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What Still Scares HR?

What Still Scares HR?

Recently I moderated a panel at an HR conference that went off the rails.

 The room was filled with skilled and passionate like-minded professionals trying to make a difference in organizations and the world in general. It was a fun and likeable group.


One panel topic was the introduction of new professional competencies. They were being rolled out to help experienced members stay on top of their game and guide development of those new to the field. It was a solid set of 14 competencies, well thought through and clearly defined.


I kicked off the discussion with two questions to each panelist:

“Which competency are you most comfortable with and excited to apply?”

 “And which competency scares you?”

 The response to the comfort competency was quite predictable. Most were confident and energized to apply their emotional intelligence, process expertise and change management practices in their organization or with their clients.

 What alarmed me was everyone cited the same “scary competency” driving for results. 

 Since this was a panel of relative newcomers to the profession, I quickly turned to the audience for advice on how to coach the panelists to get better at results. Not a hand went up to help. Silence. The conversation was dead on the tracks, as if I had mentioned the unmentionable.

 So now I was getting scared. A line leader sitting in on the session might remark that it was a room full of activity and process junkies, not true business leaders. A journalist might follow up with an article on how HR needs to be blown up.

 Even with all the progress we think we’ve made with such efforts at training return on investment, big data analytics and proclaiming to be business partners, could it be possible that in our heart-of-hearts, we in HR aren’t ready to sit at the big table of results?

 Now, let’s start by giving the panelists and the conference attendees the benefit of the doubt for a minute. There may be valid reasons for the reaction. 

 First, the work of HR and talent management is chiefly one of support. Akin to the old BASF commercials, we don’t make the results directly, we help put in things that help others get results. 

 Second, requests for our services are typically framed in terms that speak of activities rather than bottom-line business outcomes. Organizations reward our work if there is enjoyment, satisfaction and a bit of “wow.” We are rewarded for service vs. being held strictly accountable for results. 

 Third, most of our professional career experiences are staff and support roles and rarely ones where outcome measures are clear and business results are primary. We just aren’t good at it because we have not experienced much bottom-line, outcome-based accountability. 

Unfortunately, our formative years were spent learning that what matters most is when there is interest and happiness with our work, where we are seen as being helpful.

Finally, our historical track record points to attracting a talent base most interested in engagement and happiness. I recall another conference setting where there was a debate on to what degree talent professionals should be held accountable for business results vs. producing high-quality, talent-building activities. 

One skeptical “old-timer” remarked, “I am so exhausted just getting managers to do the right talent work. Now you are asking me to deliver business results on top of that?  That’s impossible!”

Yes, old-timer and panelists, today our organizations are asking for us to step up to be accountable for meaningful results and not just satisfying activities. All the rationale about the difficulty linking our work to outcomes, unproductive requests, inadequate preparation and personal interests are excuses.  

I believe if we are ever going to shake the rap of not being relevant to business outcomes, we need to start with a firm mindset commitment of results-first and our satisfying activities second.

So here’s a question: Imagine you are at that HR conference. The panel session is finished and you need to choose one of two breakout sessions to attend next. Room A about the latest tools and trends in the field. Room B is about driving better business results. 

What do you choose?

(c.) Kevin D. Wilde 2015

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