Every year I republish my “state of the HR union” article from previous years with new additions and edits as a challenge to each of you. Am I on target, or did I miss anything pertinent? 

Early every year, the President of the United States makes an address to the nation. The purpose of the annual “State of the Union” address is to give an account of the year’s events and discuss the priorities of the coming months. If communicated properly, this is an opportunity to reach a larger audience, share major goals, and get buy-in from the constituency.

So, why don’t we give it a shot?

hr-state-union-address

I think every HR pro needs to have their own State of the Union address within their own company, department, or team (depending on the level of responsibility). This is strategic HR communication at its best, and it could become a valuable tool to allow leaders to peer into the inner workings of the HR strategy while allowing HR leaders to share key results areas as well. In fact, even compliance can be strategic, if communicated properly.

When I think about this, I remember the best boss I ever had. She did an annual HR “touch base” meeting to get us on the right track, get everyone on the same page, and help to lay out key themes and strategies for the year. In reality it was a team of two of us, but she brought in additional stakeholders and interested parties to hear the session, giving them a peek into our priorities. It also allowed them to see how we might be able to help them and enable their success, a primary part of how I define successful HR.

She was always good at pointing out the need to be agile, knowing that business needs could dictate changes in our approach. Knowing that the HR strategy could change rapidly helped to give me some sense of control, despite the complete lack of it! That’s one reason I put together the following video a while back, because I know that the HR strategy sometimes changes, shifts, or even fails. We need to be prepared for some of those eventualities.

Featured Video: What to Do if Your HR Strategy Fails

HR Needs to Step Up

Are you ready for me to step on your toes? Here’s a quote from one study I found:

“Only 20 percent of [the largest publicly traded] companies discuss HR in their reports to shareholders. About one-quarter provides only limited references to the workforce, and some don’t mention their employees at all.”

Can you imagine how our stakeholders would react if we spent 30-50% of our budget on a resource and then never followed up about how it was being utilized? In effect, this is what’s happening with regard to our human capital investments. People are quick to say that payroll is the largest line item in a company’s budget, but then when it comes to proving how we’re doing in terms of diversity, development, direction, etc. we fall down on the job.

I did a little digging and found a few examples of HR annual reports that organizations have created. You’ll see some interesting insights in them, from hard statistics proving the value of the HR function to strategic plans for the coming year ahead.

  • Deutsche Bank-Lays out progress toward long-term “Strategy 2020” goals that belong to the business, not HR. This example also provides the most comprehensive data around specific performance of the various HR practices–for example, 1 in 3 employees were hired from internal candidates and 10,000+ internal staff changed roles during the year, providing ongoing talent and development opportunities for workers.
  • John Carroll University-Gives a one-page executive summary followed by monthly highlights of programs and contributions to the organization.
  • UCF-Demonstrated specific metrics around HR performance, from increased screening measures to specific training points and diversity improvements.

Nobody said you have to create a full-color, 25-page report to show what you’re doing. But a one-page executive summary with key insights into the core HR areas? That’s totally doable. At a minimum, it should cover:

  • Recruiting–what has your performance been like? Common metrics? Best success story as a case in point?
  • Training and development–how much, what kind, and most importantly, what has it enabled the business to achieve?
  • Safety and health–what is the progress/status? What’s the well-being of your staff? Are they performing and productive?
  • Strategy–is your HR team aligned with the business in terms of overarching strategy? Can you demonstrate that alignment with a few examples of how HR projects and accomplishments translated into the business strategy or impacted business outcomes?

How big is your “union?”

As I stated above, depending on where you are in your organization’s hierarchy, you might only be addressing your HR teammates. Or maybe you have the ability to snag an audience with your senior leadership team, and you’re willing to put together a short presentation for that group.

Whatever the case, the size and target audience will be different for everyone, but the tips below will still help you in defining what to discuss.

