Why HR Stinks at “Execution”

One of the hottest books in business right now is the book Execution, by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. It’s a must read for CEOs and HR people alike. If you haven’t had time to read the book, I recommend you do. The book highlights the three major processes critical to an organization’s success: people, strategy, and operations. Leaders must be in charge of getting things done by effectively executing these three core processes. Successful managers must excel at picking other leaders, setting the strategic direction, and conducting operations. Further reading makes it quite clear that, of the three factors, people are the most reliable long-term success factor. In fact, the book focuses mostly on people and people processes. But one of the other important messages in the book is that, quite often, managers get so “hung up” about being strategic that they fail to focus on the most important element of business: the execution of strategy. Execution is defined as a systematic process of rigorously discussing “hows” and “whats,” questioning, tenaciously following through, and ensuring accountability. Unfortunately, HR professionals are notorious for failure to execute against strategy ó if they have one at all. Technology gets purchased, programs designed, and processes put in place ó but rarely does anyone follow through to ensure those programs and processes produce at Six Sigma levels. It’s nice to have the title of “business partner,” but in reality “talk” is not equal to execution. Three Key HR Lessons The three key lessons that we need to learn in HR are the importance of:

  1. Metrics
  2. Rewarding performance
  3. Dialogue (Dialogue is the confrontation and the open and honest discussions that must occur for successful execution to occur)

In my experience, the absence of these three factors is what separates mediocre HR departments from great ones. Firms like GE, Intel, Honeywell, and Microsoft excel at these three critical success factors. In direct contrast, most HR people avoid confrontation and honest dialogue. But a rigorous dialogue is required to ensure everyone’s buy in and to get everyone on the same page. Most HR practitioners also consistently avoid measurements like the plague, and, if given a choice, they would pay everyone the same (to avoid confrontation). HR will never be a business leader until it summons up enough courage both to measure and reward performance as well as to challenge and confront issues. 17 Key Execution Elements That Relate To People Aside from these three key lessons, there are a number of other specific thoughts and ideas from this book that can help HR and managers hire the right people and manage them better.

  1. Emphasis on implementation. Leadership all too often places too much emphasis on high-level strategy or philosophizing, and not enough on implementation. There are different kinds of intellectual challenges that leaders face. And while conceiving a grand idea or broad picture is usually intuitive, shaping this broad picture into a set of executable actions is analytical, and it’s the most difficult intellectual, emotional, and creative challenge.
  2. Reward doers. Leaders promote people who get things done more quickly. They also give them significantly greater rewards.
  3. Link rewards to performance. The foundation of changing behavior is linking rewards to performance and making the linkages transparent so that everyone knows that performance, not effort, is the goal.
  4. Accountability. You can’t build an execution culture without individual accountability. By avoiding or spreading out accountability we dramatically lessen the chance for success.
  5. Spend time on people. Managers must spend up to 40% of their time assessing and coaching potential leaders and managers.
  6. Plans require the right people. Achieving results requires that you have the “right kinds of people” to execute the business plan.
  7. Talent generates results. Talent is the most reliable (controllable) resource for generating results year after year. The judgments, experiences, and capabilities of a firm’s people make the difference between success and failure.
  8. Know future people needs. Leaders know not only what skills are currently needed in their organization, but also what types of people and skills those jobs will require in the future. Far more important than selecting someone who can do the job today is selecting someone who can do the job tomorrow.
  9. Assignments for development. Managers need to be seasoned through multiple assignments in different businesses throughout the organization.
  10. Honest feedback. Leaders know their people and have the courage to provide honest developmental feedback.
  11. Identify the “whys.” Understanding why someone did not make their goals, and focusing on that cause, is more important than simply knowing that the goals were not met. “You don’t fix a problem just by looking at its outcome.”
  12. Identifying leaders. When looking for people to promote, look for leaders who:
    • Can follow through
    • Can energize others
    • Are decisive on tough issues
    • Get things done through others
  13. Leaders coach. Leaders expand people’s capabilities through coaching and key assignments (placement).
  14. Hard work and brains aren’t enough. Hard-working, bright people are not always effective people.
  15. Beware of interviews. Some people interview well, and some people don’t. A person who doesn’t interview well may nonetheless be the best choice for the job. It is more important to assess:
    • How the person sets priorities
    • What qualities he or she is known for
    • Whether he or she includes others in decision making
    • His or her work ethic and energy level
  16. How to change an organization. Strategy and structure are inert without the beliefs and behaviors that drive execution. To change an organization, you have to change the processes that influence beliefs and behaviors.
  17. Key people failures in most organizations. Employees hold the same jobs for too long and decisions to promote people are often based on mechanical performance appraisals, which are historical and rarely address a person’s ability to execute in the future.

Conclusion HR people love to call themselves business partners. But when senior managers are polled, they consistently rate the actual performance of HR well below where HR leaders “perceive” their performance to be. It’s time for HR to “walk the talk.” Rather than just offering HR programs, let’s instead focus on execution that produces results. HR leaders must shift their emphasis toward designing and operating programs that influence the bottom line. That means increased revenues, greater market share and more products that have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The first three steps to take are ensuring an intense dialogue (where issues are confronted, not avoided), demanding metrics and individual accountability in all key performance areas, and finally, significant rewards for performance.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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