Nobody needs an HR strategy

Call it an HR strategy, a people plan, a road map. Call it whatever you like, but one thing is certain it will mostly be a waste of your time and energy.

Because being more strategic, doesn’t mean writing about it on paper. It doesn’t mean going on an away day and it certainly doesn’t mean focussing on your HR brand.

There is only one strategy that really matters and that’s your business.

Yet my experience of HR professionals is that they spend more time working on their own strategy than that of the business.


Well firstly because most businesses don’t build the people implications into their strategy in any fundamental sense (I’m not talking about the nominal “Talent” column which the board include to show that people are their greatest asset…).

Secondly, because HR Directors then try to demonstrate their commercial acumen and business value, by taking their team away to focus on the people strategy.

But the problem with doing this is that you automatically create the first degree of separation between the two. And that can then only get worse.

Instead of wasting everyone’s time and money, invest it in understanding your organisational strategy, reflect on the people requirements now and in the future and then realign your HR activities to support it.

It may not sound as big and clever, it may not be something you can have designed and put on the wall and it may not get you a day out a venue where you can indulge in your favourite ice breaker or personality profiling tool.

But it will make your business more successful, it will create meaning in what you do and it will, most likely, get you noticed by the people who really matter as they start to see you genuinely add value.

I. Am. Human.

Following the last two conferences I’ve spoken at, I’ve received the following unsolicited feedback,

“You don’t speak like an HR person”

On both occasions, I’ve assumed it was a compliment and taken it as the best bit of feedback I could receive. I hope I don’t look like an HR person either (no tissues in this cardigan baby) but there is always room for improvement.

The serious point here is that language is important. The words we use, the tone we use, the way in which we communicate both verbally and in writing. They matter.

I don’t care what the intention is, if the language sends out a different message. That’s what people infer.

You tell people what they can’t do. Why not tell them what you want them to do?

You tell people what will happen if they don’t behave. Why not tell them what will happen if they do?

We use a whole vocabulary that means nothing to the vast majority of human beings. A dictionary of terms that have been created to make us feel “strategic” as we “partner” with the business to deliver “value adding interventions” to maximise our “human capital” and drive “employee engagement”.

Or instead we could work with you to make this place better, you happier and the business successful.

But then. We might have to explain how.

Which would require us to think. And not produce another strategy document.

Which could prove tricky.

I am not Human Resources. I am human.

Dumb acceptance

I’ve written before about the use of the term, “the business” when referring to areas other than HR. To put it mildly, it drives me nuts and normally it arises in one of two contexts,

1) from within HR – “we need someone from the business to look at this”
2) in criticising HR – “they need to spend more time working in the business”

I’m baffled, confused and (I admit) a little bit grumpy. Let’s deal with scenario 1 first as an amuse bouche of perfectly formed stupidity, before we move on to the entrée of down right dumb, stupid acceptance of idiocy that is scenario 2.

If you work in HR and think that you’re not part of the business, then give up now and resign. Go hug a tree, or stare into the sunset, or become a coach. Because you’re wasting organisational oxygen, space on this earth and perhaps most importantly, my time.

There. Done. That was easy, wasn’t it?

So let’s talk about the main event.

I’ve heard a number of people over time espouse the theory that in order to be a good HR professional, you need to have worked in, “the business”. In fact it often features in comments on this blog. Can someone please tell me what “the business” is? Where is this elusive mystical beast? Is it tucked away in the armpit of the Yeti, or squeezed between the tightly closed thighs of the Loch Ness Monster? If anyone sees “the business” running free, give me a call, we need to talk….

I work for a publisher, does that mean I need to do an editorial role in order to be able to do my job as a HR director well? If I worked in law firm, should I spend time as a solicitor? What about an abattoir? Would time as a meat packer help me?

And do you really think these roles have the same skill set? The same knowledge base and the same competences? Of course not. I’m as qualified to do an editorial role as an editor is to do my role. And I can guarantee they wouldn’t want to go within a million miles of my job – because most of them are sane.

Do we say the same about finance, about marketing, about IT? Of course, not. Once again it is just stupid, shallow, groupthink without really understanding what we’re saying or trying to say.

HR needs to understand the way in which the business that employs it works, it needs to understand how the areas fit together, the commercial model, the brand, the strategic direction and the external economic environment. Anyone arguing this will get my full support and a virtual fist bump (or wrist punch as we call them chez Morrison).

Of course, yes.

Anyone saying that people who move cross functionally can bring different insights and expertise to their business areas will get a note of commendation and a wholly platonic, virtual man hug.


But saying HR people need to spend time in “the business” is like saying that to be a good heart surgeon you have to have had a double bypass. It’s stupid, it’s crass, it’s unhelpful and it’s wrong. And most of all, it detracts from the main issue, which is ensuring HR teams understand and are passionate about their organisations.

That’s where the real story is at. Trust me.

It’s time to dump the cliches and move on.

Summing up

One of my favourite quotes of all time if from King Lear, it is delivered by Edgar in Act 5 scene 3, “The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

Since the very first moment I read it, almost 20 years ago, this quote has stayed in my head. There is something wonderfully true and sincere and just downright, well…right. And given the last few years, it seems that there is no time more apt.

The thing is that, when you get to the end of the year, the world of blogging is full of earnest blogs, by good people telling you how much they’ve achieved, how blessed they are and how much they’ve contributed.

I’m in awe, you’re all clearly amazing, you make me proud.

So, let me tell you my story…..this year hasn’t been amazing. But, compared to that of many people, it hasn’t been awful.

Like a lot of you, I’ve spent the year trying not to drown. Now admittedly, my water is shallower than most, but you can drown in an inch of water. Most of the UK, most of the world has been trying just to cope, and I admit to being no different to them. I haven’t changed the world, I haven’t added value, I haven’t had an amazing insight. I’ve survived. And in a way, I’m extremely proud to say so.

This year, I’ve let people down, I’ve not been at my kid’s special occasions, the concerts, the plays, the sports days as much as I would have liked. I’ve not been able to see my friends and I’ve pulled out of things at the last moment. I’ve been more of a traditional male than I would ever have thought, relying on my wife to keep things going when I couldn’t.

I’ve not looked after my health in the way that I should have done. I haven’t checked out those niggling health problems, I’ve drunk too much and I haven’t exercised when I could have done. I feel sleep deprived beyond compare.

At work, I’ve been secretive because I’ve had to be. I’ve not been able to include people in things that I’m doing for understandable reasons. Regardless, this has contradicted with everything that I believe and hold dear and has struck hard into my moral fibre and my personal resolve.

This year, I’ve felt more out of control than I have done for decades, I’ve depended on my survival instincts and my reflexes to keep me going. This hasn’t been a “roller coaster” of a year, it has been a “black ice drive” of a year. I’ve got through, that is all I can tell you.

I’m indebted to the loved ones that surround me, many of whom I have let down. The people who have accepted my indifference, my moods, my unreliable behaviour. I’m indebted to my teams who have been beyond compare in their loyalty and endeavour.

I’m indebted and apologetic to my family, the people I hold most closest and whose love I have abused. The times when I haven’t been present, the moments that I will never get to live again, the kisses that I never offered and the hugs that I didn’t feel I deserved.

I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m not looking for excuses. I’m just saying how it’s been, both for me and for a whole lot of people out there. When we are honest about how things are, then we can start to truly support one another.

Life isn’t a competition to demonstrate who is the happiest, it is a journey best accompanied by a dose of reality. That way, you truly enjoy the special moments when they come….however few and far between.