What to say

Okay, so I’ve sold you on the idea of delivering your own “state of HR” address, but what do you actually say? Here are a few ideas

  • Talent retention—Discuss retention initiatives and any cost savings associated with reduced turnover
  • Learning and development—Give examples of new human capital capabilities brought about by learning and development investments
  • Performance management—Talk about increased performance or reduced turnover expenses associated with improved employee performance
  • Leadership strategy—Provide insights into the role the leadership strategy has played in supporting business growth
  • Sales strategy and planning—Offer data to demonstrate how HR supported the needs of the sales staff and leadership

These certainly aren’t the only topics you can cover, but this is a good starting point based on what organizational leaders want/need to hear. Remember, your goal is to demonstrate that HR isn’t just a cost center, but that you’re bringing value to the organization and its people on a regular basis.

The bottom line? This is your chance to get in front of a key audience (whether it’s the rest of your team or another influential group) and share your message about how HR’s priorities align with those of the business.

What are you waiting for?

Closing Question to Ponder

  • Which stakeholders would benefit most from hearing this address from you or your HR leaders?
  • What are the key issues your leaders are facing that you can include in your address?
  • What is the best format for your culture, geography, and leadership preferences that makes sense to deliver this? Internal webinar/teleconference? In-person with slides? Handouts and a conference room? Hint: think about how finance or marketing would present something like this and do something similar, assuming those functions are respected within the organization.

When I speak about HR strategy, one of the things that inevitably comes up is that it’s hard to plan ahead. Things change. The business changes. The objectives shift. It makes it difficult to pin down the right HR strategy to support the organizational goals.

And that’s okay. Death, taxes, and change are the things we can count on in this life. In the video below I tell a personal story that helps to illustrate the need to not only be prepared for change, but to actually expect it in some regard so that the molehills don’t become mountains.

(Email subscribers click through to view the video)

It’s quick and to the point, but I hope you get the idea. We can let changes break us down or we can use them to get smarter, faster, and better in our approach.

I’d love to hear your story! Tell me about a time (whether in HR or not) where you had a carefully crafted plan and things suddenly went awry. How did you cope? What were the results? I enjoy sharing stories with my audience both here and from the stage, because stories are powerful and connect us at a deeper level than a series of stats and data points.

 

I had been on the job search for a little while, and I was very thrilled when I received a request to come in and interview for a manufacturing operation that produced rubber molds and other rubber pieces.

This was going to be my first big HR role, and I was really nervous. Fast forward to the interview session, and I was feeling a little more confident. Everything was going well, but then the president of the company threw me a curve ball.

He asked, “Why do you think our capital costs have risen so much in the last few years?”

So I thought about it for a minute. Then I responded, “Well, it’s not like rubber grows on trees.”

He gave me a strange look and proceeded to tell me that yes, indeed, rubber does grow on trees.

—–

When I heard that story from a reader a while back, I had to laugh. And in case you’re wondering, yes, she still got the job. The point here is that the core piece of understanding how to create HR strategy is by understanding the business and how it operates. (And it also shows just how much of a role we can play as the CEO’s most trusted advisor.)

The lady who sent me the story realized that she had a gap in the basic understanding of the business, its resources, and how it operated. To remedy that, she proceeded to learn what she could about strategy and business in general, but also about the organization itself. That blend of learning put her in the driver’s seat when it came to creating a forward-looking HR strategy.

I find it very interesting that strategic HR is one of those things that seems to be well known for some and a mystery to others. It’s probably why more than 6 in 10 companies have no HR strategy in place. I did some research last year and found that there were dozens of sessions at the Annual SHRM Conference that mentioned “strategy” in their name or the content description, far and away the most common word that was present in the session listings. So unless they are way off the mark (and SHRM knows its audience), there are a lot of people looking for information on the topic. I hope this funny story helps to illustrate for you just what you need to know in order to support your own organization.

Do you have a story about how your lack of understanding of the business created an opportunity to learn more and build a stronger partnership between the business and its HR resources?

This week I’m in Atlanta for the Microsoft Ignite event. Yes, I see the puzzled expressions. Microsoft? IT? What am I thinking?

conferenceNo, I’m not making a career change. I’m perfectly happy where I am.

