From fire-fighting to future-focus

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Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 5 March 2014

In my work with HR leaders and L&D teams, I hear many challenges voiced by exasperated professionals in those roles. I touched on this previously in my articleStrategic Thinking for Where the Rubber Hits the Road. But it seems like the rubber may have got a bit stuck in a pothole when it comes to being strategic in these crucial roles.

What we're learning is that HR often takes on the pain of cutbacks, forcing professionals who are able to operate more strategically, into detailed administrative and non- strategic work. Unsurprisingly they find this immensely frustrating. Simultaneously, budgets are often being reduced, and the endemic 'more for less' mantra forces attention towards the basic time-sensitive activities, rather than more future-focused, strategic work.  

Instead of focusing on building capability and capacity through high quality learning and development programmes, I've seen programmes being pulled back. There is also an over-focus on choosing the lowest cost route, rather than implementing programmes designed to meet organisational needs and objectives. Some HR teams are recruiting for their organisations, but the costs of the recruitment are being stripped to the bone - a 'ship 'em in' approach - which is likely to hit costs down-the-line when issues of poor fit with the organisational culture emerge.  

With HR teams forced into 'reaction mode' - where is the thinking coming from for creating value for the future of the organisation? People find it hard enough to move into this way of thinking anyway, without it being continually devalued and pushed down the every-growing list of priorities. HR professionals are being pulled into the very vortex of short-term reactive thinking that they are trying to save their colleagues across the organisation from.

So, how can HR and L&D leaders get back to: "lead dialogue, to act creatively, define problems, make decisions and sculpt strategy needed to be strong and effective, so that they can bring to their organisations interventions that are powerful, strategically in tune, and sustainable", as I outlined in my previous article?

A key strategy I use with the leaders is to help them realise the situation they are in and give them the tools to skilfully articulate its consequences. If a finance lead was in the same situation, they would be severely reprimanded if they didn't shout early enough when they saw the business running into cash-flow problems. The time horizon for L&D's strategic role is much longer - yet the wheels can still fall off the bus! The voice expressing this problem needs to be doubly articulate, and crystal clear about the implications of a reality that is further away - driven by external, as well as internal factors. There is a strong need to make the rest of the senior team sit up and listen, and ensure that they hear clearly the need to focus on value for tomorrow. This takes inner-strengths of awareness and courage, as well as outer skills of communicating with clarity.

Here are my top tips to start this vital process: 

1. Vision: think ahead - maybe three- to five years. If you had all the money and time you needed, what would you do? What contribution will your team have made? And most importantly what difference will that really make to bottom-line of the business?

2. Reality: health-check your HR or L&D team. How tired is everyone? Where are you spending your time? What is the implication of only doing what you are doing now? What will be the impact of that on the business in 3-5 years' time?

3. Impact: set out your options and proposals - make sure these are realistic, achievable, and focus on maximising the business impact.

4. Voice: making it happen requires a sound-check - are you really being heard? How articulate are you being? Are you framing your concerns to come across as a positive strategic concern, rather than a negative moan?

5. Clarity: say it like it is - keep it clear and simple - what exactly needs to change and why?

6. Benefits: focus on the business benefits and the ways in which your new strategic, long-term approach will add value to the organisation in the future.

What are you doing to patch the pothole and ensure a smoother journey?

About the author
Liz Hill-Smith is a senior consultant with DPA [http://dpacoms.com/about-dpa/people/liz-hill-smith/]
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