Planning for the New World: A Q&A with Mark Atkinson
13th January 2017 5 minutes read
Whether the result of internal or external pressures, there is no doubt that organisational redesign should be front of mind for charities. In order to stay relevant, it is not surprising that necessary changes across systems, delivery models, markets and mergers are a key focus in the ever-changing environment of the new-age voluntary sector.
Over recent years, we have seen many roles created to support these changes; some with greater clarity than others. The titles de jure focus around strategic performance, with requests for COOs, Strategy Directors, Director of Programmes and Transformation Directors landing on our desks each month. These new roles are going to be fundamental to success across many corporate strategies but in our experience, the HR function is seemingly not leading this shift in talent acquisition.
Whilst some changes will need specific technical expertise, at their core, most change programmes have a strong people focus; they do say that culture eats strategy for breakfast. We regularly see change programmes designed to drive the organisation’s fresh, high-impact strategy and vision but so often they fail to take into account the people involved and subsequently, go very wrong.
If people are such a key element, then why is the HR function rarely seen to be leading the charge? Or as one sector professional cited, at the very least “partnering more closely with the programme director owning the change initiative if it does not sit in HR”. From what we’re being told, too often HR and People teams are viewed as a transactional, back office function, there to play a support role at best and a barrier to work around at worst. If this is a substantiated reason, it seems unwise not to address it immediately. If it is a question of poor perception, the profession itself has some work to do because we firmly believe it is time to pay close attention to the position of HR.
As knowledge of the implications of change becomes more honed and economic climates become more volatile, it has become good business sense for HR to move into a central strategic role when dealing with sustainable and innovative job creation. This is, at least what we are see across the private sector and whether the voluntary sector is at the same point is certainly up for debate but whether it should be is not. There is undoubtedly huge potential for HR to impact on organisational redesign and operational but more is needed from the profession to realise this. From our research, in charities where the HR leader is playing a key strategic role, this is only the case where there has been a demonstration from HR as to how and why it is best positioned to make that meaningful impression.
To gain more insight into this breakdown, earlier this year Green Park conducted a series of interviews with senior HR professionals across the sector on how they view their profession and the role of HR now and in the future. The findings of this insight are summarised below.
Of all those interviewed, 80% had remits that transcended traditional HR. This is reflective of HR Directors who have demonstrated their ability to influence at the most strategic level, thus develop a broader span of control than one might expect from an A-typical HR Director. At the most senior levels of the most strategically focused charities, HR is now seen as only a part of a Director’s responsibilities, not the whole.
Outside of remits, this is also seen in the adaption of function job titles. While there has, in most cases, been a deliberate change through recognition of the increased responsibilities, 50% of the interviewees feel that ‘HR Director’ is now too narrow a pigeon hole. One senior HRD commented, “[the title HRD] creates a barrier for getting the external recognition for the strategic nature of the work you do within an organisation”. Of course, the very best succeed despite this, preferring to drive the change regardless of the title. However, shockingly 25% feel that the “HRD” title has become burdened with a stigma that can prevent their own career progress and make their capacity to influence more difficult than it needs to be.
Is title really the issue though? Director of People, Director of Strategy & People Management and Director of People and Performance certainly indicate greater breadth but this can be merely aesthetic. Surely it is down to the individual to demonstrate the behaviours of a senior strategic leader, regardless of title? To change perceptions, it seems imperative for HR professionals to step up, redefine their skills set and deliver the more strategic role demanded of a modern HR function in the sector, regardless of titles. As one source said, “a true partnering and influential HRD needs to be a leader of the organisation first and then the HR expert”.
If an organisation wants to maintain a more traditional HR function, that is at their jurisdiction. However, the broader remits being implemented by many organisations now are a clear indication of the evolution of that traditional HR post and of the organisation’s focus on how it will deliver people-centred change and transformation. A senior People Director mentioned, “there’s a need to be passionate about the cause in this most diverse of sectors. But we must make sure that passion is supported by commercial acumen” which further fortifies the requirement of HR taking a more business aligned position alongside the Financial Directors and Directors of Change and Transformation. It does appear that the most successful HR professionals, regardless of sector, have tended to hold broad roles encompassing operations, project management and, crucially, a seat at the table in strategic decision making.
These transactional skills are now becoming business as usual in HR departments across all sectors. It’s not enough to compete on the old parameters, the bar is being raised. Long gone are the days of human resources and personnel departments, as we look forward this function has one clear remit; delivering sustainable organisation design and development, strategy and change management. This means the talent of the future needs to be thinking more broadly, while head-hunters and our clients also shift the dial. Clients need to demand more for their money. Head-hunters have to challenge woolly thinking on what is really needed in change-focused HR roles, helping clients to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Fortunately, the sector is starting to adapt and change within itself. Clients are beginning to actively seek diverse candidates and more innovative skillsets across their senior teams, across all functions. But HR professionals must start being more proactive in assuming their seat at this critical table, rather than waiting to be asked. Change and transformation are two words in regular use across the sector right now and HR cannot afford to be left in dark around their strategic implementation.
We spoke to a cross section of HR leaders in the sector for this article and are keen to expand our research further. If you would be interested in a discussion on the subject, please do get in touch.