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Breaking the relationship mould

HR Professionals tend to fall into one of two camps – we’re either great talkers or great ‘doers’. On their own neither is ideal so wouldn’t it be nice if HR could not only combine and balance these two aspects but at the same time make sure they’re focused on delivering great value to the business? In other words, HR becoming ‘People Practitioners’ to the business.

The challenge though for many HR Professionals is that they tend to be seen by business leaders as a cost, an invited member of the senior business team and treated as a glorified order taker. HR becomes frustrated because it is rarely given the opportunity to show what it can do. The end result is that in HR’s haste to please and to get noticed it ends up becoming noisier and busier but no more effective! This reality facing many HR Professionals is what we at CourageousHR call ‘HR’s Cycle of Peripherality’.

To turn this situation around means HR needs to break the existing relationship mould between itself and the business. Until recently the role of HR was fairly well defined – it was about delivering cost effective employee services and solutions more often than not at the request of the business. However, many organisations now recognise that having a responsive and transactionally competent HR Function is a tactical solution to a strategic need. The problem though for HR is that it has grown up on a diet of certainty, predictability and lots of activity. What is required now is for HR to adopt a more consultative approach as a way of being more influential, less tactical and deliver greater business value.

The challenges of becoming an internal HR Practitioner

If you key the phrase ‘HR Consulting Model’ into your internet search engine you will discover over 7 million responses. So, if HR Consulting is not a new idea why hasn’t the world of HR adopted it wholeheartedly? The answer could be that being ‘People Practitioners’ to the business is easier said than done and that becoming good at it takes, skills, patience and trust (self-trust and being trusted).

At CourageousHR we came to realise some time ago that becoming an internal HR Practitioner was a challenging transition for a lot of HR Professionals not because they didn’t have the willingness to make the change but because they lacked the leadership support, personal confidence and skills to actually engage in a new type of conversation and relationship with business leaders and managers. In its simplest terms, HR Professionals were still looking at the same organisational landscape with the same HR eyes of old and therefore didn’t know what to say or how to behave. New HR behaviours that last come from new ways of seeing, from a new awareness of what HR could and should be and a greater level of conviction and courage.

Being an Internal HR Practitioner is more about facilitation rather than providing answers; ; it involves not taking sides and being open enough to be challenged and courageous enough to challenge so that the best thinking emerges; it is about jointly discovering people solutions to business needs which are ‘good enough’ it has the potential to powerfully bring people together and jointly commit to a course of action which has confronted assumptions, concerns, fears and territories; it is about creating a ‘common ground’ and consistent way of working within HR and across the business so that trust can be built and innovative solutions are allowed to emerge.

HR Consulting Model which delivers more than words

A HR Consulting Model is actually a Partnership Model which can be readily applied to any relationship within any organisation as a way of developing the art of conversation in order to get the most out of and tapping into the goodwill, expertise, knowledge and skills of all those involved. In fact, it has been claimed by Dr Isaacs from MIT’s Sloan School of Management that “the problems even the most practical organisations have – in improving their performance and obtaining the results they desire – can be traced directly to their inability to think and talk together, particularly at critical moments.”

Therefore, a good HR Consulting Model needs to be systematic, simple to follow but powerful when applied and flexible. The ‘3As HR Consulting Model’ used at CourageousHR focuses on helping HR professionals gain access into the business, ensures a systematic approach is followed and focuses on business solutions which can be applied in the workplace. It is a 7 step model which at its heart focuses on a business ‘performance gap’ and jointly discovering solutions whether it is at a strategic, operational or tactical level. The trick is to involve the ‘right people’ (i.e. those who are part of the issue) as they are the ones who have the best understanding of what is going on and the most keen to resolve it. By getting people to take ownership for the issue, to talk, to share, to listen, to think and to ultimately come up with the smartest possible solution is what good HR professionals should be doing. What emerges from these discussions and the process is clarity about what the people implications are and that enables HR to identify and negotiate how best it can support the business to address its issues.

HR Teams which have adopted this HR Consulting Model have found it not only gives them the confidence to behave differently but it also enables them to get closer to the business and deepen their understanding of the business needs and priorities. It takes away a lot of the pressure for HR to come up with solutions as it generates joint problem solving and develops clarity of ownership and accountability across all the different stakeholders. Inevitably, by working more closely with the business on business issues, HR’s level of credibility, visibility and influence significantly increases.

Be careful what you wish for

The challenge for HR when adopting a new way of working with the business is that more often than not they don’t know the implications of what they are asking for! So, be careful what you wish for as you will get resistance from the business as well as within HR. The key is to be patient, sufficiently skilled in consulting practice, seek to develop trust and work on business priorities (helps to focus the mind). The first step is for HR Leaders to work with the business Leadership Team(s) to re-negotiate how HR will work with the business and ensure they understand that they need to change how they work with HR.

Once the relationship contract has been agreed the next step is to ensure the HR Consulting Model is adopted across the HR community. This is not always as easy as it sounds as most HR Professionals have their own individual ways of working (not always explicit and clear) and they can be as resistant to change as some business managers and leaders. However, our experience shows that once they have actually experienced using the HR Consulting Model (sometimes being supported by a more experienced HR colleague) they tend not to look back to their old ways of working.

Lessons learned

However, in the early flushes of success it is quite easy to get carried away. Being a good HR Practitioner takes time – it not just a 2 day training course learning a process. The best HR Professionals make the process their own over time and however this has only been after a lot of ‘lessons learned’ along the way. So, it is important both at an individual level and a HR Function level that HR professionals don’t over-promise and then under-deliver as that will affect HR’s credibility, annoy and disappoint key business stakeholders and may ultimately push HR back to the old days of being busy order takers.

In our haste to demonstrate the value of adopting the HR Consulting Model and in response to unrealistic expectations from business leaders, HR may rush through the process. Making snap judgements normally means that solutions are being recommended before the real problem has been identified. Sometimes, at the start of a consulting assignment not enough time is spent by HR to identify and engage with the main stakeholders. The end result is that a lot of time may have been spent working with the wrong people so either the real performance issue is not addressed or when it comes around to making recommendations, the real stakeholders reject them as they have not been involved. Preparation is key and that requires patience.

The best internal HR Practitioners are subtle in how they work with the business and don’t let the process, language and HR jargon get in the way of the conversation and the analysis. Most business leaders are not that interested in the HR consulting process just the business outcome. Using the language of the business is a very simple but effective way to demonstrate that HR is part of the business.
Finally, using a HR Consulting Model is not an additional task and activity that is squeezed into an already hectic HR diary and delivery schedule. Moving to a HR Consulting Model not only involves a significant mind shift and approach to how we do our work, but also means saying “No”. HR Consulting is the process HR uses to improve performance issues and not the kinds of interventions.

Making it work is worth the effort

HR is in a privileged position within organisations as it has the opportunity to see so much of what is going on and is able to influence so many business decisions. Just because HR has generally failed to capitalise on its potential to make a unique contribution to businesses doesn’t mean that there is not a second chance. Adopting a HR Consulting Model is a very powerful way of getting HR closer to the business, building HR credibility and delivering significantly more business value. Making it happen takes courage, investment of time and money, patience and some tough lessons learnt along the way. However, the journey is worth it as the outcome is HR becoming true partners to the business.