One of the growth and development activities that I assigned my employees at least once per year was to pick a function in the company, outside of HR, that they didn’t know or understand very well. The challenge was to get to know it – the product/service it provided, skills required, customers, business impact, etc. – then present what they learned to the rest of the team at the assigned time.
Needless to say, my employees never liked receiving this challenge, but they always ended up understanding its value and the improvements it made in the effectiveness of their role in the company.
So why did I do that?
Because good HR happens in front of the desk, not behind it! Until HR understands the business and the challenges its customers face, it cannot effectively support their needs. HR will never have an effective understanding of its customers’ needs by staying behind the HR desk.
Here’s what generally happens behind a desk:
- Pushing paper
- Entering data
- Generating reports
- Completing phone calls
- Setting appointments
- Transacting Emails
- Conducting meetings
- Catching up on reading
The vast majority of everything on this list is transactional in nature and can be applied in HR to such things as benefits, payroll, regulatory compliance, policy, risk management, etc. All those things are necessary for a business of any size, but they are also all the things that keep you behind your desk, defining HR as a cost center and not a key component of the organization’s value stream. Minimize the transactional items as much as you can (via outsourcing, systematizing and streamlining) and get out in front of your desk.
A seat at the table
You cannot solely build personal credibility from behind a desk. You’ve got to get out in front of the desk to gain exposure to the business, establish a relationship with your customers and build your image as a contributing member of the team.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that HR deserves a seat at the table, I’d be rich. And I’d be sick! HR doesn’t deserve a seat at anyone’s table until it is earned. One way to help you earn it is to get out in front of the desk and learn the business you are in by asking questions like the following:
- How does the supply chain work?
- How do we deliver value to our customers? How is our value measured?
- What is HR’s impact on the financials of the company?
- How do our HR business goals tie back to the various functions in the company?
- What drives manpower planning/needs?
- What are the training needs to support business operations?
- What are the threats and opportunities our business faces and how can I help?
- How does the market value the company?
- What keeps leadership awake at night?
- How can HR strategically contribute to the bottom line?
The only reliable way to get the answers to and understanding of these questions is to get out in front of your desk and go find them. Insert yourself into the daily activities of your customer: sit in front of their desk or beside them in their world, and ask the questions, listen to the responses, then delve into the answers. Figure out how your role can help them achieve their goals. Understand their pain and what it will take to help them heal. Request their feedback on how you can contribute.
What I’m talking about is nothing more than good ol’ MBWA – Management by Walking Around, inspired by famed management guru, Tom Peters. MBWA is all about working “in” the business, not just “on” it.
MBWA creates an opportunity for the HR leader to listen and learn, to develop trust and build relationships, and to connect with your customer base right where your customer lives. Getting out in front of the desk helps create a dialogue and an understanding between you and your customers, about them, about you, about the organization, about the bottom line.
I promise that you will learn more about your organization – its people, processes and priorities – by actually wandering around in it than you will by staying behind your desk and only working on it.