In my time at McLean & Company I’ve had the opportunity to work with many HR leaders to create an overarching talent (HR/People/etc.) strategy and have learned many practices and tricks that can make it more likely that a strategy will become reality.
A good strategy is realistic in its scope, and this can be one of the hardest things to do. HR leaders need to be realistic about the capacity of their team and the number of strategic projects they’re able to take on. A small number of objectives that are closely linked to organizational strategic objectives will be far more impactful than a large variety of projects and initiatives – no matter how well intentioned! Questioning existing or planned projects and comparing their impact on the organization is a crucial part of any strategic planning process.
A good strategy also assigns accountability, so each project or objective has a defined owner. Some HR departments go further to create implementation roadmaps, so the project owners know how their project is broken down and when they are accountable to deliver the various parts. As we’ll discuss later, any Gantt chart will need to be changed as it faces reality, but high-level milestones and timelines are still an important accountability tool.
Even with that, at some point the strategic plan is completed, signed off on, and it is time to turn good ideas into good results. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
Empower and listen to your people
Strategies need people to execute them, and most HR employees wouldn’t have necessarily played a role in creating the strategy. One study found that an astonishing 76% of executives thought that lack of employee interaction (in both the creation and execution of strategies) was the biggest barrier to executing strategy. As with all strategies, HR leaders need to take the time to talk with their teams about why a new strategy was required, different options that were considered, and why certain choices were made. Communication isn’t just talking, however, and leaders need to ensure they are listening to the response of employees – sometimes they see things senior leaders don’t. Strategy is change, so two-way communication is vital – our EXM tool offers a great way to solicit feedback from team members on any range of topics, but it can be helpful for giving a voice to employees who may harbor concerns and don’t feel empowered to speak up.
Identify and emphasize cross-functional collaboration
While assigning a single individual as accountable for a strategic project is still a best practice, part of that individual’s accountability is ensuring there is cross-functional (both external and internal to HR) support for the project. A study on the success of strategy execution found that failure to coordinate across units was one of the biggest challenges with strategic execution, and only 9% of the respondents felt they could rely on colleagues in other functions (compared to 84% who felt they could rely on their own team). While collaboration with functions outside of HR is important and often a challenge, one of the key findings from our 2020 HR Trends Report was that the top characteristic of high-performing HR groups was the ability to work together as a team. Most strategic HR initiatives span functions within HR (for example, involving Total Rewards and Talent Management) and this internal collaboration is fully in control of the HR group.
We all know circumstances change (global pandemic, anyone?) and all strategies will need to be updated to reflect new realities. Following on the heels of cross-functional collaboration, being able to rapidly reallocate resources to new or heightened strategic priorities is a key characteristic of successful organizations and the same is true for HR. As priorities change, the best HR groups not only adjust their strategies, but also adjust their resourcing. Unstated in this advice is the ability to deprioritize, or stop, any initiative that is no longer a priority. In practice, any number of human biases and heuristics (e.g. the endowment effect, loss aversion, or the sunk cost fallacy) make this a challenge, so it is incumbent on senior leaders to ensure they have time to step back and reflect, not only on what new things they should be doing, but also on the things that no longer need to be done.
In some cases, HR departments encounter a reality that there are certain things that need to be done to ensure the organization is successful and they may not have the structure or skillsets within the team to achieve those goals. Many HR departments have looked to be better business partners by elevating career HR generalists to the role of a strategic business partner. While some individuals can make this switch, it often backfires as they fall back on their old habits and essentially perform their traditional tasks with a new title. Reorganization, upskilling, and an honest assessment of HR capabilities will ensure that HR departments are ready to succeed.
In working with many different HR departments, one key difference that has always stood out between the most effective and the rest is the ability to get things done. This isn’t some magical ability but a combination of sound strategic planning, empowerment, cross-functional collaboration, flexibility, and when required, embracing change.
Andrianova, S., Dana Maor, and Bill Schaninger. “Winning with your talent-management strategy.” McKinsey & Company, August 2018. Accessed March 2021.
Reynolds, Alison, and Lewis, David. “Closing the Strategy-Execution Gap Means Focusing on what Employees Think, Not What they Do.” Harvard Business Review, 30 Oct. 2017. Accessed March 2021.
Sull, Donald, et al., “Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About It.” Harvard Business Review, March 2015. Accessed March 2021.