Ergo Cartenga Delenda Est, Part 2: Becoming a Strategic Business Partner

[Author’s note: Last week, a reader informed me that my translation of “Carthage” into Latin in my article two week’s ago was in error. I originally went to a knowledgeable friend to verify that my high-school-level Latin translation was correct. Next time I will get a smarter Jesuit. Take a hike, Father!] The issue in Part 1 of this article series was how the staffing/HR profession got to where it is today and why it is not such a nice place to be. This week, the issue is how to get out of here. The first and most important consideration is: Think small! That’s right, think small. In HR/staffing, whenever we hear the words “strategic” and “change” we start to salivate, as we dream about new budgets, training seminars, off-site meetings (with lunch included), milestones, access databases to track information, color-coded bar graphs, project planning, program managers, team T-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, and all the other paraphernalia we need to make sure everyone knows what an important and meaningful task it is we are involved in. Success ends up being secondary to the illusion of being very busy and very, very important (well, self-important anyway). We tend to over-think and over-engineer issues. We like making a space shuttle where a mini-van would have sufficed. So in an issue involving change you first must consider the legacy (of our own making) that you are competing against in your efforts to be perceived as a valuable component of the business plan and not just a service provider. And the legacy of human resources is often not all that compelling to your prospective business partners. It makes it difficult for them to take you seriously as a contender for a peer position of mutual respect and responsibility. Truthfully, many HR/staffing organizations do not go out of their way to breed confidence. Many managers may have been trained and mentored by managers who grew up in the “good ole days” of “Personnel” and who have handed down their own career long doubts, prejudices, antidotes, and disappointments with HR/staffing as part of their ingraining and mentoring. Your organization may be better than most, but your management team might be populated with managers from other companies with different histories. In addition, there is the HR/staffing stereotype, which lingers over all of us, deserved or not. (Question: How many HR/staffing professionals does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: I’m sorry, do you have an appointment?) No matter how complex and all-inclusive the plan you develop is, if the intended audience is not listening to you then you have already failed on “day one” of your project plan. It becomes just another opportunity to promise the world and only manage to deliver Rhode Island (no offense to my friends in Providence, but small jokes are the legacy of that state). To succeed in building a strategic business partnership, you must build up to it. And in doing this, never forget the KISS rule ó Keep It Simple Stupid. In business school they taught the principle of simplicity in planning through the following story (which, if not true, certainly should be): Auto manufacturers would shut down for one or two months a year to re-tool the assembly line for the next year’s model car. Two weeks before re-opening they would run a “test line” to ensure the line worked properly. This particular year there were issues at one point in the line that had not been foreseen. Assembly took three times longer than planned and the whole process was disrupted. But the plant had to re-open in one week. In a panic, senior management offered the plant engineers a bonus of $5,000 to come up with a solution by the end of the day that would resolve the problem and could be implemented successfully in less than seven days. In the late 1930s, $5,000 was more than a year’s salary for a degreed engineer, so the enthusiasm and competition was intense. The five engineers went down to the plant floor and watched the assembly process, used stop watches, made notes on clip boards, used tape measures to determine distances, and studied blueprints of the building’s layout for possible demolitions, additions, or alterations. Four of the engineers worked diligently until the last minute developing schemes that included using hydraulic lifts and turning arms, bowing the assembly line at one point to increase the distance to be covered and consequently the time to complete this part of the assembly, adding areas to the plant, developing a two-tier assembly line, slowing down production line speed, and redesigning the automobile that the plant was already re-tooled to build. All the ideas were expensive and time consuming, and it was questionable as to whether or not they would completely, or even partially, resolve the problem. After returning from the factory floor, the fifth engineer went into his office for two minutes and then went to lunch. Before leaving, he handed in his solution, a one-page memo with one sentence: “Only use left-handed or ambidextrous assemblers at this point on the line.” He solved the problem. He won the money! The problem was complex, but that didn’t mean the solution had to be. It merely had to solve the problem. A minor point of semantics, perhaps, but an important one nevertheless. He observed the problem with the intent of fixing it, not with the intent of constructing a solution. The first steps to becoming a strategic business partner are, therefore, simple. They involve:

  • Presence
  • Shared Knowledge
  • Creativity
  • Impact
  • Shared Respect

Presence Presence is more than a function of physical location, although that is an important factor. Many HR/staffing groups that have left the back office corner hang on to the “cave dweller” mindset. They only come out to fulfill an HR/staffing mission, and then return to a whirlwind day of reading and revamping obscure policy and procedure manuals. But it is important that you remain connected and current within your chosen profession, but not at the cost of totally excluding all aspects of professional development.

