Why HR should be running the business

How many HR directors would be trusted with the job of running the business? Judging by the evidence, not many. However, the debate as to whether there should be an HR director on the board is becoming a jaded and passé discussion. Surely the more challenging and interesting debate is whether the operations director or similar is thinking along the lines of an HR director. The emerging debate in today’s boardroom is whether the chief executive and their executive team have the people skills to lead the workforce of tomorrow, through a mixture of collaboration, motivation, creation and inspiration, as well as the more obvious executive skills of organisation, planning and strategy.

If the requirement is to bring people skills more to the fore, why then do you need an HR director? Or, put another way, why isn’t the HR director also the operations director, or even the chief executive? For many years, finance directors were among the front-runners for vacant chief executive roles. Maybe now is the time for senior HR executives to be considered in the same light.

Many of the top names in the HR world have come through the business, and I would suggest that many of them will end up back in the business – possibly running the whole show. It’s already happening, but if this is to happen on a wider scale, then the HR fraternity must become more ambitious at every level. However, there appears to be a lack of desire from many talented HR executives to move from personal ‘comfort zones’ and specialist areas into the world of sales, service and bottom-line targets. We do have tremendous talent in our ranks that could be put to greater effect in a general executive management role, responsible not just for people but for, say, operations, marketing or corporate strategy. Let us seek to broaden the base of our influence, rather than keep such influence within predetermined boxes based on the hierarchical structures of yesterday’s world.

Hierarchies and related structures are, of course, a primary reason why organisations struggle with cultural change. These structures often box people into old-style formations, which are not aligned to the newer business philosophies, including flatter structures and customer process management. People are generally more comfortable with the organisational landscape they know, rather than a new, strange and different way of working. Shaking up organisational structures is often a necessary pre-requisite to achieving behavioural change, both at leadership and employee levels.

This argument, taken to its logical conclusion, will result in the demolition of silo structures and the widespread implementation of process-driven structures, with the people elements fully integrated and aligned. These changes, however, require careful management.

Many HR professionals have the necessary range of people skills to make themselves heavy-duty contenders for the key job of managing change across the business. They are well-versed in managing major organisational issues through collaboration, compromise and, at times, conflict. This people competency, coupled with front-line business experience, creates a powerful base formula for a chief executive role blueprint. Of course, the magical mix of vision, tenacity, charisma and overall leadership quality will be the final determinant in deciding which HR directors of today make it to the top in the future.

There are a few examples where this is happening now. My view is that this will multiply as the need to manage change through people intensifies. The organisational landscape is changing dramatically. The corporate success factors of the past, such as product and process, are being replaced by the ‘people factor’. But if successful executives of the future automatically take on the people mantle as part and parcel of the role, what will become of the HR director? Watch this space.

By Paul Turner, general manager (people), West Bromwich Building Society

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