Here’s the deal. I have been to tons of events over the years, and what always surprises me is the fact that I get something out of the most unlikely places. A stray comment from a 7:00am 401k administration session at SHRM 2013 still rings in my ears when I talk about workplace retirement plans. Yes, there is something of value in pretty much every interaction, and getting outside of the normal routine is a valuable practice in general.

This week I’m going to be talking with some of the team at Microsoft, but I’m also going to be seeing sessions and exploring concepts that relate to the HR world. I’m looking for the perspective from IT leaders and one of the world’s biggest technology firms around concepts such as collaboration, productivity, and delivering business results. Hopefully all three of those ring a bell for you, since they are key pieces of creating a valuable HR function.

Now, I’m not saying you need to pack up and join me, but this ties in with a valuable concept that I’ve been advocating for quite some time. HR needs allies in the workplace. Here’s a tip for you if you’re new:

If it’s only an HR initiative, it will die.

It might seem a bit cynical, but it’s true. People have had enough of the HR programs and fads. The needs of the business rule. And HR is often seen as a blockade. A problem without a solution. A challenge or hurdle to progress.

What to Do

So you need to find some allies. Create some influence. Network a little within your organization’s walls.

One great way to get started is to find some time together with other key people in the company, and that includes people leading your technology team, your accounting/finance team, etc. Those individuals can be your most vocal detractors or your most staunch allies, depending on the time and effort you have taken to understand their needs, support their goals, and deliver high value service.

Take these people to lunch. Find out what their challenges are. Learn about their best plans and their worst fears.

This is an investment in your own influence within the organization as well. Just to clarify, this isn’t sleazy-car-salesman influence. It’s the ability to speak in a language that matters to the audience you’re with. It’s the knowledge of key issues going on that currently or will eventually have an impact on the people side of the business. It’s in your best interests to be on top of these relationships and to make them a priority.

Now, as I said, I don’t expect you to head to an IT conference or jump on a plane for the next whatever-the-heck-it-is that accounting folks go to. But you can walk down the hall and start a conversation today. Here are a few quick and easy ones:

  • I’m facing some challenges with xyz. What sort of things are keeping you up at night?
  • How are you handling xyz? It seems like it would be challenging and I want to understand your strategy.
  • What is the biggest people-related challenge you see in the next 12 months? Hiring? Development? Retention?

Everyone’s situation, company, and relationships are different, but these are just as blunt as I would put them in a forthright conversation with a peer. In fact, I’ve used several of these to create those conversational opportunities to understand the other functions within the business, what their priorities were, and how I could align the HR practices to support them.

Funny enough, that’s what we call strategic HR. I wrote a while back about one of the best leaders I ever worked for and how that relationship helped to truly clarify what the HR strategy had to look like in that organization. Remember, if it’s an HR initiative, it will die.

What relationships are valuable to you in the workplace? What do you do to offer value in return? 

Once you get into HR you’ll see. It sucks the life out of you and before long you’ll be like everyone else in HR–just hating your life and making it miserable for everyone else.

That conversation with a friend prior to me taking my first HR job has been forever burned into my brain. On that day I promised myself that I would never follow that path, instead charting a direction that brought a positive approach and results to the people I worked with (both inside and outside HR).

I think we know this, but it needs to be said. HR has a PR problem. Often times people see HR as a last resort when things are bad and all else has failed.

I see that as a failure on our part.

See, if we want the business to succeed, then we need to be an enabler of performance for the organization. Not in spite of the people, but through the people.

Ask your friends or your family that are outside the human resources world what they think of HR. This is a typical set of responses:

  • The police.
  • The “no” people.
  • The gatekeepers.
  • The people that fire everyone.

Do we have to police the organization at times? Yes. Do we have to say “no” sometimes? Yes. But those shouldn’t be the default responses so often that it characterizes who we are to the people we’re supposed to serve.

