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Should HR Drive Change? Are We Asking the Right Question? Guest post by Randy Rothschiller

hryaknobubble1Another lively and provocative discussion occurred amongst Human Resources executives from companies all around the Puget Sound region.  This group meets monthly and is part of a peer learning community facilitated by Suzanne Elshult, executive coach and owner of

Peer learning communities like this one that Suzanne formed bring real, everyday challenges front and center.  Actual experience, successes and failures, tips and tricks, and even huge warnings flow through the room.  We share our playbooks.  Participants have a chance to distill common success (or failure) in hopes of enhancing their own playbook.  On this day, as we surveyed one another, we learned that we each have experienced at least one of the three organizational change roles.  In fact most of us were currently engaged in some change process, and all three roles were represented – live!  Many have moved fluidly from one role to another.  There is no single wayrandy, nor just one single role, that defines how an organization adopts new ways to operate.  We concluded neither HR, nor any other function, can effectively assume by default the three roles: steward, leader, or catalyst.  Based on the situation, HR serves in that capacity which best addresses the unique needs of the scenario.

In order to gain further clarity about these roles in continuous improvement, let’s pause to consider the process of change.  Most executives are aware of the fact that change easily fails, and that there are playbooks with moves to mitigate failure.  Some of these hallmarks are likely familiar to you, either in practice or theory, and others might be new and interesting. The following were collaborated on:

–          Cascading ownership and leadership from the top

–          Use of storytelling to paint a clear picture of the future state vision

–          Burning platform “call to action” which includes do-or-die plus WIIFM messaging

–          Plans charting the course of evolution (change), anticipating and addressing challenges

–          Leadership intimately engaged with the nitty gritty; the nuts-and-bolts of transformation

–          Involvement of all levels in the organization to gain buy-in

–          Tapping informal leaders and, creating and highlighting change agent heroes and their wins

–          Evolutionary integration of culture, behaviors, and business operations

Even companies dedicated to the best strategy for implementation recognize the disruptive impact of change.  Many employees can nonetheless experience the process as explosive and revolutionary.  Progressive thinking is emerging regarding the cultural integration of change initiatives and continuous improvement.  These firms endeavor to create an environment in which employees view growth, critical to survival, as an evolution not a revolution.  Top brass deploy forward looking change scouts who send back continuous intelligence about market condition and the company’s trajectory.  Rather than explosive bursts of change, incremental changes have the ability to integrate seamlessly on the company’s forward march.  Even the pathway itself can adjust trajectory well in advance of the potentially disruptive market dynamics, eliminating the “change on a dime” martyr battle cry as the battalion engages the revolution.

Alas, many have not considered such notions.  No doubt they’d be envious.  Or they could think it utopian.  Iteration can be an effective way to compete in an ever changing marketplace for companies equally dynamic in operations.  Reality check: give me a company that claims to “bend like a reed in the wind” and I’ll show you only one nimble and agile change initiative amongst a field of dreams that never launched.  I only mean that being iterative requires all parts of the business to keep time with the “storm” of change in the market, and that’s not easy!  I offer caution.  If your CEO really can rally the troops “on a dime” then perhaps you’re ready for the launch!

As our exploration progressed, we became curious to understand whether there was a role in change campaigns that HR might be better equipped to serve than other functions.  What do Human Resources Leaders have in their toolkit differently than other functional leaders?  Which of those might enable us to more effectively impact change, or growth, or transformation, or evolution within a company?  For one, Human Resources Leaders have a vantage point across all functions of the company. As a result of this vantage point, we have a unique opportunity to see more improvement opportunities, even before other leaders do.  Additionally, we steward organizational capability within and between every department.  It’s our role to understand both the expected work and results, along with the associated capabilities.  Behavior, or capability is change in it’s raw form.  Change calls for doing something differently.  Therefore, as the organizational capability steward, organization growth is central to HR’s work, and aligned with our unique skillset.  Another advantage HR offers is the most accurate behavioral observation, and the ability to offer up an objective assessment.  Effective HR Leaders use an unbiased assessment to candidly, and objectively, surface critical gaps between strategy, capability, and results.  Critical to an organization’s growth strategy is the distinct sweet spot at the intersection of a unique vantage point, capability steward, and the most objective assessment of behavior and capability.

