HR leaders need to the leverage the wins of the past two years to make a sustainable difference in their careers and in their organisations.
By Simon Kent
Right now, HR professionals have a golden opportunity to push forward the high profile they hold within their organisations and to further their careers within the upper echelons of leadership. As Peter Ryding, master coach and founder of the HRD PathFinder Club, says, the pandemic has shown how important HR is to employers, and that the caring, empathetic side of what HR does is critical. “If you don’t care for your people, they’ll resign,” he puts quite simply.
“Many senior HR professionals are in the frontline of their organisations’ adaptation to a world transformed by COVID,” agrees Executive Coach Meirion Jones. “Whilst acknowledging the organisational challenges, they see enormous opportunity for driving cultural and operational transformation and cementing their roles at the heart of their companies.”
According to Jones, the disruptive impact of the pandemic has led to organisations having to play catch-up, frequently creating policies on the hoof. “The development and embedding of these systemic changes— in a world where agile responses will continue to be essential—is a critical HR challenge,” he says.
Rodrigo Adanya, chief people officer at multi-category delivery company Glovo, agrees that HR is now experiencing strong demand as businesses seek to do more to ensure their employees are as comfortable and fulfilled in their positions as possible and therefore able to do their best work for themselves and for the business. “For this reason, good HR representatives, for perhaps the first time ever, have become the real difference between winning and losing the war for talent,” he says.
Adanya goes on to explain that in his experience, HR professionals have generally been seen to “side with business,” finding themselves under pressure to stay loyal to their employers rather than their employees. Since the pandemic, there has been a change in this balance, not least in order to address employee well-being and mental health. “There has been a shift in expectation as to what people expect and deserve from a working environment,” he says. “As a result, there is now a distinct need for HR professionals who can empathise, listen, and connect to their employees, and defend their needs against employers.
“This has been a good wake-up call for what support is needed in the workplace,” he continues, “with the pandemic acting as a catalyst for a new, more balanced way of working that we as HR professionals have always hoped to achieve.” The key to achieving more, Adanya says, is by helping organisations be more modern, agile, and welcoming to people without neglecting the data, business, and structure savviness that HR has built up over the past few years. “Companies now have the opportunity to establish a real sense of equilibrium,” he explains.
Louise Stonier, chief people and culture officer at Pets at Home, also sees the pandemic as a catalyst for broadening the HR agenda. She now believes the function is facing a challenge since the number and type of stakeholders HR has to consider has increased and is continuing to expand. “HR leaders must consider environmental, social, and governance issues and how they impact a range of internal and external audiences,” she says. “This includes colleagues and board directors, but also investors, professional bodies, suppliers, and key non-governmental organisations such as mental health charities. The key is to consider the whole universe of your business even if it doesn’t seem to fit into the traditional HR agenda initially.”
Stonier says HR professionals who want to move forward should focus on building and promoting a united and positive company culture, which requires a constant reassessment and alignment of company values. “It is important to ensure that the colleague experience matches the customer experience and as a result, that the colleague voice aligns with the customer voice,” she says. This seems increasingly important as both employees and customers look to engage with companies that are driven by a strong purpose and a set of values that match their own. “There must be authentic alignment between the internal culture and a business’ output,” says Stonier, an outcome which HR is very well-placed to make happen.
As Ryding is keen to point out, whatever their priorities, if HR professionals really want to further their careers, they need to ensure that they understand the positive impact their actions and initiatives have on their bottom lines and how they can communicate that impact at the board level and among senior leadership.
Within his coaching practice, Ryding encourages HR to pursue the same objectives and talk the same language as senior management and business directors. This means understanding how what they do impacts shareholder price. HR can still promote the employee’s interests—investing in well-being initiatives, ensuring policies are effective, and so forth — but they need to be framed in a context to demonstrate shareholder value. Achieve that and HR will score huge appeal with the board. “You have to position it correctly,” says Ryding, “and it’s a mindset to take on. You do not think ‘how do I help my people?’ but ‘how does what I do shift the share price?’,” he says.
Throughout his work, Ryding highlights areas he believes HR needs to concentrate on. Among these areas is the ability to be focused on what makes a difference for the business. He believes HR directors should be able to identify the 20% of what they do which has the most impact. He then advises putting 80% of their working focus on that 20%. The lesson is simple Ryding says: “Work out the critical things that make the difference and focus on doing those.”
Ryding adds that whilst HR professionals currently have a great opportunity to take a significant step forward in their influence and career, that door is already closing. “COVID will increasingly become history so it’s a phenomenal opportunity that should be taken now,” he says. Ryding estimates that in 18 months time, the world will have moved on and that chance may be lost.