How HR can improve its influence

What do CEOs actually want from their HR people? Google that question, and there’s a pretty long list. Making change happen quickly, developing leaders for the digital world, finding and keeping the best talent, preparing the business for the impact of AI, helping the organisation become more agile…

illustration of woman walking on turning cogs

How well the profession is meeting that wish list is up for debate. A major study from Development Dimensions International suggests that the pace of change in organisations is faster than the pace of change in HR – with senior management saying HR’s ability to anticipate business needs is getting worse. HR folk, they said, are poor at analytics, failing to build talent pipelines and are not developing employees in tune with organisational strategies.

HR bashing (a fairly common sport) is not, however, going to solve the problem. Industry commentators are typically strong on the criticism, and less vocal about what the profession actually needs to do in practical terms to improve its influence and impact.

Future HR skills

Thankfully, there was some guidance from speakers at the CIPD’s recent annual conference. BBC HR Director Valerie Hughes D’Aeth suggested professionals need to focus more on hard skills such as financial literacy, reward and data analysis.

There is certainly evidence to suggest brushing up on these core hard skills will help. DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2018 found that HR professionals who are succeeding with analytics are 6.3 times more likely to get opportunities for advancement and 3.6 times more likely to have a strong reputation with senior business leaders. In our increasingly data-driven world, these analytical skills are no longer a ‘nice to have’ – witness the CIPD’s recent introduction of training on how to leverage HR analytics and data.

Being comfortable with the financials is also key – and one of the competences recently identified by the CIPD’s Katie Jacobs as a career essential for ambitious practitioners. Spending time outside of the HR function can help to develop this commercial understanding, she suggests, as well as giving HR people a deeper insight into front-line issues.

When it comes to the so-called ‘soft’ skills, 02’s Ann Pickering advised HR people who wanted to raise their profile and influence to work on their self confidence, tackle imposter syndrome, improve their resilience and identify their USP. Retaining a sense of perspective, and having the courage and competence to speak up in difficult situations was also key, she said.

A new mindset

But of course it’s not just about developing a suite of fresh skills. If HR professionals are to increase their influence in the new world of work, a shift in mindset is also needed.

In a fascinating TEDx talk, leadership guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter talks about the three stages that should define the way professionals view their role and the impact they are able to make in their organisations.

The first is inclusion (getting in the door) – which she describes as mastery of the technical skills and credentials you need to do the job. You either have them or you don’t – and if you don’t, you can’t perform, she says. Research cited at the CIPD conference suggests that many HR professionals still have some way to go to achieve this first stage – with only nine per cent of respondents believing they were equipped with the skills and capabilities they needed to do their job effectively.

Stage two is influence (getting at the table) – which Kanter describes as having the power to shape events and influence the direction of the company. This stage is all about relationships and the networks people bring to work, she says. In HR terms that means getting involved in professional networks where you can keep up with the latest thinking and learn from others, or perhaps seeking a seat on the board of an external organisation where you can make valuable contacts and hone your wider commercial skills.

The final stage is impact – which she describes as getting ‘outside of the building (as opposed to just getting outside of the box). It’s about having a vision and developing a bigger view of the world the organisation is operating in. For HR practitioners, that might mean developing a much deeper understanding of the context the organisation is operating in, how the industry is changing and what that means for the business. As people move up the hierarchy, they often get narrower and narrower, says Moss Kanter, instead of taking the wider view. “To stay ahead, you must have your next idea waiting in the wings,” she says.

If you’re an HR practitioner who is keen to improve your influence and impact, here are a few questions you might like to think about:

  • How visible are you across the organisation?
  • Who are your key stakeholders, and how much time do you invest in developing relationships with them?
  • What practical skills do you need to brush up on – and what’s the best and quickest way to go about doing that?
  • How strong are your internal and external networks, and what could you do to improve them?
  • What would you like people to be saying about the impact HR has been having in the business by this time next year?

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