology, the future seems dim at best. However, if we consider HR practitioners as seeking transformation to HR strategists, then anthropological history would suggest a bright future for the strategically oriented HR leader. HR professionals can write their own history which includes having been a business partner and having made significant contributions to CEO, senior management team, organizational effectiveness, and bottom-line business results.

The HR professional, whether disposed to be a practitioner or strategist, is faced with two fundamental choices: Become a key contributor and high-impact business partner or continue to function in the more traditional role of administrator—e.g. policy police, hiring n’ firing, benefits and compensation administration, training, safety, security, etc.

The paradox is complex and involves the competency of the HR incumbent to function in a strategic role and the CEO and his/her senior management team’s awareness that a much more critical role may be vacant in the form of HR strategist.

While not intending to disparage the HR function or draw conclusions about its future role, our observations suggest that the majority of incumbents in senior HR management positions are either unaware of what they should be doing, incompetent, or perhaps both in terms of their ability to function in a strategic, key contributor, and high-impact business partnership role.

According to recent research conducted by McKinsey and Company, corporate officers whom they defined as CEOs and their direct reports were asked, “Should HR be a high-impact partner to line managers?” Eighty percent said it was critical or very important that HR play that role; however, only twelve percent believed they were actually playing that role. A summary of the respondents’ feedback suggested that each division and each major location should have a “superb HR generalist who is strategic, impact-oriented, direct, tough-minded, and effective at influencing the CEO, senior management team, and/or peers.”

The following are excerpts from the McKinsey and Company research studies. Their findings in the context of HR best practices suggest that exemplary HR professionals:

  • Help to forge the link between business strategy and talent development.
  • Serve as the thought leader in understanding what it takes to attract great talent; as as “the barometer of the organization, understanding morale, recruiting and retention trends, as well as other key people issues.”
  • Facilitate the talent review process and action plans, “having a nose for weak spots (people, structures, processes, and culture) and being comfortable in pushing [i.e. influencing, in my terms] senior leadership to deal proactively with those weak spots.”
  • Become the architect of the development strategy for the top 50-100 senior leadership group. This requires good assessment skills, good listening skills, candor, and insight.

If you are a CEO or senior manager responsible for the HR function and you or your HR staff are not performing these and other related tasks, then constructive interventions might include one or more of the following:

  • Educate the CEO and senior management team about the new HR strategic leadership role and potential contributions and impact on team and organizational performance and bottom-line business results.
  • Assess the incumbent’s awareness and competence in the HR strategic role.
  • Provide coaching for the HR incumbent to develop the necessary skills to become an effective strategist and business partner.
  • Provide coaching for the HR incumbent’s staff to develop the necessary functional skills to support HR strategy and business goals and objectives.
  • Replace the HR incumbent and/or staff with individuals who possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities.
  • Supplement or streamline the HR function by adding expert resources and/or outsourcing functions to improve services and reduce non-value-added expenses.

Lessons from the dinosaur may be a metaphorical exaggeration in the context of the HR function in today’s business environment. Unless some rapid changes are made, however, the significant gap between HR practitioner and strategist will have significant impact on overall business performance. Learn more about improving the Human Resources Management function in your organization.

Larry Fehd

Chief Executive Officer & Founder / HPS
Executive Leadership & Business Optimization Advisor

M: (512) 415-0748

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