Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Fine Art of Building and Leading an Organization: CPOs, CEOs (and CXOs) as Mindful and Thoughtful Gurus

The Human Resources (HR) Professional, whether he or she is an executive or a leader, is a critical person in organization building. If the competitive advantage of an organization is derived from its people, the Human Resources department, and its constituent professionals are a critical enabler of the competitive advantage of the firm. This is not to paper over the direct contributions of various line and staff functions such as Research & Development, Manufacturing, Supply Chain, Sales & Marketing, Quality & Regulatory, Safety, Health & Environment, Business Planning & Development, Information Technology, Finance and Secretarial & Compliance (and several other functions and sub-functions) to the competitive advantage. While each of the functions tends to be domain-specific with reference to the people function, only HR plays an all-encompassing role in organization development, across all domains.

HR domain itself has evolved, substantially over the years, from being a mere Personnel and Administration department to becoming today’s Human Resources department that is considered more a business partner. In keeping with this evolution, heads of HR are now a part of the C Suite, with impressive titling, for example Chief people Officer (CPO) or Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO). At the same time, there has also been a realization within the line and staff functional leaders that people management is one of their key responsibilities too. Of the commonly held HR responsibilities such as Recruitment, Training & Development, Performance Management, Compensation Administration, and Organization Design & Development, line and staff functions are taking an increasingly shared responsibility with the HR function. This trend is accentuated with scale as well as decentralization, whether at business or site level. This has led to lack of clarity on decision rights and responsibilities, with conflicts as well. 

Paradoxes abound

A major facet of a true HR professional is one of managing paradoxes skilfully. Like the CEO of a firm who has such paradoxical imperatives (for example, building businesses and closing businesses simultaneously), the CPO too faces some challenging paradoxes. First and foremost, one of the key aspects of HR is organizational culture, which can only be felt and experienced, and not metricised and measured. Second, HR is required to touch the heart but most of the financial decisions of business are made by the head. Third, organization is expected to precede other infrastructure which, in turn, must precede business but HR is usually brought into play late in new businesses, mergers and acquisitions. Fourth, HR is required to promote transparency but is often faced with situations where it cannot disclose or receive information on developments freely. Fifth, while factors such as workplace ambience, title weight, job security etc., are supposed to be hygiene factors, they tend to demand disproportionate attention and time too.

More than the above five, HR has to grapple with the challenge of developing talent to the maximum extent possible from within (without sub-optimised performance that inbreeding could cause) while also bringing in the leading-edge industry talent (without causing disharmony and disaffection). There is a clear need for HR to be the ‘best of the best’ domains in an organization, and emerge as a role model. This has to be accomplished in the face of a rather truncated view that could exist, within HR and outside, that HR’s role is to find and recruit people, fix and review salaries, identify and solve relational problems, train and develop people (usually on shoestring budgets). This has also to be accomplished without a large HR team, as often HR, like any other corporate team, is seen to be a cost to be catered to than as a value to be welcomed. The final challenge is that being a part of the C Suite, and close to the CEO, but still not a part of the direct business delivery value chain, HR gets to be drawn into top level organizational dynamics, including succession planning at the senior levels, with their own political and emotional challenges.   

Managing paradoxes

There are no set methods to manage paradoxes but by doing a few things right, the CPO and the HR function can achieve and maintain a stature of authentic leadership for themselves that would make paradox management easy and harmonious. These are as follows.

Employee as customer

As discussed initially, a fundamental task of HR is to recruit and induct people. Usually, HR is the first interface that a prospective candidate has with the organization; likewise HR is the lens through which the organization can see and feel the outside world. Mahatma Gandhi held customer as being the very reason for a company’s existence. Likewise, an employee is as valuable to the organization as a customer is to business. HR leaders and executives should treat every prospective candidate with utmost care, respect and objectivity. Not only would this be a dutiful activity but would lay the foundation for an extremely positive of view of the company by the candidates, and eventually by the employees. This approach must be a part of the DNA of HR, continuing with individual employees and the teams.

Business as process

Typically, HR processes are considered unique to HR domain just as quality processes are to the Quality department and production processes to Manufacturing, and so on. The relevant fact is that unless HR is well educated on the business value chain it would not be able to understand the real talent requirements and select the right talent. Effective recruitment is more than creation of slick job specifications; it requires a feel for the value chain. All HR executives must make it a point to spend time in R&D laboratories, plants and marketplace to understand the products, processes of manufacture and delivery, and the customer needs. While line executives take primary responsibility in the respective domains, a business savvy HR executive can be an exceptionally effective business partner.

