Worrying about our credibility can be a bit of an HR obsession. We worry that we still haven’t got that seat on the Board. We worry that our opinions aren’t listened to. We worry that we’re perceived as purely transactional. We worry that we aren’t taken seriously as Finance. We worry that we worry too much.
Is our professional anxiety misplaced? Probably not. We have huge and difficult plans to deliver and without a strong credibility underpin, our efforts will almost certainly flounder. So, if our anxiety is justified, why haven’t many of us managed to close the credibility gap yet? Maybe it’s because we’ve been trying too hard at the wrong things? In this blog I wanted to look at five things we’ve tried that haven’t worked and five approaches that really can help build the credibility we need to make an impact.
First up are the ones that tend not to work.
I meet plenty of HR people who have all the qualities that we were told would make us credible in the eyes of our leaders; smart people who ‘get’ the business they’re in, who are good at building relationships and who know their HR stuff. That gets us the job, but it isn’t necessarily going to be enough to persuade the Board to make the changes we’re advocating. If we’re going to get people to lead, manage and engage differently, then just being competent isn’t going to cut it.
Trying to get on the Board
We are still fretting about our positional power but, obsessing about getting a seat on the Board isn’t going to increase our credibility. If they’re not asking us to join, we shouldn’t keep going on about it. I’ve been on Boards and I’ve not been on Boards and can honestly say, it didn’t make much difference to my level of influence. One of the most powerful colleagues I’ve ever worked with – a Communications Director – didn’t have a Board role. It didn’t bother him in the slightest because he was smart enough to know his ability to influence at the top was all about what went on outside of the meetings, not during the formal monthly session. We make things worse for ourselves if we seem needy and naïve.
Letters after our names
We wrongly assume that our business leaders will be inclined to listen to us because we’re HR professionals and therefore must know more than they do about people. I’ve worked alongside senior engineers, lawyers, journalists, software developers and accountants. The only ‘profession’ they cared about was the one they were in. For them, the HR Profession isn’t a ‘thing’ and trying to establish the credibility of a profession that isn’t recognised as one will fall flat. The only people who care about whether we have a string of letters from our professional body after our name are other people with the same letters. Getting our HR fellowships, diplomas, masters, etc doesn’t sadly give us any additional credibility. What matters to our leaders is whether we share their passion for what they do and are focused on enabling them to do it.
Poor Man’s Finance
For years we’ve looked enviously at the Finance Director’s seemingly effortless ability to influence. The answer to achieving credibility equality appeared to lie in our ability to emulate their approach. So, we talked about ROI, we benchmarked, we produced data and analytics, we tried to see our employees as assets – all so we could impress the way Finance did. But we deal in people not numbers. Wonderful, messy, incredible, frustrating people – who don’t react like assets and who don’t conform to numerical formulas. Instead of trying to mimic Finance, we should embrace our role as the people experts. We can build credibility by knowing more about how to change perceptions, how to communicate with impact, how to use behavioural economics in the workplace to change behaviours. If we are going to copy anybody’s approach, we could learn so much from the masters of influence – advertising execs and brand marketing – and apply their consumer practices to our employees.
Every profession develops its own language and of course we’re no different. Believing that more impressive sounding terminology will help our credibility is misguided. Using language that doesn’t make sense to our customers, that confuses and alienates, doesn’t make us seem more important, it can have the opposite effect. ‘Talent acquisition strategies’, ‘human capital’, “PDR’s”, ‘HR Transformation’, and so forth – let’s have the confidence to use language that makes sense. Calling ourselves Business Partners doesn’t make us into them.
Now for five credibility boosters.
Give it away
Much of our approach in HR comes from a desire to protect – the organisation, from rogue employees, or our employees, from poor line managers. As a result, we adopt a parental role that either sees us taking on the job of compliance officer to make sure employees and line managers are kept in check, or nursemaid where we do the ‘difficult’ stuff for managers. Some of us hate this parenting but can’t see a way out, and some of us enjoy it because it makes us feel needed. Either way, whilst we cling onto our parental role – even if managers are grateful – it stifles our ability to move the business forward. To build our credibility as a team that can create change, that can create the right conditions for growth and innovation, we have to give it up. We have to give away the apparent power of the compliance officer and build our credibility as an enabler through treating them as adults, building their capabilities and enabling them to use their judgement.
No more 1980’s processes
As a child of the 1980’s, it horrifies me that this era that I remember so well is now seen on hit TV shows like ‘Stranger Things’ as a period piece! Sadly, in HR, the 1980’s is very much alive. If we are going to build credibility as a function who is not just keeping pace with the business, but is leading the way, we can’t keep pedalling archaic processes. Our annual performance reviews, our cumbersome engagement surveys, our 9 Box Grids, our Hi-Po programmes, our leadership competency frameworks and programmes. These are tired and ineffective processes that have long-passed their sell-by dates. How can we be credible if we’re not developing new, innovative approaches that reflect the new ways of working? Getting rid of ratings and moving to frequent check-ins. Pulse surveys using great new mobile apps. Career conversations and regular talent talks at team meetings. Curated online learning at a time and through a medium to suit different needs. We can’t keep saying the world around us is changing but keep on delivering HR in the same way.
Less is More
When I get asked to speak at companies’ HR conferences, I am often privy to their strategic plans. Three to five-year strategies with numerous workstreams. I think we often try to build our credibility by creating these daunting documents to prove how busy we are and how much we plan to achieve. I’m not sure this does impress. What might impress more is planning on doing less and focusing on delivering a few things fast. When you look at Apple’s approach to product development, they review on-going projects every Monday without fail. The reason they can do this is because they have so few on the go at any one time. What if we focused hard on a few HR products and had a relentless focus on their successful development? Wouldn’t this ‘product sprint’ approach build our credibility more than a three-year plan of half-finished ideas?
There’s a fad at the moment for leaders to share their favourite books. It shows how well-read they are and well-informed but it also tells us how curious they are. When you look at, say, Bill Gates’ recommended book lists you get an impression of someone who is addicted to learning more – not about computer programming – but about history, science, philosophy, the arts – a rich smorgasbord of ideas. The most influential people I’ve worked with were not just experts in their own field but were interesting people in their own right. They were better connected with a whole range of different people, they were able to draw upon data, insights and stories from a range of books, articles and newspapers outside of their own subject matter. We are unlikely to find the key to enhancing our credibility at an HR Summit. Better that we look further afield and learn from marketing, product developers, psychologists, economists and well, just about anyone other than people who are just like us!
It’s tough to acknowledge that we may have got it wrong. I’ve been guilty of defending HR approaches that were clearly not working because either the accepted wisdom told me that they should or because I worried that by admitting that I had got it wrong would damage my credibility. But actually, it had the opposite effect. Whilst defending processes about which I had my doubts sounded disingenuous, showing humility and acknowledging that I’d got it wrong really helped to build trust and enabled them to hear what I’d got to say. It also gave me the opportunity to present the new insights I’d developed and to start engaging them with new ideas.
Our preoccupation with credibility is natural for a function who has received as much bad press as we have. Being a credible, authoritative voice who commands respect and who can influence the big decisions is of course vital if we’re going to have the impact we want. But we need to stop believing that it comes from making ourselves seem more impressive or more qualified. I think we can build greater credibility by re-thinking our role, doing less – really well, letting go of our old ideas and getting braver and more creative. I’d love to hear what you think.
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As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer messy solutions to the challenges we face. In this blog we explore what 'messy' HR looks like in practice.