I’ve been in Sr. HR for sometime. I’ve sat in countless strategy sessions. Something I’ve noticed most execs (including HR) state emphatically is the need to be proactive. Some even pine for proactivity, treating their inability to wrap their arms around a proactive strategy like a shunned teenage victim of unrequited love. If only there was more time to be proactive! (Cue theme from Love Story).
Well, after a very long time working this gig I’ve come to the smart conclusion HR is not and never will be a proactive business. To be a great HR pro, you have to be able to work within the very exhilarating yet stressful life that is completely an utterly reactive.
- Somebody in a critical, high-profile role quits — you react.
- You get hammered with a 23% year-over-year benefit cost increase — you react.
- You’re told you have 45 days to turn around all due diligence on a potential acquisition — you react.
- The police show up for one of your employees – you react.
Some will say, hold up. Good strategy includes assessing trends, understanding the landscape enough to predict barriers to success and proactively putting processes in place before the other shoe drops. Sure thing. Makes sense. Should help. But my friends, both shoes dropped long ago. I mean with a thud.
I have yet to see a proactive strategy actually work within 6 weeks of implementing it. Why? Because at the end of the day, human emotion doesn’t follow any typical or predictable pattern you can trend forward. Do financial markets follow trends, yes. Your competition, yes. How people buy your product, yes. But what is going to piss off an employee royally, no. Who unexpectedly (yet joyfully) gets pregnant and decides to move 5 states away to be closer to family, no. Who’s gets diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer and must understandably take FMLA leave, no.
Also, if you are an HR team who doesn’t have, doesn’t want, or doesn’t know how to get strategic talent management information funneled to you before the rest of the company — then you better tie up those two Adidas (you know , the “other shoes” that dropped a month back) and start running after the problems.
Although i think it imperative HR does everything it can to assess trends to predict outcomes, we just have to do that in tandem with the shoe dropping. And guys, this is OK. Really, it is. It’s the gig. It’s what makes the job an adventure. So get this. I went to an executive leadership training at UNC-Chapel Hill where one of the professors had a unique definition of what strategy truly is. He said strategy isn’t what you plan to do — it is what you ACTUALLY do.
For instance, when someone asks you, “what is your strategy?” most will pull down a big spreadsheet or their Q3 goals or some such stuff and say “see, right here, halfway down page 1, this is our strategy”.
“So are you doing this now?”.
“No, not quite yet. We plan to do this soon”
Well then it is not your strategy. And before you beat up yourself or HR about being too reactive. Guess what? SO IS EVERYONE ELSE.
So what can you do to help be effective in a reactive job?
- Hire people that can think and react well. Yes, react. Well.
- Always know what your top priority is. Notice I said priority. Singular. That will be the one thing you will work on outside of all the items you will be reacting to.
- Buy technology that will help you simplify process and communicate quickly.
- Buy technology that will allow you to gather feedback and in real time and spit out some bite sized pieces of data to analyze in real time. You don’t need a CSV file with 20,000 rows. If you do get a CSV file with 20,000 lines, then take that data to finance, buy your Director of Finance a beer and ask her to walk you through the numbers. Finance will know that s**t quick.
- Demand time with senior leaders to understand corporate decisions before they are announced to all employees. I mean, ideally, you’ll be part of the decision making process. But if you aren’t, then you only need ONE thing from leaders. A heads up. That is all.
So, although a nicely packaged proactive strategy may be ideal, remember we didn’t get into this gig because it was a neat, clean and predictable job. And if you did get into HR because you wanted neat, clean and predictable, then I suggest you proactively begin a new job search.