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Understanding Your Company

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My husband was running an IT company in the 90s as a first time CEO. One of the interesting decisions he took was to move his HR manager to a field role as the Regional Manager heading sales and support operations in a region. I had seen line managers move to HR roles in companies like Wipro but this was the first time I had seen it happen the other way round. What a foolhardy move was my first reaction. How could an HR person manage a sales force, face customers and handle operations? It is not in their DNA! And why? Why risk pulling your revenues down and losing a good HR manager? My husband had a very convincing and interesting rational for his quirky move. He said he wanted an HR head who understood his business first hand. Someone who had been in the trenches and knew what the challenges were. Otherwise he felt that HR strategies would be driven by theory and would fail. 

Over the next decade as I watch the Indian economy evolve into a predominantly services economy I feel that there is an urgent need for this approach to become more of a norm and less of an anomaly. A services based economy rests on people especially knowledge workers. In such an economy the role that HR plays is often very different from a capital intensive production driven economy. Here the HR professional is expected to be a business partner working closely with the line managers. The organisation depends on them to plan, source, train and retain a high end talent pool with a pipeline of leaders. This is not just a "nice to have" differentiator but is often a "make or break" parameter for the Genx organisations. Why does an Accenture still command a premium pricing in the high end IT consulting business? It is the distinct quality of its people and the expertise it has built by leveraging such a workforce. And the pivot for building such an organization rests on HR. How does HR equip itself to play such a pivotal role effectively? Currently, we still follow the old model where we ‘train', educate HR executives in Labor institutes and Social Work Schools and land them straight into HR roles from Day 1. They are expected to rise through the ranks to reach the lofty position where they will be drawing up the people strategy for the company. This without ever spending a day in any role which would expose them to the real guts of the business. No wonder then that most CEOs prefer to move their best line managers to the strategic HR roles instead! So, we see a lot of movement especially at the top from operations to HR but very few instances of the reverse. 

This may also be because of the reluctance of HR professionals to move out of their comfort zone and get into frontline roles. And why take such risks when you can go up nevertheless? But the point which is missed is that as they move up the ladder their lack of hands-on experience is a real handicap which leads to most critical HR decisions being taken by the CEO himself. In a world where new generation companies like Google and Apple succeed purely on the strength of their innovation, HR folks are under tremendous pressure to deliver a workforce that is miles ahead of competition. This when they have to compete globally for talent! They have the difficult job of then keeping them motivated by giving them an environment that will enthuse their creativity. 

An HR professional who has had the chance to be one of them or has directly managed such a team instantly gets it and can quickly figure out what will make them tick. Is there any reason to hesitate then about the need for HR to not just wet their toes but to deep dive into the pool, when the stakes are so high? By the way the HR manager as the Regional Manager proved to be a great success in my husband's company proving once again that a good professional can do well in multiple roles. It is imperative that we give them that opportunity and not put them in silos with no escape route. This is no altruism but self-interest as great HR folks will not happen unless we give them the right exposure to business. Guess what? Facebook, the social networking site, has a VP(HR) whose last stint was with eBay as head of marketing, advertising, brand management and consumer promotions!

The writer is CEO, Global Executive Talent. She can be reached at [email protected]

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