I have this crazy notion that HR is about service. Serving the business. Serving the employees. Just like you get great service at your favorite restaurant, I want to bring that same level of attention to HR. We might not be bringing you a fork or a glass of water, but we’re bringing you an employee experience that is inspiring, engaging, and enriching.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

How HR Can Ruin an Organization

Recently a friend told me about her experience with her boss. My friend is a forward-thinking HR pro with great ideas on how to drive innovation and serve the employees and hiring managers in her organization. Her boss, on the other hand, was much more interested in amassing power and creating artificial barriers for employees so that she remained in control of everything related to HR.

These are the people that give HR a bad name. How is that organization supposed to succeed when its top-level HR leader is putting things in place to prevent employee success?

My Approach

I knew these types of people were working in HR, and I have always taken it upon myself to break the stereotype whenever possible. I always present myself as approachable for employees and managers, and I always take a coaching or consultative approach–not a critical one.

I can remember multiple times over my career where employees would tell me that I wasn’t what they expected from the HR person, and I wear each of those statements with pride.

Maybe you can join me? I think we can break this stereotype of HR once and for all. The more each of us individually chip away at it, the more organizations and leadership teams will expect from their own HR talent, ultimately avoiding the “no” approach for something more engaging.

Think about your HR brand and what you want it to be. Then get about the business of making it a reality. If you need help, just reach out. I’ve been there and can definitely relate.

What is your philosophy/approach? Do you believe in this concept of HR service delivery? 

Among all of the opportunities that HR leaders have, I believe that one of the most valuable is puncturing the CEO bubble by acting in a strategic advisor capacity. As I wrote some time ago, 76% of CEOs value their relationship with HR. This is because we exist outside the normal flow of business to some extent. This role as a trusted advisor is one that can, and should, be highly strategic.

HR’s History

Does this list sound familiar?

  • No
  • We can’t do that
  • That would be risky
  • What if we get sued
  • We’ve never done it that way
  • I don’t think that will work

hr ceo advisor strategicThat is my perception of HR as it has historically been carried out. For a wide variety of reasons, the HR population has become the “no” police, preventing virtually any opportunity for creativity and innovation.

Instead of focusing on excuses or reasons you can’t make something happen, keep searching for ways to do it. Look for opportunities, not limitations. There are already enough people in the world who are ready and willing to tell you how something can’t be accomplished. Let’s work on cultivating more people that look for ways you can be successful.

We often see opportunities as binary, yes/no decisions. As an example: we can either change to a new insurance provider or we can stop providing insurance to our employees and let them all die of horrible diseases before the week is over with.

The point is the person offering these options knows that offering one really great option and one really poor option is going to force the manager to choose. However, the good manager will turn it back on the employee with a response of “none of the above.”

If you want to do it right, here’s the game plan: instead of settling for two less-than-ideal options, ask for more. Push the person to give you three, four, or five options; ask for at least one more viable idea to level the playing field. Ask why they settled on offering just two. Don’t let them get away with trying to push their own agenda if there is a better option still available.

Again, this illustration is centered around asking your staff to do more than the bare minimum. Don’t let them assume something can’t be done. Don’t let them get away with listing reasons/excuses for why something isn’t possible. Ask them to go further and look at “how we can” options, even if they are a bit far-fetched. You never know when one of those ideas could fit perfectly.

If you want to be seen as a trusted advisor, a connector, and a positive force for change, this is how you do it. You don’t accomplish that by saying “No” to everything that is proposed. There are good options that don’t involve the sudden demise of your entire company–you just need to tune your risk meter and get better at predicting the future.

Remember: look for answers to how we can, not why we can’t.

CEO Influence in Action

In one of my previous roles, I reported directly to the CEO of the organization. This was a two-way street in terms of value. I received up-to-date information on business pursuits and opportunities on the horizon, and I was able to offer insights, input, and advice around how to approach those areas.

There were times that my advice was received, processed, and not followed. That is painful for some to cope with, but it’s the nature of the game. That’s why the other person is the CEO–they get to call the shots.

