In our long and varied careers we have had the opportunity to work with a significant number of HR professionals and it has been an interesting and enlightening experience. HR of course has practitioners with as wide a variety of skills, experience, talent and performance as any profession, but we're still confident to assert that most companies get the HR they deserve. It's not a phrase we coined, but we think its true nonetheless.
We believe that the type of HR an organisation is expected provide is dependent to a very significant extent on the attitude of the CEO and not the head of HR. If the company boss wants HR to run payroll, keep efficient records, keep the company out of the tribunal process then that’s the HR he or she gets. If he or she wants a strategic partner, someone to help grow and develop the business then that’s what he or she gets. There is obviously a range of involvement from pure operational to pure strategic but the exact amount of either is a decision usually made by the CEO.
This might suggest that operational HR is ‘bad’ and that strategic HR is ‘good’ but this is too simplistic an analysis and fails to recognise the crucial role operational HR plays in every business. Good operational HR is well organised, well planned and adds significantly to the sense of corporate well-being – we all like to get paid correctly and on time, and if those things are your boss’s main concern then that is what you focus on.
However, apart from getting everything wrong it is hard to see how operational HR alone can actively change the way a business works or how it changes and grows. Strategic HR can help provide both the destination and the road map and actively promote the people agenda in delivering both of these. We suspect that a CEO focussed on operational excellence alone would not recruit or continue to employ an HRD who proposed such a radically different and "forward thinking" agenda.
There are, of course, those HR superstars we read about who deliver radical change not just for HR but for the business as a whole, and they will have the drive and vision to change the CEO’s mind on what is important. But these are few and far between and all will likely report to an open minded CEO who embraces the change agenda and wants more involvement from HR.
So what does this mean for the average HR practitioner? Well, it is important to recognise that what we have described are the extremes, and that most of us work somewhere in the middle or at least at some point along the operational-strategic continuum. Most CEOs will insist on operational excellence as a starting point and to be credible you have to be able to deliver. But equally, many CEOs have also recognised that HR can help shape the growth agenda in a way no other function can and have been prepared to listen to the head of HR when a different approach has been proposed.
Most HR practitioners are happy for a job on the operational-strategic continuum and to accept the opportunities to make changes when they occur, and most will find the level of operational or strategic involvement they want and within the constraints set out by the CEO.
Choosing your CEO may be a selection decision too far and for those not at the top of their function may not even be available to you. But it might still be worth checking him or her out to assess the appetite for change and which direction your HR career might take within any prospective employer company.