Why CEOs Don't Want HR As Normal

By: MarkWeaver Wednesday August 29, 2012 comments

In the June 2012 issue of HR Magazine, a publication of the Society for Human Resources Management, there is an interesting article titled, “Accelerating Change at GM.”  It highlights Cynthia Brinkley, GM’s new VP of Global HR.  Cynthia is a seasoned executive, but not in HR; in fact, her prior HR career spanned a whopping two years.  So how did someone with very little HR experience and no experience at all in the automotive industry end up in the top HR spot at one of the largest employers during the most critical time in its history?

Cynthia’s first few weeks were not spent in traditional HR-focused tasks.  Instead, she went on the road, “trying to learn about the product life cycle and product development cycle.”  She asked, “What kinds of people do we need?  What kind of organization do we need?”  She continues to meet every other week or so with employee groups to find out what’s on their minds.  Wow!  She became a business partner… instantly!

Her direct reports say that she makes decisions quickly, and that they are still adjusting to her speed and urgency.  Cool!  She isn’t the HR bottleneck!

Cynthia has benchmarked her HR operation to compare effectiveness, structure, and staffing levels.  Wonderful!  She plays like a business owner!

She has created a training program for all managers that “pounds home new attitudes and values GM aspires to,” Incredible!  She is focusing everyone – especially managers – on culture and values.

Finally, she has a determined goal to make the entire GM workforce – including the HR department – more business-oriented, seeing winning in the marketplace as the only acceptable outcome.  So she has recreated tired HR programs like performance appraisal and compensation tying both to business results.  And that means she is focusing all employees on the strategies and vision of the new GM.

Some in the HR community have thrown out their opinion on whether an HR outsider can really do the top HR job, believing that this kind of job shouldn’t be “on-the-job learning.”  Some question whether her lack of knowledge and experience in basic HR disciplines will be a real disadvantage.  Oh really?

This may come as a surprise to HR professionals…  GM didn’t want an HR professional – or at least not one who did HR as normal.  They wanted an executive who understands business and who can drive the culture necessary to bring the needed change.  Unfortunately, HR isn’t viewed that way.  GM had seen HR as normal and didn’t want it.

I’ve known many successful business owners and CEOs who have had HR as normal and hated it.  One very successful Colorado-domiciled company also hired an HR outsider to be their top HR Exec.  Some in the Colorado HR community have also questioned that decision pointing out that the new exec doesn’t even understand exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Truth be known, this company doesn’t care that the exec is not an FLSA expert.  That’s not what they were looking for.  The CEO wanted someone who could build a culture that would take the company forward.  And that’s just what has happened.

HR will never get the credibility it wants until HR professionals:

  • Learn to drive change rather than being the change-resistant root guard;
  • Abandon the frustrated social worker – employee advocate mentality in recognition of the dual-advocacy role HR must function in;
  • Stop being the HR policy police and become consultative;
  • Curtail the use of the word, “No,” and instead ask “How.”
  • Divorce themselves from controlling behavior spurred by a view that they know best and instead learn to listen to what the managers and executives want and need and to what the employees in the trenches think.

The right HR professional can drive the kind of change that GM needs – and Cynthia Brinkley may just be that person.  She may end up serving as a role model for HR professionals who will “get it” rather than criticizing the decision to hire her and missing the point entirely.  The wrong HR professional is the antithesis of what HR should be.  We only have value where our organizations think we have value; not where we think we do.

About the Author: MarkWeaver


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