Don’t expect keys to the halls of change strategy on that sweet spot alone!  It may be true that in many firms, Human Resources is expected to take the job of change agent for many of its major change initiatives.  But, it’s not always natural for the organization’s leadership to recognize HR’s ability to initiate or to lead change strategy across the organization.  The HR Executive Forum engaged in lively discussion identifying the most important attributes that generate HR’s value of engaging fully in every role of strategic growth.  Those attributes are highlighted here:

Credibility.  In order to gain the right to full participation, it must be earned.  And for that to occur we HR professionals must have credibility amongst our executive peers.  This is especially true for HR Leaders who are viewed as functional experts, more so than as business leaders with our functional expertise.  So, we must certainly demonstrate our HR expertise, including keeping our house in order.  But we must also be seen simultaneously as business leaders.  It wouldn’t hurt to operate off of data to separate us from our anecdotal reputation so that we are heard with impact.  And any HR pro today knows the value of technology in a more effective and efficient business operation, which is how the HR function must be known.  Right, enough already, how does one earn their way into the corridors of change strategy?  After HR has the formerly outlined conditions in hand (ticket to admission), credibility is earned the same as for anyone in every other function: commit to meaningful, value-added outcome and consistently deliver as promised.  Note, we don’t define the value, nor do we judge its quality, in the vacuum that HR has been accused of.  That’s done collaboratively with our executive peers.

Business Acumen.  Understand the business and you can suggest more meaningful opportunities to run the business differently.  Otherwise that offering will likely fall short of reception.  “Pick your poison” as they say.  Discerning meaningful gaps and discarding the rest requires knowing the business at a level appropriate for your organization.  Credibility of the suggestion relies on its value, and that depends upon financial literacy and the ability to articulate the idea in the language of the business.  This entails discussing a quantified value-added dimension, which will frequently include defining the change in terms of financial return on investment.  Most CFOs looks for ways to grow both the top and bottom lines. Without business acumen, even if your initiative is received, it could be dismissed as anecdotal.  And with that dismissal, so too will your credibility be diminished as your own value will take a hit for failure to offer insights relevant to core business challenges.  Like everyone, we can miss a few – don’t fear being wrong.  But we should hit more than we miss.

Unique and Powerful Perspective.  I will say right off, perspectives guided by a business-centric curiosity should be your best friends.  Many people easily offer up obvious gaps that they “discovered” anecdotally or superficially, and these folk are DOA – Done On Arrival.  We can also earn our credibility by bringing something business relevant AND unique.  Remember, we have a different vantage point or perspective.  Let’s pique their curiosity with a perspective of the business filtered through a lens others don’t or can’t have.  Bring focus to your view of the business through your functional expertise.  Hey, we’re THE experts on organizational capability, so let’s discuss the business through that filter, and introduce a unique business opportunity.  That might increase your value and credibility right there!  Peel through layers of the issue with powerful questions.  Powerful questions cut through the obvious, and instead surface root causes and hidden answers.  Attract your CEO’s attention with a powerful perspective, one that is grounded in value-added outcome.  Use your business acumen, and speak the language.  Say it with the accent of HR expertise.  Your unique and powerful perspective leads to true transformative value.  All the while your credibility continues to build.

Lean into Discomfort.  Credibility is a valuable commodity for sure, and with a unique and powerful perspective I usually lean on confidence. However, some need longer track records of success than others, and there are those who feel less comfortable in certain situation, or under specific circumstances.  Regardless of how confident you are with your discovery you must be prepared for rejection.  If you are naturally relentless, then you’ll be back soon with the same, or a new proposal.  That is an admirable trait!  Do you possess it?  Or, your change initiative might not be executed well, and it fails.  If resiliency is in your DNA, you get back up because, “that’s not failure, it’s an opportunity!”  Does that sound like you?  Potentially every change proposed requires putting our credibility on the line.  How’s that for discomfort?  Whether or not you have the relentless and resilient genes, you must lean into discomfort, whatever yours is, if you endeavor to work arm in arm, and shoulder to shoulder with other leaders charting the course of continuous improvement and superior position in your marketplace.

Nimble and Agile.  This is the tale of two sources of change and their impact.

The first story: a constant truth = business is dynamic, and so are its competitive markets.  Many organizations have shuttered their doors for their failure to look ahead.  They were blind in the market and failed to keep up with competitors.  Success comes to those companies with leaders skilled with forward vision and who discover useful insights from it, and with people who can evolve the enterprise based on those insights with speed and ease.

The second story: another constant truth = change by definition is dynamic, as are the business environment and employees being impacted by change.  Nothing is perfect, including the best of plans meant to align the velocity of morphing markets, growing business, and equipping employees.  Success comes to those enterprises whose top brass anticipate the pinch points of their plans, and are ever on the lookout for those in which their vision was not so clear.

Important points in these two stories.  They both mean to emphasize the critical importance of being nimble – or quick to comprehend.  They also want us to know our peril without agility – the ability to move quickly and easily.  Pitch the organizational killer: stiff, rigid, slow bureaucracy and politics.

Ownership.  Ever heard the one about “owners vs. renters?”

