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Managing the Intangibles

Liz Ryan  -  Feb 12, 2012  -  No Comments

Dear Liz,

I’m a human resources manager in a mid-sized firm. I often feel pulled between policy writing and regulatory stuff, and other projects (just listening, or creating programs) to make the environment more uplifting and engaging.

My boss is an advocate for our employees, but several of the senior leaders are more interested in uniformity than innovation and culture. I’m in the middle.

What is my responsibility to both groups and how do I navigate between them?

Thanks,

Elise


Dear Elise,

What is an HR leader’s role? You could ask your boss, “Should I keep the employees happy, or be the disciplinarian and keep them in line?”

For me, an HR chief is someone who understands the business well enough (and understands people, culture and communication well enough) to create an organization where amazing people want to work.

The regulatory stuff is necessary but nowhere near sufficient. You have to do that stuff, but it can’t be your focus.

You’ll fill out EEO forms and teach people not to sexually harass one another. That goes without saying. Your CFO has a big regulatory task, too, but we don’t say, “Our CFO’s job is to keep the company out of court.” Your CFO’s job is to manage the short- and long-term financial health of the organization. That’s easy to understand.

Your job is to manage the short- and long-term organizational health, i.e. the human health, of the organization.

There’s nothing complicated about the HR mission. It doesn’t require you to choose between writing gotta-have-’em policies or creating a workplace where tremendous people want to be. The “defensive” tasks might deserve 15 percent of your time. The intangible, critical, cultural stuff is the real meat and potatoes of an HR leader’s job.

You’ll look after policies and break room posters and all that jazz, but you’ve got higher-impact work to do. Your CEO and executive team aren’t on the same page regarding your culture and practices. Great! There’s an opportunity for a fruitful (though potentially spicy) conversation, or an extended dialogue.

A big part of your job is to start cultural conversations when tensions arise, and to keep those conversations alive no matter what. An HR leader is doing her job when terms like “culture” and “talent” get airtime at every leadership staff meeting (and lots of other meetings) and when the health of the organization is as high a leadership priority as a new product’s expected ship date.

You could write policies all day long and benefit not one shareholder or customer. If you can get your industry’s most talented folks onto your payroll and keep them, you’ll have done wonders for the firm. Policy-writing and enforcement won’t get you there.

You’ll start by getting the leadership team singing the same cultural song. That’s an HR mission you can sink your teeth into. Don’t believe the Kool-Aid-soaked wheeze, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

The older you get, Elise, the more you’ll notice that the intangible stuff is the important stuff. Only people who can’t see what’s right in front of them would say, “Morale? Goodwill? Trust? We can’t measure those things. Better write another policy.”

Best,

Liz

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