The 3 most important words in HR

Originally published in Kaustubham, the HR Magazine by the Tata Institute Of Social Sciences, January 2014

No, those three words are not, “I love people”.

The three most important words in HR are, “Know the business”.

I heard it many a times, from a lot of guest speakers while I was studying at TISS and like an obedient student who followed every instruction, I obeyed this one to the T as well. To all the speakers who ever said these 3 words to a student audience that included me, this article would be my way of saying thanks since there is really nothing else that is as important when you are an HR professional.

I was speaking to another HR person in quite a senior role recently and the person said, “Well, the advantage is, HR is very industry neutral …” I cannot disagree more. Of course, HR can be industry neutral. But the more industry neutral it is, the more useless it also is for anybody in the business. The more it gets questioned, challenged, disobeyed and disrespected.

We always like to say HR is not about HR. It is about business. And if we, as HR practitioners, believe that, we have to be able to demonstrate that in our daily activities and long-term strategies.

If you look around, you will find numerous examples of business people who egt into HR roles. Rarely do we come across successful reverse transitions of HR professionals moving into business roles. As a student, I always wondered why that was. HR is as strongly theory and research driven as is any other field. It takes a two-year master’s program to teach you HR just like it does any other field. So why then do so many people find it easy to get into HR and HR professionals find it so difficult you move out?

That questions no longer haunts me. I find few HR practitioners really taking the time and the effort to understand their business. Consequently, they operate at sub-optimal levels, rarely moving beyond the first two levels of every HR student’s bible – The HR Value Proposition. The strange thing is, HR as a function has evolved. Most organizations have best-in-class processes and philosophies in place. It is the HR professionals designing and implementing those processes and policies that somehow fail to carry the day ever so often. They didn’t listen when speakers told them to “know the business”. Or maybe nobody told them.

The funny part about people giving you advice though, is that often, while they tell you what you must do, they forget to tell you how.

That’s the problem I faced as a student when those guest speakers said, “know the business”. How do I get to “know the business”? What am I supposed to do to “know the business”? These were questions to which I was left to find out answers for myself. And I found them the hard way.

Trust me when I say this – if there is anything that has helped me grow from a fresh HR pass-out to an investment banking learning and talent specialist to a businesswoman who runs a technology startup, it has been to “know the business”. And here are my tips on how one could go about doing this right.

LESSON 1: Make it relevant

As the head of research, I may not really care for “employee engagement” and “team building” activities because HR recommends. But I sure as hell am interested in ensuring I save that 25% of my productive hours that get spent because of people politics and team conflicts. An HR idea may be great in principle, but don’t expect anyone in business to engage in it meaningfully if they have to do it for HR’s sake. You have to be able to make the link with clear business benefits

LESSON 2: Respect their time

If an investment banker brings the firm revenue of about a million dollars every hour and spends 15 minutes with you, you better have an answer to why his time with you is worth it, beyond saying “it’s policy”. If a developer can deliver a project on time by sitting down and coding so he can give it to the testing team for checks before delivery and you want him to attend a training program, you did rather be in a position where he can see how it makes more sense for him to attend the program instead of having to tell him “it’s mandatory”. If you need the attention of business, they need to know you can treat it like business – be organized, be structured, know your content and finish before time. The worst thing you can do for yourself as an HR professional is to set up 45 minute long meetings and then also have it spill over

LESSON 3: Understand their context

Context is everything. Assertiveness in sales and trading will be different from assertiveness in investment banking. People management in IT outsourcing will be different from people management in IT new product development. Context for performance management in single location teams is different from how the policy will be written and process will established for the same HR process in an organization driven largely by multi-location virtual teams

LESSON 4: Get their pet peeves

If you ever worked in HR at an investment bank, you should be able to find obvious faults with Hrithik Roshan’s character in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. He opens as someone in sales and trading and half way through the movie, he is pitching a deal to Yamamoto-san as an investment banker. There is no way that is going to happen in reality. You don’t talk to a person in research about building pitches and you don’t talk to an investment banker about sell-side reports. The moment you make that mistake and use the wrong language in the meeting with business, you have lost any attention you were getting till then. You are labelled as another person who doesn’t “get them”

LESSON 5: Demonstrate Subject matter expertise

Business heads and managers need to be subject matter experts to be able to survive on a day-to-day basis. It is not an ideal goal for them. It is not a career ambition for them. It is basic necessity. So if you are their business partner, the least you can do to earn your credibility with them is to be a subject-matter expert. If they can anyway do your job, then you are wasting their time and not earning their respect. This is not to say you have to take on HR work from them and become their admin person. This is to say that you should be able to get business buy-in for what you propose: Business sees that they can do things differently, and more effectively because they are benefitting from the perspective of a subject matter expert

LESSON 6: Push back with confidence and patience

There is no way a testing team will release a product if they haven’t done everything from unit testing to user acceptance testing and ensured a product is working. There is no way an investment banking analyst will give her senior banker a pitchbook where every number and every graph has not been checked and re-checked at least twice over. That’s the confidence you must have as HR to say you will not launch a mass recruitment campaign without ensuring you have all the required interviewing experience, background check and processing bandwidth. Be confident of saying when you cannot do something or will not recommend something for business. Also have the patience to explain why. You are the expert but they need to understand so that they won’t just say, “We can’t do this because HR is not supporting” or “HR is saying no”

LESSON 7: Think like the receiver

When I go as HR to IT to get them to build me a leave management system, I don’t care whose job it is within IT to do it and I don’t want to be told to go from one person to another with no one actually doing anything about it. Similarly, when business comes to HR, don’t be the one to say, “For this you need to talk to the compensation team, I don’t manage it.” Be the one that puts the two parties in touch, organizes a joint meeting, calls the HR colleague to get more information or connects them on email explaining your understanding of the problem rather than making business explain the problem all over again

LESSON 8: Understand their world

Shadow people from business, log in from business floors whenever you can, have formal and informal catch-up meetings with business, ask them questions about what they do on a day to day basis. You should be able to write an article on “a day in the life of a senior developer” or “a week in the life of an investment banking analyst”. You should know that a platform is different from a language which is different from an operating system which is different from a program. Understanding the daily life of individuals in the business is the key to successful HR strategy and organizational development intervention.

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