Transformed HR: Catch the Wave or Get Swamped by it

A Changing Landscape

I recently re-read David Ulrich’s article that served as a comprehensive refresher to his work around the competencies for HR and felt so awed by the incredible change that’s happened in the 20 years since he published his book HR Champions.

When the book first came out, I was finding my footing in the HR space as a consultant and considering pursuing my master’s degree in HR management. After gaining some experience, I transitioned to an HRBP. A sad, but not uncommon story happened when I took the job. I replaced a woman who had been in the role for many years, but the company realized they needed someone with more business acumen and HR specialization. Talk about awkward–she trained me for a month to take over her position. The tide was turning quickly and, to use a surfing analogy, those who weren’t paddling towards the wave were about to get swamped by it.

Fast forward 10 years: Ulrich’s thinking about the role of an HRBP took on new relevance for me. By that point I had actually worked as a business partner. More importantly, in 2007, I was teaching HRBPs as a facilitator for the CEB Leadership Academies, a development experience designed to close the gap on crucial skills for strategic HR success. Back then, HR professionals often asked, “How does HR get a seat at the table?” Among C-suite priorities, talent hovered somewhere around fifth or sixth on their list.

It was increasingly apparent HR needed to take more of a lead role, but evidence showed that there was a skill gap. HR was paddling out into the surf, but it was unclear how many were going to successfully catch the wave.


Evolving Skills for the Future

It’s been quite the ride, and I’m grateful to have witnessed this transformation while in the classroom with dedicated, career-minded HR professionals from around the globe. It seems rather auspicious that now, as I begin my journey with Leadership and Co., Ulrich has published his Competencies 2.0 for HRBPs.

The reality is clear: HR is a valuable partner at the leadership table and talent falls in the top three concerns of virtually all top executives. As professionals in the discipline, we’ve learned the importance of not resting on our laurels. We need to evolve our own skills to add business impact in today’s conditions in several ways:

  • Create a culture of collaboration amidst the technological backdrop. The digital age and game-changing technology have increased the need to make work feel like an environment that embraces us as humans, working together to create something to be proud of. HR needs to be adept at leveraging the way we now work to create personal and enterprise value.

  • Embrace constant, not episodic, change. Even if we understand that the only constant is change, it doesn’t mean that we’ve mastered navigating it. Quite the contrary: Gartner‘s research tells us that over two-thirds of change initiatives fail. From the executive suite to the front-line, employees need to learn how to flex in a world of flux. They are looking to HR for guidance and it can’t come fast enough.

  • Look outward. HR increasingly turns its attention to outside the organization to better manage customers, investors, and the broader community. This is a significant shift for a function that, almost by definition, has been focused inward.

  • Understand how to run a business. Business acumen is now table-stakes. The movement towards COEs (Center of Excellence) has HR operating more like an in-house consulting business. I recently met a head of HR who runs her function with a P&L statement. On their face, COEs are built on the idea of delivering expert programs and initiatives. They’re also designed to apply a deeper strategic understanding so decisions are made from an enterprise viewpoint.

  • Drive innovation. This is no longer a “nice-to-have.” And having pockets of innovation isn’t good enough. There’s hardly a department in any organization that isn’t constantly looking to increase effectiveness through optimization, innovation, or all-out transformation. HR needs to take responsibility for fostering a culture of curiosity and invention.


Directing Organizational Change

As HR looks to impact the business and drive organizational change, it has to continue to build its capabilities. At Leadership & Co. we define, these as:

  • Collaboration. Seek out the unknown; leverage networks in more strategic ways like combating biases and building teams that capitalize on individuals’ unique capabilities and perspectives.

  • Investigation. Better align work to strategy; look for opportunities for personal and organizational growth, and innovate by creating a test and learn environment.

  • Persuasion. Influence and sell the organization on changes. My former colleague, Scott Engler, uses the term, “sense maker.” This is precisely the role HR needs to play.

In addition to HR mastering these skills, the wider organization is looking to HR to develop, cascade, and embed these same skills into leaders and teams across the business. HR must be both the student and teacher.

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business environment, the wave analogy seems appropriate. It’s hard to say if we are at the crest of the wave or if we’re paddling out to catch the next one, but anyone in a leadership role knows that the capabilities for organizational growth and success lie in the hands of a capable and aligned HR team.

There’s a saying in surfing: stay perpendicular to the wave. When a wave breaks ahead of you, you can either duck under it or race to catch it. No matter which you choose, once the wave has broken, you need to stay perpendicular to it. If you don’t, you’ve given all that energy more surface area to grab you and your board, pulling you under the water and dragging you toward shore. By staying perpendicular you can use the energy to propel you forward and enjoy the ride!

And what a ride it will be. There’s never been a more important time for HR because [no cliché] people are, and will continue to be, the key to success. I look forward to reflecting on the next version of HR competencies 3.0. Until then, I’ll make the safe prediction the next revision won’t take 20 years.


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