How Do HR Professionals Get in Their Own Way?

How’s about a rousing game of Let’s Bang Our Heads Against the Wall One More Time? In the three decades that I have been writing about HR–the practice, the career and the fabulous people doing the work–the complaint never changes: “We’re just not getting the respect we deserve and need to achieve full potential in the people side of the business.” The complaint continues, with varying degrees of intensity, from whispering to wailing. In the meantime, companies will pay top dollar for their new CHRO, but that person is likely to be sourced from another business function. Or, even if they do stay true to the HR school, they will seek out the new chief from outside–bypassing any internal, custom-groomed HR leader who might have his or her eye on that promotion. That just has to hurt.

And so the complaint continues, year after year. And the HR finger is always pointed outward–out there somewhere, where it’s someone else’s fault. Or maybe “that’s just the way it is.” And, to some extent, that would be true.

But. Talk to senior HR leaders who have walked the length of their career–or who have achieved the top spot–and they will offer a different perspective. To some degree, HR professionals get in their own way.  Not in all ways, all the time, of course. But why not remove the obstacles that are within your control?

HR professionals allow themselves to be influenced by mediocre mentors who don’t fully understand or value–and can’t articulate–HR’s true role in the company.

–Dan Walker, former chief talent officer at Apple

I often ask HR professionals to give me the mission statement of their function: “Why does it exist? Why does the company fund the function? What does the company expect in terms of absolute results? What do you produce?” I haven’t found one who can articulate the answer. I usually get HR gobbledygook about culture, inclusion, a workforce that feels safe.

Ask someone who runs a supply chain the same question, and the answer is clear: “My job is to move parts and finished product through the pipeline with the greatest degree of efficiency at the lowest cost.” It’s the same with HR: It’s the business of human capital supply chain. If you don’t have a supply chain of talent that is powerful, sustainable and does the job it’s intended to do, then you don’t have an effective enterprise.

As a nation, we’re getting used to the idea of a transient workforce–talent that moves on every 18 to 24 months. In Silicon Valley, it’s a never-ending game of musical chairs. A lot of intellectual property goes out the door when an employee walks. No supply-chain professional in the world would want his or her finished product to run off and jump into a competitor’s line, or allow the parts that went into making the product to just fall out of the system. Their job is to keep the supply chain intact. That should be HR’s job, too. But instead, we’re finding ways to accommodate this trend of our product falling out of the system.

You hear people still complaining about not having the seat at the table. What they don’t understand is that, in fact, they own the table. That table everyone is sitting around is the talent of the company.

Every company has roughly six asset classes: physical, inventory, financial, intellectual property, brand equity and people. What’s powerful here to remember is that the people one is the asset that creates all the other assets. It’s the primordial asset.

HR professionals would do themselves a favor by taking mentoring only from leaders who really see and respect HR for what it can do for the enterprise through the stewardship of this primordial asset.

HR professionals lose their possibility-oriented vision and get too deeply into the prevention habit.

–Christy Phillips, chief talent officer at WillowTree Inc.

 Granted, there are many guidelines and rules that HR needs to have in place inside the company. But if you’re not careful, you become that person everyone comes to with every little problem. So then, not only are you wrapped up in prevention, you’re also not enabling people to take care of things themselves. Grown adults can handle whatever is bothering them on their own.

At WillowTree, we always say, “Assume positive intent.” That solves a lot of problems right there. If you get bogged down with just being the problem solver, you miss out on the time that you could be making a positive impact of building people up and creating a culture that lets people be their best.

You should make expectations clear, but then give people the benefit of the doubt. This stance creates its own reward in the culture because then people start to understand that “no one is telling me what to do. I’m expected to behave in a good, positive, respectful manner.” That becomes the culture rather than this thing that you’re constantly under pressure to enforce by creating more and more rules.

You benefit professionally, too. You get a better professional brand yourself. If your resume is filled with preventative actions, you don’t have much of a story to tell future recruiters and prospective employers. Anyone can create and install a bunch of rules. But it takes a completely different skill set to build people up and create positive processes that create a company where people enjoy working.

Give your people the opportunity for professional growth. Develop leadership plans. Find ways of increasing diversity and inclusion. Those are the elements that make a company better. Those are also the experiences that recruiters will be asking you about.

If you’re not sure where you are in term of preventative versus possibility thinking, review the last three years of your career and ask yourself: What have I done to make the company better? Or have I only been about making the company safer?

HR professionals lose sight of the business-outcome focus of the expectations of their function, consequently letting their work get too complicated.

–Michael D’Ambrose, senior vice president and CHRO at Archer Daniels Midland Co.

There’s this constant drive throughout the organization to create bureaucracy where it’s not needed–especially in HR. There are so many demands on HR that take our attention and limited resources away from our core critical priorities. HR leaders must prioritize and stay focused on the bottom line. And we have to do it with the same rigor and efficiency that one would expect from any other business function.

There’s this tendency to believe that human capital is limitless. But that’s not the case. When we ask a manager to take on tasks, we’re taking away productive time to do other things. The same goes for the HR function. For instance, the conversation today is increasingly around culture and its implications for the organization’s health and success. HR is and always will be the steward of the organization’s culture and partnership with the CEO. That’s the way it should be. But it’s not our overarching, most important mandate.

I can’t think of any request that ever hit my desk that I didn’t think was important. But we can’t do them all. We must be able to say no to things we want to do when they aren’t the most important.

But in order to say no, we have to have a business-focused rationale. We have to keep it simple so that we can clearly recognize those initiatives that truly do serve the organizational priorities. We have to keep our focus on those critical things that just won’t happen if we don’t pay attention to them. What are they? And in what order of importance?

We have to exert the discipline of a business rationale so that we can do a few things well, instead of many things not so well.

Keep it simple.

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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