  • Attend all your business partners meetings. Not just those with a specific HR/staffing issue on the agenda.
  • Stay for the entire meeting. Do not ask to “go first” so you can get back to your important work.
  • Contribute on matters where you have knowledge, even if it is not HR/staffing specific, surprise your peers with another dimension.
  • Attend off-site events such as networking and professional development meetings, training seminars, trade shows, and other industry-focused events that your peers are involved in. Participate in the planning and support whenever appropriate.
  • Invite your business partners to attend your events and training activities.
  • Ask them in on vendor meetings you are conducting, both for their input and to have their questions resolved.
  • Remember that presence in also performance. To be perceived as busy, be busy and look busy.
  • Do not rely solely on email, voicemail, and inter-office mail. Be personal; get out of your office and go to people. Be seen as busy and committed.
  • Always have a purpose in your “wanderings.” Carry a folder of open items and use every opportunity to bring up new relevant business or close old items.

Sharing Knowledge Sharing knowledge is a critical component in developing mutual respect and a sense of partnership. After all, you may be afraid of the unknown, but you will never respect it.

  • Read business articles and professional journals pertaining to your specific industry or business skills of the team with which you work. Get out of the habit of saying “teams I support.” You work with them. You are a partner.
  • Share your areas of expertise. Explain, do not merely “tell.” Validate the reason the knowledge is important from your partners’ business specific. Finance may want more information if they are given cost facts. Marketing may be enticed by information about sources and resources. Development may be curious as to the architecture of the tools you use.
  • Ask questions at meetings and respond to open inquiries if you have relevant data.

Creativity Creativity is key to dispelling the idea that HR/staffing has but one role and one service to offer. Here are a few examples from my own experiences:

  • I developed a marketing research team at one client that used the various resume resources we had to develop files on our competitors and prospects. By having data on where our competitor’s sales team, marketing team, or development team worked previously and their backgrounds we could better forecast their tactics and approaches or product strengths and weaknesses. With our prospects, based on their previous experiences, we could shape a better sales approach. Even something as simple as having a graduate from Brown University on the sales and marketing team call on a Brown University alumni prospect was a simple but effective ploy enabled by good intelligence.
  • I volunteered my recruiting staff to work part-time with sales following up on leads. After all, recruiters are experienced cold callers, with the ability to develop good post-call profile information and excellent closing skills. In return, my recruiters became more knowledgeable of product and process. In addition, a few recruits were developed as a result of these calls.
  • I volunteered my recruiters to support Quality Assurance in its “stupid user testing,” thus freeing up $80k engineers to keep working on debugging problems while providing my recruiters with another learning tool, as well as an opportunity to get closer to their business partners and perform a function they could truly appreciate and understand.

(Shortly after I started the above programs, HR informed me that due to a projected reduction in the staff plan, I should plan on eliminating one or two “heads” from my headcount. I went to the VPs of Sales, Marketing, and QA and informed them I was going to have to curtail my joint support programs due to headcount cuts. They went to HR and advocated the importance of my team to their work. Imagine that, my partners fighting for my team!)

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  • Advocate “recruiting to excellence” programs which state that there is no better time to review and replace the bottom 20% of existing staff than during slow recruiting periods. This gives HR/staffing a joint mission, identified as a strategic goal, that capitalizes on the perceived “slow period” for recruiting.

Impact Impact is the part that not only insures you have relevance, but that you broadcast it.

  • Translate your accomplishments into the business jargon of your team, not HR/staffing “Social Workerese.”
  • Produce routine reports on those issues your partners have identified as important to them as a reflection of your contributions to the team. But translate it into their business language.
  • Document your efforts in support of the team outside HR/staffing. Remind others of leads, vendors, knowledge, or other upgrades in business or process you contributed.

Shared Respect Shared respect is critical. Not only must others respect you, but you also must respect them. See your “clients” as partners, and not “typical hiring managers” whose lack of understanding of your business process and terminology causes you to laugh at them (not unlike they do to us):

  • Seek to be the one who is seen as the “subject matter expert” in all things pertaining to HR/staffing.
  • Seek to be seen as someone with a contribution to make in all other matters.
  • Show respect for your partners’ input in their specialized areas.
  • Always consider their “respectful input” in your area of expertise.

The first indication that this is working for you is when you are “dragged into” a spontaneous meeting by one of your partners on a subject that does not involve HR/staffing because they value your input anyway. Being seen as a partner starts with being seen as someone with an overall contribution and not as a focused specialist with one and only one function to offer. There are bigger issues to overcome and other aspects to consider. But first, think small. Have a great day recruiting.

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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