Why CEOs (Might) Hate HR

In the American television comedy series "The Office," the hostility between Michael Scott, regional manager of the mythical paper company Dunder Mifflin’s branch in Scranton, Pa., and Toby Flenderson, the branch’s human resources director, is a recurring theme.

During one particularly humorous scene, Michael learns suddenly that Toby—who had left the office previously—has returned.

Michael’s reaction?

“No! God! No. God, please, no. No. No. No!”

Is that how your CEO reacts to HR?  

One reason the conflict between Michael and Toby is funny to most of us is that it plays on a stereotype of HR as a rule-bound, stultifying function that usually only makes life more difficult for the rest of the organization.

I’m pleased that this stereotype is becoming less accurate, as many HR leaders are becoming more aware of how they must continually add value to the overall organization.

But many executives still don’t see that value, hence the continual discussion of how HR can “get a seat at the table.” 

From my observations and conversations, one of the biggest reasons CEOs might not recognize the value of HR is straight-forward, yet simultaneously difficult to overcome: CEOs need HR leaders who think strategically.

This is straight-forward because it appears to have a clear solution. Namely, HR leaders need to start thinking about their functions and their organizations from a strategic perspective. This involves understanding how the organization competes and creates value. But this is a difficult issue to overcome because it involves a different way of thinking—and that’s tough to develop.

Regardless, I’ve been on a bit of a mission during the past few months.

That mission is to promote more strategic thinking among professionals in the world of HR and related functions such as training and talent development. I’ve done so through giving a handful of talks outside of the realm of academia, and that’s given me the opportunity not only meet some wonderful people, but also to share an approach toward strategic thinking.

These have included the 2015 HR Indiana Annual Conference and the 2015 Central Indiana Chapter of the Association for Talent Development Learning Summit.

Specifically, my message is about HR and related functions becoming more agile.

From the feedback I’ve received, HR leaders have found this approach thought-provoking and useful. So, what’s my approach? It has five main parts.

  1. Our world—and our organizations—operate in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA).
  2. HR professionals must continually study their environments, both internal and external to their organizations, so that they can anticipate and act quickly. Vigilance trumps complacency.
  3. In short, HR needs to become more agile—having the capability to sense and respond to the VUCA forces that they and their organizations face.
  4. Being agile means that HR leaders should proactively anticipate how they can help their organization's people perform optimally given what they face today and what they will face tomorrow.
  5. When HR leaders can connect their practices to the strategic needs of their organizations, top executives will sit up and take notice.  Proactively doing this on a continual basis will move HR leaders into the sphere of being strategic business partners for the organization.

Certainly a great deal can go into making these approaches a reality. But here are a few questions HR professionals can ask about their own work and their functions as a whole:

  • Are your workforce planning and talent development plans developed with multiple contingencies and scenario planning in mind?
  • In what way and how often are you communicating with your key internal and external stakeholders?
  • Are the criteria for identifying and selecting talent aligned with what the organization will need in the future, in addition to what’s needed today?
  • How do you or your function stay aware of emerging trends in your organization’s industry as well as your profession (i.e., HR, talent development, etc.)?
  • In what way does your work reflect a focus on your customers, both internally and externally
  • How can you better align what you provide as HR leaders with your customers’ needs?
  • To what degree are your practices and decisions based upon valid data and analysis?

This is clearly a complex topic, but it’s one that HR needs to continue tackling in order to help organizations thrive in the modern world of work. And if it does, HR will in many ways lead the organizations of the future.

But if it does not, everyone in HR risks becoming Toby Flenderson.

Do CEOs hate or love HR? Why or why not?

How can HR become even more agile and drive strategic-level results? Leave a comment below!

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com