In Sync

Change Management

HR leaders will be most effective when aligning people strategy with business goals.

By InaMarie Johnson

As a company charts a path toward rapid growth, it’s important that sales and marketing are aligned. But when it comes to effective change management and empowering employees to navigate the digital transformation and actually meet lofty business goals, HR is just as important of a function.

Software company Zendesk aims to be a $1 billion company in revenue by 2020. That means that scaling the company for the future by investing in people, product infrastructure, and processes becomes critical in helping to achieve this goal. To do this, Zendesk needs to have the ability to hire, develop, and retain the talented employees who are critical to growth. But the company’s HR leadership can’t design an effective people strategy unless the team fully understands the long-range business strategy and how the team can support it.

To do this, HR can take three steps to align their department strategy with the overall business strategy and make 2019 the most productive year yet.

1. Leverage transparency to earn executive buy-in. Executive buy-in is always critical when rolling out cultural change. All too often, buy-in is reduced to a leader sending a supportive email or showing up at an event. Real buy-in comes to life through transparency. For example, Zendesk’s company-wide goal-setting process begins with the CEO and other C-level executives drafting their goals and then publishing them for the whole company.

At Zendesk’s weekly C-level executive meetings, a different executive talks about the goals they are accountable for and invites comments from their peers, including the CEO. This exemplifies that it’s just as important to be transparent about the priorities that are being accomplished as the priorities that are proving more difficult to achieve.

When designing a comprehensive people strategy, it is critical to leverage these meetings to ask questions, including:

  • How is the future of work changing?
  • What kind of talent does the organization need moving forward?
  • What does the organization do well?

In addition to taking inventory of current organizational capacity, these questions allow HR leaders to plan for the future and build teams with the capabilities needed as a company scales.

Zendesk’s HR team’s success or failure has a tangible impact on the well-being of the organization, the employees, and even their families. It’s an HR leader’s job to grasp the overall KPIs of their peers for the long term and understand HR’s role in helping drive those KPIs.

2. Identify gaps. There’s no perfect team. There is, however, a lot of power in coming into an organization with fresh eyes. For a new individual joining a company, it is an excellent opportunity to identify blind spots, seek them out, and correct them.

One way to do this is by holding one-on-one sessions with stakeholders on the team and encouraging candor. HR leaders can cross-reference in-person statements with anonymous engagement survey findings to make correlations. What were the consistent strengths that came up? Where were the glaring opportunities to do things better? Where are areas to increase collaboration and to develop leadership?

For example, Zendesk identified a gap between HR business partners (HRBPs) and leaders in the organizations they support. Zendesk found that while HRBPs were excellent partners on program and employee relations matters, it was necessary to also equip them to more adeptly partner with leaders on strategic and longer-term decisions and plans. To remedy this, Zendesk is building out an HRBP competency framework with associated development offerings.

It also found that it was siloing teams across people operations, talent acquisition, and workplace experience. Although at the end of the day all of these elements drive the brand and outline the employee value proposition, they were being treated as separate entities with different metrics and capabilities. To enhance the people planning strategy, Zendesk gathered the teams together in the same room instead of having them outline what they need in functional silos. This united their goals and made sure they were tracking against each other’s. From there, Zendesk took a look at their global people and places calendar and made sure priorities were united. Having a team meeting on a quarterly basis plays a critical role to success.

The activity also showed that leaders craved a framework by which their progress could be tracked. A clear definition of overall leadership philosophy, clear metrics, and a nuanced approach to assessment that tracks progress are important factors. This is a key focus in 2019 in order to allow leaders to be nurtured and supported.

3. Bring company goals to life by communicating the message. Zendesk now has more than 2,600 employees around the world. This footprint demands a level of infrastructure, planning, communication, and messaging that can resonate with everyone, no matter their level, location, or language.

For Zendesk, which plans to be a billion dollar company in the near future, leaders need to make sure employees see the link between what they are working on and these ambitious company goals.

When it comes to communicating business strategy, organizations need to create a unified understanding of goals that employees can rally behind with a renewed sense of urgency. But more importantly, they need to do it in a way that is authentic to the company culture. Part of this is communicating the message through company newsletters and town halls. The human element is powerful, and an emotional connection is what will inspire employees to execute against company strategies.


InaMarie Johnson is chief people officer at Zendesk.

Posted February 12, 2019 in Workforce Management

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