Taking People Strategy To The Front Line

If there is one word that has come to define our work with clients of late – both within the legal sector and beyond – it is ‘ownership’.

HR directors are finding increasingly that they do not have trouble, as they did even say five years ago, in securing partner or manager acceptance of the importance of people strategy. What they do struggle with however is ensuring that partners or managers take at least some operational ownership of people strategy. By operational ownership we mean partners or managers on the ground actively, meaningfully, regularly and enthusiastically engaging in, for example, performance management, staff development, appraisals etc.

Making the transition between intellectual agreement and operational ownership is not easy but it is vital. Without operational ownership by partners or managers at the coal face even the best HR function in the world will find it impossible to progress. The risk then is that a team of highly motivated, skilled, strategic-thinking HR professionals becomes frustrated and demotivated, resulting in low productivity and departures. The business therefore loses faith in HR, accords it less and less value and finds itself back on the HR merry-go-round recruiting yet another team who seek to reinvent the wheel and kick the whole process off again.

Breaking this vicious cycle is therefore one of the key requirements of all HR directors today. How? Approaches vary dramatically according to particular circumstances at particular firms but there are usually at least 3 common denominators where this has been achieved successfully.

First, partners or managers need to understand not just what is required of them when it comes to people strategy, but also why. We all do things much better – and with a good deal more enthusiasm – when we understand the reasons behind what we are being asked to do. As a business we have established a reputation for always bringing people strategy back to the bottom line. It resonates. If you can show partners why and how engaging in a certain exercise, developing a new skill set or adopting a certain type of behaviour will improve profitability, they will listen to you. This requires you to develop clear ROI indicators and value-add metrics (see ‘Demonstrating Value in HR’, thelawyer.com 12 May 2005).

However, in some organisations, generic firm-wide improvements in financial indicators may only secure in principle agreement to a project rather than the more fundamental notion of operational ownership. This further, deeper requirement is achieved in much the same way that we urge our clients to secure buy-in to strategy and development: individuation. Setting out in detail the particular benefits of any new exercise or project for any one individual partner or manager will be time-consuming but it will work – and it is ultimately a lot less time-consuming and expensive than carefully developing a brilliant HR project which subsequently sputters out because of a lack of buy-in on the ground. In the context of conservative people-dependent organisations, the whys are always as important as the hows.

Second, HR directors need to make a sustained effort to connect everything they do with the broader strategic aims of their businesses. Every project you undertake should be directly traceable to what your firm overall is trying to achieve. If projects aren’t linked in this way, or if you can’t articulate why and how they are linked, then you are wasting your own and the firm’s time and money, as well as undermining credibility in HR and people strategy generally. But getting the content the right is not enough: you need the vehicle for that content, the process, to be as light, as user-friendly and as embedded within your firm’s culture as possible. Too many HR directors get too caught up in the process, sometimes to the extent that the tail is perceived as wagging the dog. A simple rule of thumb – if an HR project can’t be easily explained to and understood by a non-HR professional in 15 minutes or under, the process isn’t right. Legend has it that the President of the US never expects to see memos of more than one page on his desk. Chief Executives and Managing Partners will heap praise on HR functions that can replicate this West Wing trait. So in making the transition to operational ownership, HR process is as important as HR content.

Third, HR directors need to consider two different aspects of structure. On the one hand this means the structure of the HR function itself. Many firms are now beginning to adopt the business partner model, where HR professionals are deployed within business units. The driver behind this is of course that they will have a much greater chance of understanding the particular issues and concerns that affect their particular unit. As a result, HR behaviour should change from reactive to proactive, become more commercial in its approach and secure the continued involvement of the unit’s partners to people strategy issues. This kind of structuring works very well in those firms which have a secure, mature and philosophically uniform HR function. However, where the central HR function has historically been weak and/or disparate in its message or approach, sending individuals out ‘into’ the business won’t automatically cure the problem. Rather, it is likely to disconnect HR even further from both the business and the HR function’s own sense of direction and ambition. In such firms, HR functions are better advised to concentrate on establishing their own business-driven objectives first, creating their own sense of how they slot into overall firm strategy.

The other aspect of structure which HR directors need to keep in mind at all times is that of the firm overall. Are there any structural obstacles to partners taking operational ownership of people strategy? For example, does profit share militate against this in one or more ways? Are non-billable codes readily understood, utilised and accorded sufficient value? The answers to questions like these have a very big impact on partners’ or managers’ interest in taking responsibility for implementation of HR issues.

Translating intellectual understanding to practical operational ownership takes a great deal of hard work. But that is no reason for not trying: look for example, at the operational ownership that the vast majority of the profession has taken of business development over the last 10 – 15 years. And look at what has happened to the minority that didn’t……

Nick Jefferson is a director with law firm people strategy experts, Couraud Consulting.

Copyright Couraud Consulting Limited, 2005.

Tel: 020 7851 4652

E-mail: nick.jefferson@couraud.co.uk