Why HR Should Lead Change Initiatives

Butterfly5Change management is about people, performance and leadership, ergo, one would think HR should be leading the charge (or at least playing a major role). Unfortunately, in many cases, HR is not involved because it does not bring the skill sets that would be useful to organizational change or is simply not even invited to the party. More concerning is that CEO’s don’t hold their HR leadership accountable for building the necessary expertise that would facilitate effecting change. Without the internal expertise, organizations, more often than not, look to outside consultants to provide the needed assistance to effect the organizational changes they’re looking for.

What’s striking here, even with the expertise of outside consultants, change guru John Kotter, (Kotter International) still claims that 70% of change efforts fail; this is a pretty dismal record. Kotter’s approach for “change management” is for organizations to “take a consistent, holistic approach to changing themselves,” and “engaging their workforce effectively.”

Hmmm. Changing themselves. Engaging their workforce. Sounds like learning, development and human resources to me so why isn’t HR part of the solution?

Kotter’s research spans 4 decades and. I have almost 4 decades of HR executive roles in large, multi-unit organizations behind me and from what I’ve seen, Kotter’s research is dead on. Change may come in the form of a merger, a shift in technology, the launch of a new strategy, or a change in organizational leadership. And each change or combination of changes create anxiety and concern in the workforce, which requires strong, coordinated leadership that understand the dynamics of change, foster open channels of candid communication, and facilitate a careful exploration of organizational culture in the context of the change.

Leading the leadership in providing the organizational guidance is where HR can bring tremendous value because HR has, or should have, a top level view of people, programs and process. They have a unique vantage point to breach silos and facilitate organizational change

If HR is going to “lead the change” process, they need the knowledge, skills and resources to make it happen. Many HR Teams, though, are missing the critical expertise needed for leading change. For example, HR needs:

Project Management skills. I’m not talking about HR being project managers but they must understand the need for effective project management so they can provide good counsel as part of the leadership team, counsel that could include ensuring there is executive sponsorship with authority and courage to make key decisions, having a having a clear definition of the purpose, scope and expected results, and evaluating the results against the expectations.

Learning and development skills. With organizational change comes the need for behavioral change, and the more dramatic the change, the more intentional the organization must be in defining, teaching and holding themselves accountable for the behavior change. Kotter says to “engage the workforce,” but that is not an easy task. It means that the workforce needs to clearly understand both the change and the need to change. It means that they need a voice to share concerns and provide input.

Organizational learning is all about setting clear expectations, providing knowledge and resources, and evaluating and tweaking the result, and developing strength in leadership to lead change. The programs and processes that are typically owned by HR – training and performance management – should align to the realities of the organizational change.

HR needs to lead this effort because “HR is all about people.” HR leadership that can assess learning needs, create formal and informal learning opportunities, and evaluate the effectiveness are, in fact, leading organizational change. If the HR programs do not accomplish this, they are not relevant.

Systems thinking skills. Change in today’s world is complex, and a change in one process can have unintended consequences that ripple through the organization. Understanding how systems work, and being able to facilitate the discovery of interacting systems among diverse groups of people brings credibility to the change leader.

With organizational complexity often comes silo’d thinking that leads to decisions being made without effective analysis and risk assessment. Leaders need to understand the implication of their decisions, and collaborate effectively across the organization. This is a skill that must be developed in leadership. It is also a process that begs for oversight, to maintain the coordinated perspective of the organizational change.

If HR programs are aligned and relevant, they provide good business intelligence that illustrates challenges and opportunities with the organizational change. If these programs are not aligned and relevant, they are wasting valuable time.

But there is an opportunity here

CEO’s need to challenge their HR teams to provide the leadership the organization needs to successfully effect change and hold them accountable for the skills and performance. This may mean shifting workload so that HR can truly be a change partner, coach the organization and through this, drive successful change.

But only HR has the overall insight into the people, teams and organizational performance that gives them a vantage point that is unique within the organization. If HR is up to the challenge and is aligned and relevant, they are in the best position to lead organizational change and the whole organization becomes better. If CEO’s need to bring in outside expertise to do the work HR should be doing, then the question needs to be asked “Why do I need HR?”

13 thoughts on “Why HR Should Lead Change Initiatives”

  1. I’m feeling a little down at the fact that so many people think this is an April Fool’s joke – the joke is on me….don’t post something serious on April Fools Day!

    While I’m down about it, I get it – I really do. HR has neither the skill set nor the experience to lead this critical aspect of business, but given my early argument, shouldn’t they? And if this is something HR should be doing, why don’t executives expect this performance from their HR teams?

    Well, I do like to spark dialogue, so I guess I’m succeeding.

  2. Carol, your blog posed some interesting viewpoints about the role of HR, but I think many CEOs actually do ask themselves, “Why do I need HR?” Often it is because HR comfortably exists in its own silo managing various processes, programs, and tools. Too often, as you pointed out, the HR team doesn’t “pack the gear” to take on this change management partner role. Rather than challenging their HR teams to provide the leadership the organization needs to successfully effect change and hold them accountable for the skills and performance, the CEO should challenge and and place accountability on every leader/manager/supervisor who works there. Without that fundamental foundation, the “70% change effort failure rate” is inevitable regardless if either HR or consultants are engaged.

  3. Ken, I worry that HR is quickly going to become irrelevant unless they repurpose their role in the organization. It will take both HR stepping up their game, and CEOs demanding performance. Thanks for your comment.

    1. I understand, Carol. The HR paradigm can’t continue to be a catch-all of functions, as it is in many cases, in an increasingly complex business environment. Improving business acumen of the HR team and more focus on the internal consulting role will be critical to establishing the credibility of the profession within the organization; however, HR will never deliver what the organization needs in the way of leadership. As a Marine, I am certain you didn’t look to the S1 to help accomplish the mission defined by the CO. Leaders have got to lead and should not abdicate any portion of their accountability to HR.

      1. Ken, I see a big difference between an S1 at a battalion level, and an HR shop in a large company. (Oh, and I happened to be the S1).

        In a large organization, strategy is continuously refreshed and updated, requiring a significant attention toward talent, development, learning and change leadership. That is a huge role for HR. To equate that in the USMC, you would need to incorporate the strategic role of TBS, EWS and C&S in developing leaders at all levels.

        That is the change role that HR must assume in industry – identifying, developing, deploying and assessing talent. If a CEO doesn’t look to HR to do this I wonder about the chaos that would ensue.

      2. My S1 analogy was probably not the best, nor was it meant to disparage the S1 role. Perhaps if HR, in conjunction with the executive leadership team, focused on creating a culture where leaders better understood their role to develop the agility, know-how, accountability to manage change when it occurs, there would be greater success in effecting change. I think this is overlooked until the unexpected happens…then chaos does ensue, regardless of how good the HR team is. In any event, the HR profession should better define what its primary purpose or mission is for the future and take the steps necessary to continue to be relevant. Thanks, Carol, for the thought provoking discussion. Semper Fi.

  4. Good points, and I didn’t take it to disparage the S1 role, but it is nothing like I envision an effective HR team, when the culture, change, and organizational learning are in the leadership of someone who champions human performance. Appreciate the dialogue as well. Semper Fi

    1. Its actually a must to follow in any good organization, if they need to get popular n grow better….for many HR like MLL this should be eye opening at least…. Good.

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