CEO’s Letter: Is HR Able to Leap Tall Buildings?

The future of HR is always a question for me. I had the chance to visit the Wharton Center for Human Resources recently, and my conversation with professor Peter Cappelli turned to some interesting work he is doing with the staff there, studying the concept of “agility.” Agility is about adaptive structure- and action-oriented decision-making (see Harvard Business Review, The Future of Performance Management, October 2016). I wonder if someday someone will describe Superman as “faster than a speeding HR person,” but I doubt it. Being agile requires entrepreneurship in the corporate setting and a fair bit of risk-taking. HR needs to do these things, and great progress has been made, but just how agile can HR get?

I will get negative mail about this column, so before I begin, I want to remind everyone I have dedicated my life to the HR community. I have written often about the growing impact and importance of the HR function. I have wondered why HR doesn’t have more authority and prerogative in its daily operations, and I have to also acknowledge its weaknesses.

When I studied HR at Wharton three decades ago, I was served up the practice of HR as a risk avoidance profession. Who is attracted to risk management activities? It was pretty obvious after looking at many of my classmates. Risk-averse people go into risk-averse professions. So pronounced was my own disaffection for that mindset that I eschewed the traditional corporate HR role and went into the HR service business. Little did I know, someday I would have an HR department reporting to me.

Those risk-averse people went into the corporate HR world and became subject-matter experts. Few of them would move out of their tower of practice, but many of them moved up due to tenure and experience. None of them ever became CHROs.

When I talk to CHROs, they quietly admit that part of the obstacle to their own agenda is their internal teams and the resistance to change. In truth, many HR departments sell change management services, but they just don’t buy it inside their own walls. CHROs are, in some respects, different from their subordinates. They are risk-takers who wanted to be noticed and sought new challenges and greater and greater responsibility and accountability. In many cases, they have exceeded their contemporaries and inherited the risk-averse and sclerotic remains of the HR department’s earlier administrative focus.

I don’t want to suggest this is universally true, but we can all think of people that take a more limited view of what HR should be doing, and we remember the programs they have failed to embrace.

HR is best when it is part of business strategy, but strategy implementation and change involves risk. If the workforce doesn’t buy it, they bury it. We all know this to be true. Where I actually find the greatest hope for the bright future of HR and organizational leadership is in the young HR people I meet. Unlike my contemporaries, they are more open to trying new things and far more entrepreneurial. Many of them want to form their own service or technology companies. They are more apt to ask “why” and less likely to accept “because that’s how we have always done it.”

Rest assured, when we do a cover story such as the feature this month on Head of HR for Zurich North America Brian Little (see page 18), we choose to focus on the entrepreneurial and creative HR leaders and their progressive departments and to celebrate the success and impact that they have. As HR deals with the concept of agility you need to ask yourself, “How agile am I?”

I hope you like your answer.


Elliot Clark

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