HR is not the enemy – and here’s how to make it your ally

How comfortable are managers with their HR skills? A simple, but valuable, proxy for an answer is the number of results for books matching the keyword “human resources” on Amazon: 209,344.

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One of the challenges faced in writing about management is that it can be difficult to differentiate between what might seem like platitudes and genuine advice. For example in terms of managing one’s human resources the idea of succession planning seems like a great idea, but what does it actually mean? It is like advising a sick person to just get better. Great advice, but useless in terms of actionable information.

How comfortable are managers with their HR skills? A simple, but valuable, proxy for an answer is the number of results for books matching the keyword “human resources” on Amazon: 209,344. Assuming a lack of authors and publishers with a fetish for publishing human resources books in the absence of any demand, it would appear that managers have an unslaked thirst for solutions to their HR challenges. So how to solve this epidemic? Perhaps the answer lies not so much in generating new concepts or recycling old concepts but in explaining in better detail well established concepts.

The first pillar for successfully managing one's human resources is the human resources department (HRD). A common trap is for managers to view their relationship with the HRD as adversarial. This view is so prevalent that it has become taken for granted and reflected in popular media such as Dilbert, a comic strip syndicated in 2,000 newspapers across 70 countries worldwide that portrays the head of HR as an evil cat. The truth is that HR employees are just as hard working and no less decent than anyone else in the company. If there are issues, they are usually with the policies and procedures that are driven by senior management, not HR. There is therefore nothing to be gained in having an adversarial relationship with HR. There is however quite possibly much to gain in having a healthy relationship with the HRD.

So how might a manager extract value from HR? One concept that needs to be learnt is that resources, be they human or otherwise, are not managed as an afterthought. It would not be too far fetched to equate asking HR to provide three midlevel managers within a month to asking engineering to build a new product in 30 days. It will not happen, or at least it will not end well. Managers need to have better handles on their business plans, agree with HR what their required lead time is and work to those constraints rather than rage at HR’s incorrectly perceived incompetence. This is just one dimension of the manager-HRD relationship and the idea is to proactively keep building an effective relationship across the other dimensions.

Another area that crops up in books, forums and training is succession planning. One failure here is in interpreting succession planning in too narrow a sense: identifying and training an internal candidate to replace another employee. This interpretation misses the value creation that comes with a more expanded view of succession planning: identifying potential leaders and providing them with the training, mentoring and experience to fulfil their potential. Such a simple misclassification of succession planning can strip a company of its most valuable employees as they leave for more nurturing employers.

Another misunderstanding of succession planning is the mistaken belief by some managers that it leads to their obsolescence and eventual replacement. That argument is flawed as it is only valid in the case that a manager is not suitable for his job. More importantly it is unethical, as such a manager is harming the company that he is working for in an attempt to protect his job. Rather than focus on the negatives, here is an important positive: if a manager is working in a successful and growing company, then he is not creating replacements but is instead creating proteges who will go on to launch new business lines and become senior executives in new companies.

Of the remaining HR issues, one that perhaps has been a special challenge in the region is delegating authority. With the exception of boards completely abrogating their responsibilities and handing complete control of the company to the CEO, businesses are usually faced with managers who do not delegate enough authority to their employees. There is no clear reason why this is so. It might be confusion that holding onto authority imbues power, an idea debunked by psychology showing that those who hoard power are actually weak and that it takes strength to delegate. Or it could be a lack of a framework to use in delegating authority. Since the main issue here is about managing risk, the various possible decisions an employee might take can be categorised into relatively low impact decisions which can be delegated, medium impact decisions which can be delegated with a timely update to the manager and high impact decisions which need manager approval. Once codified, the whole process becomes quite efficient.

In the end the most telling sign of a managers success in managing his human resources is not how well he does, but how successful his employees become.

Sabah Al Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader, with a track record of financing, building and growing companies in the Mena region.

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