The biggest risk facing HR leaders? Not taking enough risk

It's time for HR to rise to the moment, take some real risks and redefine what human resources means to organizations.
By: | July 30, 2020 • 5 min read

Looking back at 2020 thus far, we’ve unfortunately been experiencing an absolute HR horror story of rapid furloughs and layoffs, economic collapse, remote work baptism by fire, concern for employee wellbeing in the face of a deadly virus and justified unrest over racial inequality, as well as an ever-moving target of attempting to return to the workplace—none of which we’d listed in our annual performance goals as we began our journey through the new year. And yet, as we look ahead to the next few years and consider the function of HR (and the executives who lead it), we should be prepared to face the most challenges of any function and to be under the most pressure to transform, in the wake of these new conditions. In the days to come, HR’s standard old playbook of certainty, perfection and control will simply no longer hold up under the scrutiny of heightened expectations from executives and employees alike.

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So, in order for HR to thrive, it’s going to be essential to take some real risks.

Related: 8 traits HR leaders need to succeed today

Taking risks is extremely underrated (and often fiercely resisted!) by many of us in the world of human resources. “Risk” in HR is often associated with the volatility and uncertainty of people doing bad or stupid things—things that become our messes to clean up. Over the years, more and more executives have been creating incentives for organizations—and for HR, specifically—to take measures to control and further reduce risk. Our function has done an incredible job of creating processes, systems and controls that work to reduce human error, or downside.

Author Ben Brooks

What we’ve missed, however, is that risk also represents upside, innovation, creativity and growth. In fact, realizing even part of the future of work we all long for is not at all possible without us first deciding to take significantly more risks as a function. We need to reframe risk and embrace it on an adjusted basis, which will allow us to change the way we run organizations.

At this moment, boards of directors, investors and C-suite executives around the world are thinking a lot about the future—a process that includes assessing their functional leaders. They’re asking, “Do we have the team we need for the future?” We’ve all seen functional leaders in IT, marketing or operations get replaced once they’ve been deemed unable to “drive change.”

And some of the people out there whom we admire most are change agents who know that taking calculated risks—and then accepting that some decisions just don’t work out as intended—is part of the job. These are leaders who, in their relentless pursuit of progress, have overcome the shame of perceived public failure or ridicule, instead choosing to view risks as experiments that help us accelerate our learning. In the coming years, everyone in HR would do well to set a development objective to embrace this mindset.

Our people strategies have experienced (and will continue to experience) rapid change, and we still have so many questions left to answer. How will remote work actually work? And will the (likely very messy) resulting hybrid model serve to upend all of our handbooks’ and policies’ assumptions? How can we set about reimagining a better use and design for our physical workplaces? Do our benefits, compensation plans and even our models of employment need to be more empathetic to compete? How can we work to redesign the recruiting process, as we now go on to compete for talent with every other employer in the country, rather than just with those located in our county? What does it mean to lead, align and engage employees when our primary interactions take place through a screen? How can we create a personable and sticky employee experience for those who may very well start and end their employment with us without ever getting the chance to shake their manager’s hand? And how will we respond to the powerful outrage from employees—and the country at-large—over the inequity and injustice in our treatment of racial minorities, including by our organizations?

Related: HR has made little progress on D&I. Here’s why

Right now, our once-sleepy function has more attention shone on it than ever before, and with it, significantly elevated expectations. As we step into the spotlight to face these new challenges, we must show, rather than tell, that we are the team that can, will and is marching into the future. And in order for us to be believed, we must be seen taking immediate and decisive action—whether that be calling an audible on programs, processes or vendors that no longer are serving us or holding our own HR teams to account and upgrading our positions with fresh thinking from diverse profiles. We may need to shed our service provider energy and begin directly challenging the executives and functions we support to either step up their game or get out of the way.

We have to shepherd and sponsor innovative technologies, non-traditional talent and new operating models, while also having the stomach to face the expected resistance to change (or even the possibility that these experiments might not work out). We may need to demand massive increases to our budgets, even as economic conditions challenge the finances of many organizations. These potentially risky, robust actions represent the rebranding and paradigm shift of HR away from simply advocating for change to being the people who envision and deliver it. If we are successful, then working in HR might well become one of the most interesting, sexy, lucrative and rewarding professions for the brightest emerging talent to pursue.

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I know. We’re tired, we’re burnt out and just the thought of doing more than keep our heads above water seems overwhelming. But we must rise to the moment! So take some time off, ask for a larger budget, redeploy existing resources and set boundaries to keep your focus on preparedness for tomorrow and not just on surviving today. Our executives, managers and employees need us now more than ever, and working to reframe risk is the paradoxical unlock to redefining the meaningful mission of human resources.

Ben Brooks is the founder and CEO of the career development platform PILOT. Share your reactions to this column on LinkedIn or @benbrooksny. He writes the monthly Coach's Corner column for HRE.