The HR Mindset That Wins Friends and Influences CEOs

January 15, 2016 | Benjamin Baran | HCI
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During a recent conversation I had with a senior executive, I brought up some of my efforts to promote strategic thinking and using data to guide decision-making among human resources (HR) professionals. She nodded in agreement, but then she interrupted.

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“You know, there’s one thing I hate about our HR department,” she said.“They think like gate keepers, when they should be thinking like service providers.”

She went on to describe how the HR department in her organization tends to always be about forcing compliance, hindering processes and creating administrative obstacles. It was almost, from her perspective, that the HR department was so focused on justifying its own existence that it had institutionalized a “gate-keeper” mindset. HR at this organization seems to be operating in a way that communicated to others outside of HR that:

  • You don’t know what we know.
  • You need us to get what you want.
  • You must follow our process.

This mindset is anathema to agility, which is the ability to sense and respond quickly to the needs around us.

Like my executive friend said, we need HR professionals to adopt the mindset of a service provider. (Of course, many do already, but clearly there’s room for improvement.)

A true “service-provider” mindset is one that prizes a focus on customers, both external and internal to the organization. For HR professionals, the customer is often internal: senior executives, hiring managers and, indeed, every current employee. External customers that interact with HR directly or indirectly include job candidates and any potential future employee.

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So how might an organization’s HR function adopt—or further enhance—a service mindset?

One area of research that applies here is the literature on “service climate,” which essentially refers to the degree to which employees think their managers and leaders expect, support and reward excellent customer service.

Frankly, top leaders must make service a priority. This means that top HR leaders, should, among other steps:

  • Talk about being servants to the rest of the organization
  • Publicize good examples of people demonstrating outstanding service to internal and external customers
  • Consider building customer service into performance feedback and review processes
  • Systematically assess the perceptions that other functions in the organization have of HR
  • Promote HR professionals who demonstrate outstanding customer service

Interestingly, research also suggests that HR functions that adopt this mindset may also drive better customer experiences for the organization’s external customers—particularly in service-related businesses. This can happen if HR, for example, helps set high standards for customer service, ensures adequate staffing, reinforces the message that customers are important and helps to ensure that tools and technology for customer service are in place for employees to use. (A quick Google Scholar search of Ben Schneider’s work on service climate will reveal a wealth of related research.)

The HR function does have compliance responsibilities, but enforcing standards does not have to be mutually exclusive with a service mindset. A service mindset is about both the “what” and the “how” of what people see as important. And regarding compliance, HR professionals who see themselves as educators and build healthy, service-oriented relationships with line managers will likely make much more progress than the “gate keepers.”

Leaders in HR and talent management have an increasingly relevant opportunity to be agile leaders, and developing a service mindset is one place to start. I’ll be joining other HR professionals at the 2016 Human Capital Summit in New Orleans, March 29-30. The theme of that conference is “Agile Talent Strategies for Managing Change and Shifting Priorities,” and I’d love to see you there. Click here for more about the conference.