As the story goes, there are owners and renters…   Randy owns a large chain of apartment complexes.  Important for ownership success is caring about your neighbors, mastering the art of building equity, role modeling a different definition of handyman and weekend warrior, and planting deeply anchored roots.  Similar to the owner of the business, all of the employees must also live in the complex at which they work.  While it’s true that they rent the real estate, it’s also true that they have been given something to own: quality of the work “at home.”

And yet, there are notable differences between the complex where the owner lives, Mira Lago, and of the other complexes void of his residence.  With a reputation as the BEST place to live, Mira Lago experiences a fraction of the vacancies elsewhere; its renters rarely move out.  Profit margins at this premier property grow year after year, and outpace all the others.   What’s the secret at Mira Lago?  Perhaps it’s due to the owner living at Mira Lago, and that the others are devoid the owner.  Perhaps more of the renters at Mira Lago act more like owners than renters.  Neighbors at Mira Lago seem to care about each’s best interest.  They look out for one another.  Residents, employees and owner, share in the value of “best place to live.”  As a community they work together to maintain and improve upon those conditions.  For as long as their equity invested ensures “best place” qualities, residents at Mira Lago plant their roots as deeply – this applies whether it’s vegetation or lease term.  One has roots in the dirt, the other’s roots in a contract.  Both imply ownership-like permanency.  Residents enjoy a collaborative ownership of the reputation and living experience at Mira Lago.

Mira Lago has a way of making owners out of renters.  It’s a matter of creating the conditions all around them that draw them toward modeling owner-like tendencies.  In Randy’s case, he owns the real estate, the financial risk, and the profits.  As for the renters, they own the reputation and living experience through communal pride.  Don’t forget the employees.  Working in the community in which they live prompts ownership.  It’s an important step further at Mira Lago however.  Living and working in Mira Lago prompts community pride of ownership.  No surprise then that the formula has begun to spread to other properties, and as one should expect, they too are experiencing record growth.

Before the story ends, I’ll let you in on something else to share with your total rewards professionals and boards of directors: Randy has another secret that many owners try to keep hidden.  Long term, actively involved renters, as well as tenured high performing employees, have a chance to become owners!  Real estate holding, deed baring owners!  Therefore, they begin to emulate owner-like behaviors even while still renting.  Self-fulfilling prophecy – those who behave like owners, become owners.

Whether owning the financial risk and reward, or the pride of your own behavior and performance, for the unabashed, including those who lean into discomfort, HR can have a strategic organizational setting leadership role founded on business-acumen.  Preferably the change strategy is of the evolutionary sort.   These HR leaders earn the credibility to take the firm to new heights.  Agile and nimble, scouts from the ranks in HR keep watch on their business navigating an ever changing marketplace.  From their vantage points they report their assessment on varied business dynamics observed both externally and internally.  Business-driven HR experts, the stewards of organizational capability (transformation in its raw form) shape the course of business with their unique and powerful perspective. Unique perspective because of its vantage point and its HR “expertise filter,” organizational capability.  Powerful perspective because its value is measured by the priorities of the business, and in its own language.  Perspective that comes from ownership as defined by hands-on teams working arm-in-arm and shoulder to shoulder, and with commitment and dedication firmly rooted in the firm’s mission, all in the spirit of continuous equity growth.

The ideas and practices expressed in our forum on change, and the lessons shared from our variety of experiences offered nuggets of gold – the forum mined them, I offer them to you.  Take what you like, they are yours to mold and shape to fit your company’s culture, or to “change” it.  Polish them to benefit the competitiveness and growth of your enterprise.  And with that, I leave the answer up to you:

Should HR drive change?


  • Suzanne says:

    Very well summarized Randy. Here are a few more thoughts. I must say it was the most insightful conversation we have had on this topic in our twenty years of existence. Here are a few of my takeaways:
    1. We still – as HR execs – tend to get stuck on the change agent side of things. After all, there is always a lot of pressure to get the basics done, thus challenging us to find the time to “understand the business first.” You constantly have to ask yourself: Which will give first? Should I spend the afternoon being strategic or tend to the thousands of e-mails piled up in my inbox? Where does the organization I am in see my value-add?
    2. I also thought it was interesting to discuss the difference between full throttle, splashy change versus change that “is” incremental and part of the new normal. Good question: Does your workforce think that the only time change happens is when something is wrong or do they expect constant disruption? In fact, is it disruption we should be talking about, not change? Perhaps incremental “normal change’ is what we should be striving for, but those companies and industries thart are wayyyy….behind may not be able to afford that option. They need to catch up NOW. Lastly if disruption and change is the new normal, why is it that so many hiring practices are still stuck in hiring old mindsets. We need to hire folks thart actually like and thrive on disruption. Those are also typically the folks that come with a sense of “ownership” in the company’s success – in other words, they see opportunities, feel some personal accountability and are probably willing to work outside the box.

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