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Dragons That Can Burn Your Culture:
How HR Can Be Your Strategic Weapon

By Don Schmincke and Darryl McCormick

In many companies, Human Resources is utilized as a support department rather than a strategic resource. That is, the executive team expects the HR staff to work behind the scenes, creating policies and procedures and hiring and firing, rather then being in the forefront and driving change. In a complacent market this can work, but in a changing or competitive situation this breeds dangerous conditions which, if ignored, can impact today’s performance and risk tomorrow’s success.

Using HR as a strategic resource for your company’s future, however, allows your organization to reach goals faster and improve overall performance more effectively. For example, when CEOs partner with the HR team they can better determine how to improve employee morale, enhance customer satisfaction scores, or implement strategy organization-wide. Together, they can ask such questions as, “Are we hiring for the culture we want?” “What kind of employee base will trigger greater customer satisfaction?” “Do we have the leadership strength necessary to implement our plans successfully?”

But strategic questions like these are often missing. If this sounds like your organization, then HR may be the strategic weapon against the “Five Dragons” that can burn your company’s performance.

Dragon #1 - Hope: Are you just throwing consultants at the problem? Does your organization do so many things to improve performance yet accomplish so little? Many companies bring in a consultant for every problem they encounter hoping that this will fix everything. Not only does this waste a lot of money, but it also devalues your HR team. Very often, outsiders are not the miracle cure to your company’s woes. Rather, you need to first identify what the real problem is versus just the symptoms, and then make changes internally. HR is the key to doing this.

For example, one company thought they had a marketing problem when it ended up being poor sales training. Another was struggling with strategic planning when it was really their internal team issues preventing strategic thinking. What to do? Partner with your HR team to diagnose what the real underlying challenges are. Often you’ll find that the problem stems from your company’s culture of stopping progress or hiding the problem. Once the real problem is identified, you and your HR team can devise a plan to turn things around.  

Dragon #2 - Politeness: Is being “nice” more important than performing? Rather than reveal the truth about a situation, people will often seek to be polite and avoid the discomfort, anger, and unpleasantries. By burying the issue or keeping it within a closed group of confidants we hope it goes away. Instead, this Dragon ensures the issues “Drag-on.” In one organization the Division President was shocked that someone noted what people really thought in a meeting’s minutes. “What if someone reads this!” he said. Unfortunately, they didn’t need to read it; they already knew it. Everyone, that is, except the executive team.

When you slay this dragon you can move past the deceptions and verbalize the real issues. Yes, telling the truth will upset people and cause discomfort, but when you start being honest, you’ll see significant improvement. As you do this, look to HR to help get at the truth and filter honest dialogue into the organization so change can occur. Additionally, allow HR to help you make sure you have systems in place that enable people to tell the truth such as performance evaluations, feedback methods, and training systems that support the culture you want.

Dragon #3 - Dead Weight: Is what you’re holding onto dragging you down? This third Dragon prevents great people from assuming leadership. It also keeps mediocre performers on staff. Many companies have policies in place that actually prevent marginal performers from being let go. For example, a company may require five written warnings before someone can be terminated. Look at your policies and work with HR to create fair systems that enable you to effectively deal with the dead weight that stalls performance. Then, have HR train your managers on how to use the new policies. Too many times a manager will want to fire someone, but when HR checks the employee’s file, they find that the manager gave the employee stellar reviews. When asked why the manager did this, he or she often replies, “I didn’t want to hurt the employee’s feelings.” So HR needs to work with managers to change this culture. As an added benefit, once you start removing that dead weight, other employees will be happier. Great people want to work with great people, and to know that management notices what they contribute.

Dragon #4 - Phantom Leadership: Who are the real leaders your people follow? Many programs are stifled because the managers on the organizational chart are not the leaders the staff are following. That’s right…people are following the wrong leaders. The formal leadership declares an initiative but the phantom leadership is who the people really listen to. Therefore, you need to cultivate the right talent by having HR identify the real champions in the company—those people who can really lead. Realize that these champions do not have to be technically competent but should be able to inspire others to follow them towards where the organization wants to go. So allow HR to select those leaders and invest the time and money to train them with the appropriate leadership skills. If your company continues to follow the wrong leaders, you’ll go nowhere quick.

Dragon #5 – Ego: Does the evil spirit justify the status quo? This is the most dangerous Dragon. It ensures the others stay alive. It guarantees that decision-makers never see the problem or, if they do, it is successfully avoided. For thousands of years this has been the culprit that has collapsed the largest of companies. Why else would an executive ignore serious market shifts? Why else would a manger avoid the truth, or keep suppressing it? Why else would someone’s selfish agendas put a company at risk? This Dragon will sacrifice a company if it has to. Does HR have the CEO’s ear so they can safely convey critical issues? Using HR as a strategic resource allows the CEO to ensure this Dragon doesn’t start eating the organization guarantees the real issues are exposed.

Sharpen the Sword: To keep these Dragons at bay, HR as a strategic partner is essential. For many companies, however, HR is the missing element in any plan for change and improvement. But this begs a deeper question: Does HR have the skills, talent, and expertise necessary to fulfill a strategic role in the company? If so, you’re underutilizing a valuable asset for driving performance. If not, then how can HR develop or acquire these elements? Or does it want to?

In some cases the current HR staff is too overwhelmed with policy changes, hiring activities, benefits management, terminations, and other back-office demands to have time to assume a more strategic role. In others, the department may not want to change or will feel threatened by it. In either case, sharpening the sword by transforming HR into a strategic resource takes leadership and commitment. For many companies who now realize people are the greatest asset, this is an investment they cannot afford to ignore.

The Five Dragons breed quickly, and they’ve toppled even the largest of organizations. The more you develop and sharpen a strategic HR function which the CEO can partner with, the fewer you will have to kill. And the further and faster your company will grow profitably.

Read other articles and learn more about Don Schmincke and Darryl McCormick.

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