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HR = Business … comes to life

Posted by Amy Wilson on April 21, 2009

“We didn’t have any problem selling the business case”

Ever said this? Ever had anyone on your HR team say this?


Last week, I heard this phrase uttered nonchalantly, yet proudly, at least 3 times. I was at the Bersin Impact conference. The conference theme, for the second year in a row, was “The Business of Talent.” Last year, the conference was excellent, but the stories tended to be more “in process” or “recommendy” in nature. This year, rhetoric and fact joined together in perfect harmony. Maybe Bersin’s research team has gotten even better at finding stories or maybe there are more stories to be had. Overall, I am very pleased with my HR comrades.

The best session of the conference – where it all came together – was the HR Leaders panel, in which 4 HR leaders talked about how they transitioned from HR strategy to business strategy and how it’s been working for them. These are 4 living, breathing HR people who have completely re-focused their teams and have made the whole process look obvious in doing so. Not easy, but definitely obvious.

There were some common themes among them:

  • HR staff needed new skills and attitudes; the leaders provided the staff with targeted training and development opportunities.The folks that could cut it as “strategists” stuck around, and the others self-selected out (in search of more “traditional” roles).
  • Learning the business – the pressures, pains, and nuances of the industry and their business leaders – and showing that they understood the business was essential.
  • Demonstrating “fiscal responsibility” (shutting down non-business critical projects and self-funding business critical projects) earned them credibility.

The most important strategy, by far, was to talk to business solutions or impacts, rather than talent implications. For example, instead of talking about “engaging the workforce,” Michelle Golden of Turner Broadcasting talks to her leaders about the challenges of competing in the 24 hour news environment and how they could get better results.

Drastically changing our language to focus on impact, rather than implications, reminded me of a chapter in Made to Stick (yes, just finished this book along with Mark and Meg, thank you very much). Chip and Dan Heath suggest the “Ask Why 3 Times” rule when you want to get your audience to actually care about what you’re selling. They give the example of the drill bit. Perhaps you had planned to talk about it’s silvery, sleekness. But, before you do, ask yourself why would someone buy a drill bit? Answer: to drill a hole. But, why do you need to drill a hole? Answer: to put something in it. Why? Answer: to hang a picture of my kid. Ahh, and there is the impact of a drill bit – it allows people to hang pictures of their kids.

HR is selling the value of talent. However, to get business leaders to care about what we’re selling and to readily buy our business case, we need to move from language that seems obvious to us, to language that resonates with them. “Integrated Talent Management” sounds like “sleek, silver drill-bit.” But ask yourselves why 3 times, and you might find the picture hanging enabler the business has been waiting for.

2 Responses to “HR = Business … comes to life”

  1. Meg Bear said

    if you need any help with the “why questions” let me know, I have a three year old that is outstanding at it who I would rent out cheap ;-).

  2. Sarah said

    Hi all,
    I just wanted to let the readers of this blog know about a new book by HR guru Johnny C Taylor Jr. In “The Trouble with HR”, Johnny addresses many key issues facing businesses today, especially with regard to the hiring and retention practices employed by companies. He mentions pitfalls as well as helpful advice to both employers and those in the interviewing process. You can check it our at his website http://www.thetroublewithhr.com
    Hope your all find it of interest!

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