Want to Shape HR Strategy? Use this Storytelling Method to Establish Credibility

HR Business PartnerDuring five years of international HR consulting for a range of organizations, I noticed that companies of all sizes (from small businesses to  international Fortune 100s) had something in common: When HR was perceived by others to deliver the most value, it was when it was firefighting —  responding to issues and “fixing” them. HR is most often operationally-oriented — providing support for transactional processes, like hiring, performance reviews, and compensation reviews.

It’s this kind of focus that has prompted some experts to call for the splitting of HR departments: As Ram Charan argues in this HBR piece, one administrative HR function should focus on managing compensation and benefits, and the other (made up of people who have backgrounds outside of HR) should play the more strategic role of improving the people capabilities of the business.

But as Dave Ulrich argues in this article, the “splitting HR” argument ignores what he calls the 20-60-20 rule, where “20% of the professionals are exceptional, adding value that helps organizations move forward, 20% of HR folks are locked into a fixed mindset and lack either competence or commitment to deliver real value, and 60% are in the middle.” Ulrich advocates teaching the 60% what they can do to deliver value. And I agree.

For HR to play a role in shaping the behavior of the organization, it needs to establish credibility. To do this, HR needs to move away from being a firefighter, and act more like the fire inspector, who determines the root cause of issues and works to prevent future events. As Gabrielle Toledano, the EVP of HR for EA, noted in this blog post: “It’s not about being the CEO’s best friend. It’s about solving problems, knowing the business, and delivering an informed point of view.”

So if you work in HR, how can you confidently deliver an informed point of view on talent issues to leadership? It requires more than delivering a presentation with bravado. Like a seasoned journalist, you need to gather all the relevant facts first before telling a compelling story — reporters typically spend 70 per cent of their time reporting (performing research) and 30 percent of their time writing. And while the media will get their information from interviews with sources, HR needs to take a structured approach to problem-solving in order to gather the relevant facts and metrics, which requires curiosity and reflection.

In short, establishing credibility on any given talent issue — whether it’s retention, recruitment, or succession planning — is a two-phased process: There is one process for finding a story, and there is another process for telling the story. Let’s go through both:

Phase 1: Investigate the problem

Let’s say a manager runs into your office and says: “Jim, the guy we were grooming for that open management position in product development has just resigned! We are leaking talent and the whole organization is going to collapse.” Instead of jumping to conclusions that turnover is running rampant at your organization due to compensation or other reasons, STOP and follow this process. I have studied a range of academic research methods — and this approach might not qualify you for a full PhD– however, it is practical and reliable in a business context. Follow these steps:

Step 1: Assess the situation and ask questions

Start by asking yourself: What do I notice about this situation? When you frame it within the context of a situation instead of a personal problem, you can bypass the biases that are coloring reality, and take a broader view. For example, if people are telling you that a particular group of people are leaving because they aren’t getting paid enough, stop and think: “Well, how do we know that?” Take a minute to jot down all your questions and concrete observations.

Step 2: Assess the business impact

In this step, you look at all your questions, and pare the list down to the ones that impact the business. It can take a bit of time and effort to distill the question down to the one you are trying to answer. Don’t get discouraged — it is well worth the time. Let’s say you notice that most new managers come from outside the company, and that very few of the management trainee cohort are left after three years. A good question that addresses the business impact is: “How well are we developing new talent to maintain and grow the organization?”

Step 3:  Understand who, when and why

Who: It is really important to understand who is impacted by these questions, because this will help determine which group you will analyze to uncover key trends. For example, you can ask: “Where is turnover taking place and which groups are supported by this business unit?”

When: You also need to determine what is the appropriate time period to investigate. In the trainee scenario mentioned above, the tenure range is one to three years, and you can expect trainees to be ready for a manager role after three years. It’s important to look at a six-year timeframe because it covers three different groups of trainees, and will give you adequate data to draw accurate conclusions, rather than basing your answer off of one group.

Why: Once you understand the who and when, you can dig into the why of situations. “How many left and what do they have in common? How many stayed and what do they have in common? How many progress and why?” This will help you select the right metrics to investigate: resignation, tenure, and promotion rate will all tell you why this is happening.

Step 4: Find a solution

If you have followed the above steps, you will be in a much better position to find a solution, whether it’s developing a targeted training program, improving compensation, or introducing career planning early. When dealing with people, you are working with an eco-system of choice, which can be a messy situation: the reality is if you do something, the results will only happen for a segment of your population. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure whatever solution you develop maps back to the appropriate “who” uncovered in step three.

Phase 2: Establish credibility with a strong story

A time-strapped executive will want to know what action is needed and why, and will quickly lose interest if you present the story as the process you went through to find a conclusion. To tell a compelling story, you need to reverse the analytic process and start with the headline. From there, you need to substantiate your headline with facts. It can look something like this:

Headline: Why are we not effective at growing talent?

  • Who is impacted and over what timeframe
  • What we discovered from the data
  • What we need to do to resolve this issue
  • How we will measure success

There is one important reason for making sure you can explain how you will monitor success. The HR world is littered with programs that never went anywhere, which is partially why HR is struggling to be viewed as strategic. If you can demonstrate that you will monitor, reflect, and change as necessary, you will establish yourself as a strategic player who will help build a competitive advantage for the organization.

Putting your problem-solving skills into practice

Habit change is never easy, but you can start by implementing step one today with a pen and paper. This is the start of a journey towards supporting the sharing of insights with proven storytelling techniques. Ultimately, it will allow you to confidently deliver your informed point of view, boosting your career.

If you are tired of firefighting and are attending this year’s HR tech conference, drop by booth #1127 — My colleagues and I will be on-hand to talk about Workforce Intelligence, and how you can use it to fuel your HR transformation.

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Ian Cook |

Curious about the differences between gaussian and pareto distribution? Ask Ian. Want to know what it’s like to kite ski North of the Arctic Circle? Ask Ian. Not only is he an expert in statistical analysis and HR metrics, he’s also an avid cyclist, skier and runner. At Visier, Ian helps customers drive organizational change through linking workforce analysis to business outcomes. He is responsible for the workforce domain expertise within the Visier solutions.

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