Getting things done in HR – with limited line authority

Posted in: Bloggery

One of the biggest challenges for HR leaders is getting things done in an organisation, with limited resources and little line authority.  The mandate of the function may be wide – around culture, engagement, talent development, change management – but for the most part HR people are seen as service providers and advisers to the line.  Authority and influence is won, rather than granted formally.

How then do the better HR leaders succeed?

Many of our HR Director colleagues tell us that much of their work gets done through effective consulting and it might be worth sharing some of their reflections.

Our colleagues emphasise that their roles are all about influence. When a role relies principally on influence rather than formal power as is typically the case in the HR function, the best toolkit to open up is that of a skilled consultant – for all that this word has such pejorative connotations.

A skilled consultant is someone who gets things done through other people.  Highly effective consultants gather data and illuminate reality.  They expose issues, create constructive energy, find pathways through complex challenges, and help stakeholders achieve resolution.  Skilled consultants tend to be rather invisible – which can make them vulnerable.  Their art is in helping others come to the best answers and useful forms of change.

The consulting word can sometimes be misapplied.  This term is often attached to those who lead IT projects, guide divestments, appraise troubled businesses, manage business integrations, or lead major turnarounds, as examples.  To our way of thinking, these individuals are better seen as project managers, often with particular deep skills.  They are hired for interim leadership roles, or for technical expertise.  A great deal of outsourced work – especially as commissioned by governments – is delivered by people like these, who are incorrectly categorised as “consultants”.

Ideally, an HR leader is a person who provides excellent advice and guidance – across a range of cultural and human resourcing issues – but the action comes from the line managers they advise.  In fact my favourite definition of a true human resources manager is “a skilled, effective line manager operating with good advice”.  It is these line managers who manage the bulk of people in any enterprise.

In fact, when an HR manager operates with direct power, over promotions, deployments, salaries and policies, rather than submitting good advice to the line for their decisions, and program or policy implementation- then there is good reason to be concerned.   I touch on this below.

So if HR leaders are accountable in some measure for seeing effective HR practice across an organisation, and yet wield little formal power, how are they to achieve valued outcomes?

We have gathered together a kitbag of tools utilised by the (relatively few) pure consultants working in industry.  Here are five examples:

  • Effective consultants gather data, and expose the underlying truths in any situation.  They tend to be very good listeners, with skill in asking the right questions.  “What approach might change staff behaviours?”  “What do you suppose your people believe about what is happening here?”  “What are the assumptions guiding your proposal?”  “What is the data telling us?’
  • Consultants are often good at designing and analysing surveys, including 360 degree surveys, so that leadership initiatives and change initiatives are grounded in good information.
  • High level consultants must also bring courage, intelligence (especially emotional intelligence) and integrity to any and every conversation.  Their most important tool is that of being non-partisan, and scrupulously honest.  No-one should be afraid to raise any matter, but at the same time the consultant must honour each confidence, and build trust.
  • Good consultants are also skilled facilitators both in one to one conversations, and with groups.  There is an art to engaging multiple stakeholders, sometimes “passing the parcel” to different individuals to build a form of shared leadership.  Often some skill is needed to reign in dominant personalities and give voice to those who hold back.
  • In complex situations, highly effective consultants work with an inner road-map, but then break progress into manageable chunks, and gradually draw increments in different areas into a pattern: a successful organisation wide shift in performance.

The line between coaching and consulting is a very fine one. Both set out to create learning and change in individuals through their own insights and engagement.  In fact, senior coaches sometimes migrate to what they call team coaching: working with the leader and his or her team concurrently.  This might also be described as organisational consulting.

Taking this back to the ambivalent world of the HR Director, clearly most of these capabilities are critical, in winning support for needed organisational change, in dealing with less than ideal forms of leadership (and its consequences),  in creating a climate and practices, and an employer reputation which is of value in attracting and retaining talented people.  The world of employee relations is very much one in which communication and influencing skills and those of negotiation and conflict resolution, are critical.

When a board needs convincing that a short or long term incentive scheme will complement key strategy priorities, or a major policy around diversity needs endorsement,  some measure of consulting capability will be essential in winning managerial endorsement and then in dealing with individual board members.

Perhaps the most rewarding of role for a really senior HR Director occurs when he or she becomes a trusted confidant of the CEO, and of members of the CEO’s direct reports.  Being an honest broker at this level requires high levels of integrity and discretion.  It is a role rarely won or held for long if the HRD allows politics to get in the way, or becomes caught up in the exercise of political power.

A short while ago we circulated a paper about the difference between transactional and strategic HR focus.  Clearly, a focus on administration, transactions and process won’t allow sufficient time for listening and engaging in the work of a senior consultant. This focus tends to be incompatible anyway in terms of skills and orientation.  To get high level people strategies through and supported – those which link tightly with the needed strategies of the business itself – then the approaches and tools used effectively are most often ones of consulting.