However, there were plenty of times that the advice was heeded, and the business and people benefited from it. At least I knew I had an open ear and could get my side of the story heard.

Another company I worked in was not quite so… positive. The CEO was unplugged from the organization emotionally and mentally. The entire staff knew it, and it didn’t exactly lead to a culture that I would be proud of. I was a layer removed from the CEO but my boss was not of the strategic mindset. We were seen as a group of HR paper-pushers with a rubber stamp ready for any idea or innovation to arise so we could put a big, fat “NO” on it. The company was eventually acquired and the entire staff laid off, and all of the talent problems that the leadership had been ignoring became someone else’s problem.

Taking Advantage of the Situation

One of the hardest things about the close nature of this relationship is the eventual requirement to compete with your own interests. There are times that you will have to put forth ideas and concepts that are counter to your own needs. Being able to distance yourself as an objective party and provide inputs without becoming entangled in the emotional red tape is difficult, but necessary.

This is also where you can forge some of the strongest bonds with your company’s leadership. If everything is going fine, nobody is surprised when you have your stuff together. But when things are hard and times are lean or challenges arise, that is when you have the best opportunity to demonstrate your competency and level-headed approach. When everyone else is flailing about, you have to be the rock that others can cling to. Not physically–that would be weird. But you get the picture.

Litmus Test for Your CEO’s HR Outlook

I have a quick test you can use to determine your CEO’s outlook on the value of HR. Does he/she see you as an administrative burden or a necessary evil, or are you seen as a value-added strategic partner that is indispensable?

This isn’t foolproof, but I have seen it play out many times and it is fairly accurate. Do a quick calculation for me: look at your ratio of employees to HR pros. This tells you how valuable your leaders think HR is. Consider these two examples:

  • A friend recently contacted me and we were discussing her company’s HR structure. They budget for one HR pro per thousand employees. She spends all day doing paperwork and has not planned for future growth needs in more than two years.
  • Another friend caught me up on her company’s strategy in the midst of explosive growth. The company had a ratio of 1:40. The firm is doing better than ever and the HR team is continuously implementing new programs and targeting strategic opportunities for improving talent acquisition, leadership development, and more.

There isn’t a hard number, but hopefully these examples give you a better idea of where you stand. HR can be strategic or tactical, but strategy is where the true business value comes in.

While Very Personal, the Relationship is also Strategic

Some of the ways I have seen this HR advisory relationship/role play out beyond simple business transactions:

  • Informal coach: In terms of feedback, HR takes on the role of informal executive coach to the CEO. They will provide input on things that might not be at the forefront of the CEO’s thoughts and help them to get their message across in a way that is “comfortable” for the parties involved.
  • “Safe” performance improvement feedback: In cases where critical feedback might be necessary, the HR person might have to provide “safe” performance feedback to the executive. In this context, “safe” means direct, private, and confidential. The advice is provided directly to the CEO, it’s in a private location, and the feedback is confidential and will not be repeated.
  • Personal touch: The one that I’ve seen more of is what my friend likes to call “the office spouse.” I liken it to my relationship with my wife in that when we go somewhere, I look at her helplessly and say, “Who is that guy’s wife again?” and “What did you say happened to their son?” She has those minor details all memorized. Same relationship at work: the CEO expects the HR professional to have the staff information on a personal level close at hand, among other things. In addition, HR acts as a representative of the staff. The CEO can also ask (this ties back in with the two points above) how staff will receive/comprehend an announcement about upcoming changes, whether good or bad.

Not Just Problems: Offer Solutions, Too

“I don’t like going to HR meetings. They are always about problems, not solutions.”

I heard that comment at a SHRM conference once, and it’s stuck with me ever since. There is nothing quite like having to sit in front of your CEO and tell them about some problem that is coming at you like a freight train. There are two parts to doing this the right way that will help diminish the perception above.

#1-Offer solutions, too

It may sound simple, but when you come to the meeting with a problem, bring two or more solutions with you as well. Don’t feel helpless or powerless. You are the person with the most in-depth information about the issue so far, and it’s your responsibility to take that information and turn it into a potential resolution.

