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Discovering the Scope of HR’s Influence

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Martha Finney
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at http://marthafinney.global/lets-get-started.

Like every other profession, HR has its share of rock stars. We can all name them, and we are likely to agree on most of them, so I won’t bother doing it here. But what is endlessly fascinating to me is how some HR leaders grow huge, expansive and impactful careers. They may or may not be recognizable names on the conference circuits. But they’re on every recruiter’s short list. And their example, combined with insights that they’re eager to share, make them stand-outs.

Of course, some HR professionals luck out with companies famous for their employee cultures. Or they enjoy the benefits of the epic CEO/CHRO relationships. Or they’re great on stage. But those advantages fall under the category of “luck of the draw.” Not everyone gets those plum gigs. What about everyone else? Is there a differentiating factor that can differentiate everyone?

As a matter of fact, yes. It’s that moment when the HR professional–no matter the level or position or seniority–truly gets for the first time how big the influence of HR can be on companies, on people’s lives, on the future. There’s an a-ha moment when it dawns on you, “Oh, I can make a real difference here,” beyond the programs, scale, scope and initiatives. HR is more than human resources. It’s about making the client’s most favorite vision very real.


“I realized how really valuable HR programs can be to a business in promoting what it values most.”


Dean Carter, chief human resources officer, finance, legal, shared services, Patagonia

Here’s my confession as an HR professional: Every HR person is afraid of being too soft. And to earn your place at the table in the past, you have to speak business, talk business and be ready to discuss ROI at a hat drop in any situation. I had opportunities in the past to make a significant difference in both the company and employees’ lives, but I didn’t work hard enough at finding the ROI to support the position. I actually helped CEOs make excuses for not taking action on initiatives, like on-site child care. I just didn’t look hard enough to find research supporting those kinds of programs. I would redo my entire career if I had the chance now.

But then I came to Patagonia. By having on-site child care at Patagonia, we’re raising extraordinary kids toward the betterment of the future. They all have amazing, high-quality education, and we’re at the point now where those kids have grown up to be our employees, with kids of their own in our program. If you knew for a fact that the children of your employees would ultimately be your employees, wouldn’t you do whatever was necessary to make sure that they were ready to be the most extraordinary employees possible?

On-site child care is the stickiest retention practice ever. Let’s say you come to Patagonia with a 2-year-old. You immediately have a community of families with 2-year-olds you can join. You have access to babysitters and social events like birthday parties. The parents clue you in as to what local restaurants are kid friendly. All the parents of 2-year-olds are best friends; the parents of 3-year-olds are best friends; the parents of 6-year-olds are best friends. They’re growing up together. If you start thinking about leaving Patagonia, not only are you leaving your network, you’re pulling your kids away from their best friends and your spouse away from a crucial support system.

Another advantage of on-site child care is the impact on gender equity. The average age for American women to give birth is 27. Statistics show that men and women are paid the same through age 27, and then pay starts to diverge and the difference gets larger through age 40. It’s a gap that women never recover from. Why? Because 27 percent of women drop out of the workforce. When they do return, about 10 years later, their male counterparts have had 10 years more experience and they are paid more. But at Patagonia, we have found that 99 percent of the women who have children return from maternity leave.

Here’s the other thing: It’s really hard to be a jerk around children. You only bring your best self around kids … . For a company whose mission is protecting the planet, not just for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren, you have a reminder of the mission every day playing in the playground.


“I chose to focus on business goals instead of rules.”


Stacie Mallen, principal consultant, Execute to Win

When you come in as head of people for a company that’s growing 40 percent year over year, you are faced with a thousand potential priorities. When I came to Ulthera, which was a rapidly growing medical device start-up, we needed to build a foundation of culture and expectations, so people felt like they had some stability. Others might have tried to build that foundation by creating a rulebook or handbook. Instead, I focused on discovering what the business needed most to achieve our revenue goals.

The most important service I could provide for the business was to make sure that we were as effective and efficient as possible in selling what we had. So we prioritized our efforts to ensure that we had the best organization that was aligned to sales targets. Instead of gravitating toward the traditional, tactical HR functions, I went out to the trade shows, mixed with the sales teams in the field, even went on ride-alongs.

Everyone in HR should be concerned about revenue and top-line growth. You’re hiring the talent who drives top-line growth. You’re attracting, growing and retaining the very best people who will help you achieve your goals. And you’re growing talent already in place so that you are ready to take on the challenge of whatever project is next. If you’re in a company that’s growing rapidly–or even a company that is growing just 10 percent year over year, but you have aggressive revenue goals–if you don’t have salespeople to meet new demands, or you don’t have an engineer to complete a project, everything is going to stall out.

The most critical role for HR is helping the company create value through its people. And then getting all those people organized to drive in one direction–the purpose of the company. That’s what makes you the chief alignment officer, rather than the chief culture officer. Creating that alignment–that shared purpose–will generate the culture that you need.

If you’re about accelerating your business, focus on that single purpose and align everyone so that they’re moving in the same direction.

The rulebook can wait. In fact, if you do this right, you may not even need one. Ever.


“I resolved to treat people like adults when making big business decisions that will change their lives.”


Keri Ohlrich, CEO, Abbracci Group, co-author, The Way of the HR Warrior: Leading the CHARGE to Transform Your Career and Organization

Years ago, when I was with a large global company, a senior vice president who was head of a business group said, “We need to change the market.” We faced a transformation where we were going to ask our people to go from generalist jobs to very specialized jobs, from a competitive environment to a collaborative one, to a new way of doing things with new market leaders. He wanted to change everything each one of our employees would do, who they would report to, what their incentives would be. All these decisions were made without HR in the room. But then it was up to us to implement them.

I said, “OK, if all the jobs are changing, let’s treat people like adults and give them choices.” We made it really clear to them what changes were coming up and that they had options, including leaving the company altogether. This meant putting everyone who wanted jobs with the reorganized division through new interviews. We did end up having people take the package and leave. And there were quite a few people–especially in finance–saying, “Oh my God, everyone’s going to leave!”

My answer: “Yes, but wouldn’t you be happier knowing that the people who stay are the ones who stay because they choose to?”

Our driving question during this change was, “How do we treat our people with the utmost respect?” My HR team pulled together, putting in 16-hour days so that we could do 40 interviews in a week and pick everyone by Friday. Why should we make people wait for weeks wondering what their fate would be? We didn’t want our people to be treated like that. It’s already hard enough knowing that you’re about to implement a whole new strategy. That alone was crazy, why add to the craziness?

My big a-ha out of the whole experience was seeing the true, positive impact on people’s personal lives when HR is done well. We in HR all know this in general and in theory. But it’s when you actually implement a life-changing project and you see the look on people’s faces when they’re treated with integrity that you fully realize how much of what you do in HR really does affect people. Why not affect them with respectful treatment?

When you’re treated with respect, you don’t go home scared. You know what’s going on. You don’t take your stress out on your family. You say instead, “I’m being respected. Isn’t it amazing to be respected at work, when so many people aren’t in other companies?”

When HR is firing on all cylinders and you have a leader who allows you to perform at your highest  potential and doesn’t block you, how wonderful that is. And just think of how you can benefit people by doing amazing things.


All around the world, when you talk to HR professionals about their work, you hear fundamentally the same things: attraction, selection, retention, competitiveness, competencies, culture, compliance and keeping the CEO out of jail. The conversations start to get really good when the HR professional dives into vision, respect, future generations and serving the entire organization in ways that promote the interests of the entire enterprise.

That’s when you know you’re talking to a rock star. Be sure to get that person’s name.