Should “HR only” experience be enough?

In recent weeks I have met a lot of career-focused HR professionals in a range of contexts. The individuals involved have been at very different levels and points in their careers.

Without doubt I couldn’t have met a nicer bunch of people if I’d of tried. To a person they were open, enthusiastic and willing to learn. Most had passed the CIPD exams or were well down that path. For many that had been a hard slog and one that had required a lot of sacrifices. So no doubting the passion and commitment involved.

What they also all knew a lot about were the fundamentals of employment law and key employee relations processes such as grievances and discipline. Many were clearly expert in fields as diverse as recruitment training and reward. So why, against this positive background of commitment and competence did a recent survey report that only 27% of CEOs feel HR makes a difference?

A common complaint I encountered was about the general lack of promotion opportunities due to low turnover and de-layered and smaller HR functions. Somewhere between the £40 and £50K level there seems to be a growing “layer of clay” through which they find it difficult – if not impossible – to move. As a result, many of the people I met were looking for ways to gain an edge in a crowded and very competitive jobs market. That is how I came to be talking to them…

Chiumento has a clear advantage in this respect. Not only are we experts in career management but also in HR recruitment. This is something we will be leveraging even more in the future as we seek to develop a unique value added candidate proposition.

Out of all these discussions I distilled two themes. The first was all about influence. In particular the ability to win over line managers who were at best incredulous about the ability of HR to add real value. Articles coming in from the North America about companies considering scrapping their HR functions creating a real sense that HR was increasingly under fire.

What many seemed to be confusing was power and influence. “They don’t do what I tell them to” was one complaint. As a result I have slipped into a common mode of asking each HR candidate I meet the question “what is your elevator speech?” My Vistage Group place great emphasis on this and I am starting to understand why…

As an HR professional, those first few critical sentences you say to any new line manager you meet can have a lasting and powerful impact. What I heard almost inevitably ends up being a statement around “I’m an expert in…” followed by words that revolved around compliance and process.

For me, the relationship between line manager and HR Business Partner isn’t fundamentally that different to the one between a client and an external consultant. No, a line manager can’t as easily change supplier, but otherwise the building of the relationship – and the extent to which it is effective – depend on most of the same factors. Which suggests creating the right initial impression is absolutely critical.

With this in mind, David Maister’s excellent article on “How clients choose” should, to my mind, be compulsory reading on CIPD courses. He sums up exactly how clients make up their mind who to work with and who to trust. And it has little to do with expertise or process. After reading it or listening to the podcast you might seriously think about changing your elevator speech.

An interesting comment made to me recently was that no-one should be able to achieve Chartered Member status in CIPD until they have held at least one commercial job (eg in sales, operations, customer service etc) for a minimum of two years. The problem, ran the argument, was that too many HR professionals have never held a “proper job” and that is what compromises their commercial credibility. They went on to question how many HR professionals had experience of critical business activities like presenting to a bank to put a business case for funding or being part of a pitch team to win or retain a major client?

I’m still trying to work out my response. What would yours be?

Ian Gooden
Chief Executive

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