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HR as Strategic Business Partner

   By Amanda Silliker

When Glenn Laverty was vice-president of marketing at Ricoh Canada from 1996 to 2007, he saw human resources as a functional role. He considered it the part of the organization he could turn to for support around performance management, hiring, terminating employees and anything of the sort, he said.

Now, as president and CEO of Ricoh since January 2008, he acknowledges he had a “pretty basic view” of HR back then.

“Once you transform into the role of CEO, you recognize what you have (in HR) isn’t the function but the role of a strategic partner to take a look at the organization from a people perspective,” said Laverty, who is based in Mississauga, Ont. “It really does open your mind to the potential and the possibilities that exist in the organization.”

Being a strategic business partner is one of the main expectations CEOs have of HR, according to Laverty, who spoke at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto in October.

At Ricoh, HR holds a prominent position at the executive table and acts as a strategic partner to each of the departments. Similar to other departments at the 2,100-employee company, such as sales and service, HR is expected to create its own strategic plan each year which should demonstrate it has been thinking outside-the-box, not just as a function, said Laverty.

“(HR’s plan outlines) what they’re going to do in the organization, how they’re going to prove a partner to the business, what they’re going to bring to the party in terms of enlightening or changing or challenging the leadership within the organization to move in the right direction as it relates to people,” he said.

But moving from a functional role to a strategic partner can be difficult for HR, said Anne Martin, president of 85-employee United Van Lines Canada in Mississauga, Ont., who also spoke at the event. It’s easy for HR professionals to get caught up in the administrative duties and it can be challenging to expand beyond that, she said.

“All the legislation is so tough to keep up with today, you need to make sure the pay is in there on Wednesday nights and those kinds of things, so it’s a challenge to be able to complete all the administration, do the recruitment, et cetera, and have time to sit down and be strategic,” said Martin.

Even though HR professionals have many different tasks to accomplish every day, they need to make time to sit back and think of the business in a broader fashion to help them become more strategic, said Laverty.

Another barrier is many departments view HR as a function, not a strategic partner, he said. To break through that mindset, HR needs to be present during strategic planning meetings with all departments.

“Pay attention, listen and be very involved in understanding what the other strategies are within the organization and then clueing in on what it is (HR) can do to help that business leader in accomplishing their goals,” said Laverty.

“And, let’s face it, there’s going to be opportunities in every department you can imagine because they are all filled with people.”

CEOs also want to be able to count on HR professionals to “keep up with everything,” said Martin. They should be constantly staying abreast of everything in the HR portfolio, from regulatory changes to talent management.

“What I want from HR is that wisdom, experience — they have to be lifelong learners,” said Martin. “I want that person to always be that learner so I feel I’m on the leading edge all the time and not getting caught behind.”

The head of HR should be a CEO’s trusted advisor who can help align business strategy with people management to move an organization into the future, she said.

“Whether you’re looking for someone who is a regulatory guru, keeping you and your employees safe, or it’s about all the changes to talent development in the future, she’s the first person I want to walk to,” said Martin. “It’s going to be about the people that are going to deliver our service into the next 50 years.”

Helping organizations move forward effectively is another expectation CEOs have of HR. With four generations in the workforce, HR is integral to preparing the CEO and department heads for how to properly manage talent to move the company forward, said Laverty.

HR also plays an important role in helping a business stay competitive.

“It has to be about finding the right talent, thinking about getting the right bottoms on the bus — that has to be the key because you have to have the brain trust to create those ideas of innovation,” said Martin.

HR should strive to maintain neutrality throughout the organization by not getting too friendly — the “kiss of death for HR,” she said. Becoming affiliated with any one department or area of the office can upset the key position of balance HR holds.

“If something is wrong with a staff member, the first person I would go to would be HR because that’s the person that’s going to provide me with all the regulation, the legal, the experience, the people side — all the different parts, but in balance,” said Martin. “The leader of the department having the challenge or of the other department where the combatant part is coming from are not the first people I would go to.”

And HR needs to work on prioritizing, said Laverty. As CEO, he has often been approached by members of the HR team with many different initiatives they are eager to take on, but they want to do them all at the same time.

“HR is just endless,” he said. “There are any given number of elements in their basket of goods they can delve into... but the reality is the burden on HR itself and the amount of change management required really is in direct conflict with trying to do too much all at the same time.”

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