That saying we explored above? It’s a saying that I always repeat whenever I’m faced with a tough decision:

Tell me how we can, not why we can’t.

#2-Be proactive

So you’re sitting there thinking, “Huh, he must be talking to someone else. I don’t have any big problems that I have to share with our leadership at this point.”

No, I’m talking to you, too! You just have a different action. It’s time to be proactive. Start looking for ways you can cut costs, streamline your functions, save time for managers, etc. Look for some solutions to age-old problems, not just new ones. Not sure where to start? Ask some of your managers what their biggest pain points are with regard to the HR or recruiting processes. Ask your senior leaders what their biggest concerns are at a corporate level. Then take that information and use it.

Want to know the fastest, easiest way to prove the value of the HR department? Solve a problem that plagues the management team. Yes, it seems simple, but it is often overlooked because HR tends to exist in its own little “bubble” and never takes the time to actually find out what the business needs are from the HR function.

Then take the time to communicate what you’ve found in the way of solutions to current problems.

Pretty soon your managers will be saying, “I am looking forward to the next HR meeting to see what they have come up with this time.” Then ask for a raise. You deserve it. :-)

What are your thoughts on this relationship? Is it valued at your company? What has been your experience? 

This summer at SHRM I was looking through the sessions in the app in an attempt to figure out which I wanted to attend, and I saw this one right up front.

SOLD OUT – #707: HR Metrics that Matter: The Process of Developing a Business Scorecard

It made me stop and think, especially in light of some of the conversations I had with others at the event about what sort of content was being offered. For instance, one session at the event was focused on the usual “top ten ways to avoid legal trouble this year,” and it had packed out the entire room and the overflow area as well. I’ve always had trouble with those types of training on the supervisory side of things. Why? Because it makes us focus on the negative aspects of our work, how to avoid getting “in trouble,” and makes us seem more like a nanny in the workplace than a trusted resource for managers/employees and a key business leader.

Policies vs. Actual Contributions

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship (mostly hate) with policies. I think we should take more time to coach and support than regulate and demand. Yes, there are times that come when we must make a rule, be the bad guy, etc. but it shouldn’t come on a daily basis. I recently shared Alison Green’s comments on how managers can have a good relationship with HR. The comments on that blog post when she linked from her site are pretty standard, and yet they still hurt those of us who see ourselves as good and helpful business leaders (instead of merely being the “no, you can’t do that” department).

Going back to the original intent of this post, I was glad to see the metrics session being sold out. Why? Because it’s something that we can do that is not just about being sued, covering our company’s butt, or some other litigation-related idea. Even small companies have the ability to gather and use data in a meaningful way.

In my opinion HR pros who make decisions solely on laws and what the handbook/policies allow aren’t making much of a contribution to the organization. It’s those that take the initiative to find ways that they can contribute in a more meaningful way, offer advice and flexibility that pushes the boundaries, and don’t say, “No” to every request that comes in (even if they are a little bit scary).

A Shift to PositiveHR?

It gives me hope that our philosophy as a profession is changing. SHRM and other organizations will continue to offer these “how not to get sued by your employees” sessions, because there is significant demand for them. But over time, I hope to see us focusing more on the other end of the spectrum. There’s even a group of my friends that started this #PositiveHR movement on Twitter, because they believe that we have the opportunity to do great things if we are truly positive and not self-defeating at every turn.

I do understand that there is a natural maturity curve as well. Smaller organizations or those with inexperienced HR pros will drift toward the legalistic side of things, while organizations with more radical HR pros will seize opportunities to focus on engagement and other positive things we bring to the table. It just seems that many organizations (and HR pros) are reluctant to move beyond the legal side of things. Is it because it offers them more power inside the organization? Is it because they need to feel more intelligent/informed than their peers? I’m not sure…

What are your thoughts? Are we still mired in this world of legal issues or is there a chance we can more into more strategic areas of impact?