Learning as development

Most companies provide several training and development opportunities. Irrespective of the industry, the current expectation is for superior skill levels backed by compliance to standard operating procedures. This alone would ensure high quality and support global standards. Most programmes, however, look at learning as a standalone objective of the programmes with development taking place as a follow-on activity on the job. The paradigm needs to be reversed in that actual on-the-job experiences and expectations must lead to learning programmes which must be evaluated immediately for their delivery on development. Also, rather than deploy generic canned programmes, the internal trainers must learn about the business and business processes, and develop firm-specific and business-specific content.  

Performance as journey

In an earlier blog post, the author has brought out the deficiencies of performance management as is commonly practiced in organizations. Reference may be made to “Vaunted Bell Curve: Wanted Culture Verve?”, Strategy Musings, April 20, 2016 ( Performance of employees is not to be measured, as an event outcome; it should not also be straightjacketed as an annual review. Performance review needs to be a continuous journey wherein supervisors and employees collaboratively discuss how to maximize performance of teams and the firm. It should not be judgemental and condescending on individual employees, teams and managers, without an appreciation of the total business and operational context. This requires the HR professional to partner the business leaders in their operational performance as well as business development.

Recognitions as rewards

The outcome of a performance review process invariably tends to be universal merit increases, and selective promotions. These certainly play a very important role in the employees feeling rewarded for their work and to be hopeful of career growth. These, however, are not real recognitions in the complete sense; more so in organizations which seek to keep such matters confidential. In organizations, the process of dispensation of such rewards, whether generous or frugal, tends to be a major source of grape-wine gossip, fuelled by an embarrassed non-disclosure.  While these kinks cannot be avoided, an objective HR system should be so convinced of its objectivity that it does not point to extraneous triggers or constraints as the causes for missed expectations. A paradigm in which open recognition of achievements in team meetings (without monetary rewards in such events) could nurture a more authentic, recognition climate. At the same time, HR must have the power to design an explicit linkage between business performance and team rewards.

Organization as ecosystem

A true HR professional helps in making an organization a lively and vibrant ecosystem. This is a concept greater than teamwork or team rewards, although team interactions are superior to individual relationships. An ecosystem is a habitat in which life thrives naturally. Organizations are synthetic creations to meet business ends but involving people competencies and emotions. Being a team, department, business etc., goes only half-way in creating a nurturing environment. The other half is made up by people feeling wanted, aligned, and achieving, with a fair balance between professional work and personal life. There must be enough adrenalin in people to achieve competitiveness but there must also be enough mindfulness amongst them not to be overly cluttered and stressed. Creation of an organizational ecosystem that nurtures creativity, innovation, competence and accomplishment in a mindful manner is the ultimate art for the HR leader.

HR leader as a Guru

The above has served to lay out the sterling qualities a HR leader must possess to nurture an ecosystem of positive culture rather than an organization of just material goals and transactional processes. To be able to lead the HR function, and also guide the CEO in such path, the HR leader has to be more of a mindful, thoughtful and reflective person than a leader of systems and processes. Whether a HR leader does that by himself/herself or seeks the help of gurus of business spirituality (for example, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev) is a matter of choice. Not every organization can afford a Jaggi Vasudev; nor can one Jaggi Vasudev serve the needs of the several thousands of organizations needing such guidance. The choice, therefore, is obvious! The CPOs and the CEOs (ideally, all the CXOs) themselves must embark on a personal journey of transformation to be mindful, introspective, thoughtful and reflective in whatever they say and do in order to be able to facilitate such positive practices in the broader organization development.

This is easier said than done. Human beings are genetically wired and behaviourally conditioned to be judgemental. As one attains higher positions in organizations, the tendency to be judgemental only increases. Many of the HR practices such as selection and recruitment, appraisal and compensation, training and development, and so on are prone to judgement. As leaders facing increasing clutter in their professional life but are expected to take quicker decisions, being judgemental (several times with beaming righteousness) becomes both fallacious and stressful. Mindfulness as a practice involving conscious slowing down and meditated self-introspection can declutter and destress one’s mind, reduce stressfulness, enhance cognitive abilities and improve judgemental capabilities. The CPO of an organization has a particularly challenging responsibility in initiating the mindfulness movement in an organization as he is expected to mediate and harmonize three important and complex behaviours: human emotional behaviour, organizational group behaviour and corporate business behaviour. The effort for embedding mindful leadership is certainly worth the competitive advantage and sustainable success it would bring to organizations.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on April 27, 2016

Author’s Note:

This blog post is inspired by the author’s observation of, and association with, Ken Meyers, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of Hospira, Inc (now, a Pfizer Company) between 2010 and 2015. Ken is currently SVP and CHRO of Hill-Rom Holdings, Inc. Ken has been a passionate advocate of mindfulness and reflection as critical enablers of effective leadership.    


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