Getting Beyond the Echo Chamber: Selling the Value of HR Outside of HR

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“I’m fine, thanks. I’m enjoying in my major. Actually, I love HR. Thanks for your attention. If I need help, I will let you know.”

This note from a student at one of the universities here in the Middle East, someone who is majoring in HR. He reached out to me over LinkedIn, and in my response, I told him if he needs me in any way he should feel free to reach out.

As I was responding to that note, I smiling thought of my upcoming lecture at the University of the Emirates in Dubai where I will be a guest lecturer to the class of students that are working towards their Bachelor of Science in HR. I was invited by the dean, Dr. Singh, who I met on a panel she chaired at a recent conference in Dubai.

I enjoy talking about what we do to the HR audiences, but there is another side that needs to be approached.

Getting out of the echo chamber

I am beginning to feel that sometimes, as HR leaders (and bloggers), that we are singing to the choir. In other words, we are talking to people who are in our profession.

Our audience, for the most part, should be well versed in their discipline, about its consequences, and, about its virtues. While I look forward to getting the message out, what is needed is to break out of this echo chamber.

The people who disparage HR are not the people who are in HR; it is the outside audience who feels that way.

My wife has this rule when we go to dinner parties: she admonishes me to leave the HR behind because I invariably will get into a discussion about the validly of what we do with non-HR folks. However, my thought has always been to reach as many people as I can who are not in the profession.

Those are the ones that do not understand that value that we bring. Sometimes, I listen to her rule but for the most part I do not.

We attended a VIP party in New York where the main invitees were media executives for all the major TV networks — kind of like the who’s who of TV cable news. As I was talking to an executive from one of the major cable networks, the discussion veered towards HR/Talent.

His comment was that the only ones he considered “Talent” were the people in front of the camera. He never gave thought to any of the other people who were important to get the show on the air. Well, I know from working in TV that it takes a village to get those segments on the air.

Unvarnished views vs. real HR

To this TV executive, his anchorperson was the only real talent. He also mentioned that fact that he thought that HR was useless in this dynamic.

As I glanced to see where my wife was located, I was winding up and getting ready to have this discussion. My comment to him was that the vast majority of time that you see someone in front of the camera, there is someone who either came up with the story or collaborated with the on air personality to get the story out.

In the TV business, this strategic role is that of the producer. Story ideas, story angles and the approach to the segment are normally ideas that are born in the producer’s head.

The team concept in TV news has a cast of characters that make those news segments pop. Every role — from the cameraman, reporter, news director, news writer, camera operator, audio engineer to the broadcast technician — is staffed by people who are important to get the final product, which is the news segment. This is the real talent.

Educating the leaders

As I discussed this team concept and how this executive’s concept of talent was flawed, I could see the light go off. Yes, his anchor person was “Talent”, but her team was the key to success. Now, this guy really wanted to talk.

As I explained the role of HR in this dynamic, it was like a discussion between teacher and the pupil. The roles had changed, and he was now interested in this new concept of how HR is practiced. He never gave thought to how our profession is positioned to make sure that his organization creates an environment of support, of encouragement, and reinforces culture with a Talent Management Strategy.

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At the end of our long discussion, he stated that he had never had that kind of talk before, and he thanked me for the conversation and the insight. He said that he was going to meet with his HR person so he could dig in a little deeper. My fingers were crossed in hoping that this person would carry it forward.

The Echo Chamber

Sometimes, as bloggers, speakers and influencers, we get caught up in getting and spreading our message to our profession. But, are we really making a difference? The people that we are talking to, for the most part, understand the direction that the profession is headed. Whether they believe it or not, they know that the old days of HR are over and will not return

However, our important audience should be those outside of the echo chamber of HR, especially those in the realm of executive leadership.

I was approached a while back to write a monthly article at CEO.com, which I especially enjoy since it is the target audience for the “New HR.” If we are to guide this new era of strategic HR, this is the audience who needs to hear us, and not an SPHR/PHR who probably (and hopefully) already gets it.

Every interaction must bring value

Every conversation has to bring value. One of my former direct reports called me excitedly a year or so ago and talked about her new promotion to HR Business Partner. When I asked how this role was different from her past role, she fumbled, rambled, and came across as confused what it came to showing me the value.

Finally, she said that this role would allow her to be a dedicated HR person for the marketing department. That’s a lost opportunity, I thought. My comment was that you need to rethink your approach to that question. What you just said brings no value at all to this new model.

More than likely, the person that came up with this model did not equip people not in HR to understand the importance of this alignment. Every conversation that we have outside of our normal territory has to bring value to what we do.

When we fumble in our response, we perpetuate the narrative around HR. When we can’t coherently explain the value that we bring outside of our HR “peeps,” we confirm our inability to understand our place within the organization.

So as I say to my wife, no, I will not sit idly by and let someone talk about what I do and how it does not bring value. In other words, my muzzle is always off.

Let the message continues.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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