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Why HR Must Learn to Speak the Language of Business Strategy

By Jamie Aitken
June 2, 2023
6 minute read

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of six articles on how to become a strategic HR leader.

For all our talk of gaining our seat at the table, many HR professionals still haven’t mastered the language of business strategy. To help our employees and organizations succeed, the truth is that we must understand how the two are intertwined and speak to it. Let me explain by way of example.

I once collaborated with a chief HR officer and her team to spearhead HR transformation at their company. My top priority was linking the business strategy to the talent strategy.

I invited the team to walk me through the company’s business strategy. When no one stepped forward, I shared my own slide deck to walk them through the business plan. After the presentation, I gave every person in the room sticky notes to write down their current initiatives and asked them to match their sticky notes to specific business objectives. 

Only two of 29 HR initiatives aligned with their company’s business strategy.

This isn’t uncommon. According to an Accenture report, 89% of CEOs say CHROs have an essential role in creating long-term profitable growth. Yet only 29% of CHROs have the profile and business conditions they need to achieve this. If you’re not comfortable talking business strategy with the leadership team, you can’t galvanize the transformational change in HR processes that your business needs to thrive.

HR leaders are still mired in tactical work

HR leaders can struggle to embrace transformative strategy because they’re still mired in tactical and administrative tasks. This situation is all too common, even as many business leaders want to focus HR’s role on people strategy. According to a report from Sage, 73% of HR leaders and 76% of C-suite executives believe that most of HR’s work remains administrative and process-oriented.

Making this shift requires trusting other leaders in your organization with responsibilities that once belonged to HR. For example, if career coaching was always HR’s job, giving that accountability to managers can feel uncomfortable at first. But isn’t it better to develop managers to handle coaching than to try to be the caretaker for every single worker’s career? This isn’t about giving up power. It’s about transitioning to modern talent management — a more sustainable system where HR provides training and resources to managers, who in turn coach their team members.

The unintended consequence of focusing so heavily on tactical work is that HR isn’t inherently seen as strategic — and therefore isn’t included in strategy sessions. HR risks being seen as only an order taker. Your CEO may even come to view the projects or programs you want to initiate with suspicion, making it harder for you to compete against other initiatives requiring support and resources.9

Becoming more strategic starts by freeing yourself from many of the details. Ask yourself: What are the things that I’m doing that have little or no business impact? Review your tasks for business relevance each quarter, and purge what doesn’t produce clear business value. This is an important first step in being more strategic, speaking the language of business, and transforming HR. Focus on actions that move the needle for the business — and be honest with yourself about this.

Many HR professionals aren’t confident in business meetings

Because the HR function has long reacted to business needs rather than setting the agenda, HR professionals aren’t always confident in leading conversations that rely on their financial and business acumen.

I was recently advising an HR team preparing to make the business case for adopting a new performance management system. Unfortunately, the project lead’s rationale wasn’t about why the business needed the new system to increase organizational performance, but rather that the current process was not working. That reason might not be compelling enough to sway the CEO, especially when competing against other initiatives also seeking funding.

Any initiative you propose has to be backed by clear business goals and objectives. That’s the language HR has to embrace to overcome communication barriers and drive business strategy. 

Build key relationships across the organization

To truly embrace your role as a strategic adviser, you need to form alliances across the business. Leading CHROs are four times more likely than their peers to have strong, mutually beneficial relationships across the C-suite, including with the CFO, the CTO, and the COO, according to Accenture’s report.

Go outside HR to better understand the business holistically. Find partners across functions you can learn from, such as IT, operations, or finance. By building relationships with these other stakeholders, you learn more about what they need from HR. It’s also good practice as you learn to discuss these topics with authority. When you’re comfortable talking with your peers casually about people strategy, you’ll find it easier to address these topics more formally during business planning meetings. 

I’ve noticed that HR leaders can be shy about building up their leadership network because they’re more comfortable offering help than asking for help. Making the ask is an important step in transforming the HR function. After all, you need the support of leaders in IT and operations just as much as they need your insights and expertise.

When you go first and build relationships across the business, your peers in leadership will see your vision — and they’ll learn what you need from them to bring it to life. The same applies when making the case for your initiatives. You can’t just ask for dollars — you have to demonstrate clearly what you plan to do and how it’ll help the business. It’s a shift from, “I’m here to serve you” to “Here’s how supporting this initiative is going to help the business.”

Learn to ask the right, business-oriented questions. When I was working on one big HR transformation project, I made a classic mistake: I asked everyone what was broken within the current HR process and what everyone’s pain points were. The question was HR-centric, and I got nothing useful from the responses I received (which were really just lists of complaints). Mostly, I learned that everyone hated the process.

After realizing my mistake, I reframed my questions and instead asked about the biggest business challenges they were having. How could HR better support them in overcoming those challenges?

By shifting the question to focus on the business, I cut to the root of the problem and moved the conversation toward strategy.

“I’ve noticed that HR leaders can be shy about building up their leadership network because they’re more comfortable offering help than than asking for help. …When you go first and build relationships across the business, your peers in leadership will see your vision — and they’ll learn what you need from them to bring it to life.”

Business leaders don’t always see the value in people

HR plays a critical role in communicating the value of people as an asset. This is especially important in organizations where workers have traditionally been perceived as a cost center

Think about it this way: Any manufacturing plant has tight controls on its processes, tools, and equipment. Only trained and qualified people are allowed on the assembly line because if the equipment is mishandled or injuries occur, production stops, and the business fails to meet its targets. 

Employees everywhere also drive value for the business, not just on the shop floor. Yet they often don’t receive the same level of attention as other assets when it comes to maintaining a high level of performance.

Clearly demonstrating the value of your workforce is a critical part of your role as an HR leader. 

Once, when working with a manufacturer, I participated in a conversation about solving a multidisciplinary challenge — part of which involved sourcing the right people to improve production levels in another location. While they were discussing the problem, I pulled up a list of qualified candidates who were willing to relocate to help solve the problem. 

The manufacturer’s leadership understood at that moment how talent could be deployed to solve business challenges. Remember that these conversations and solutions occur in the flow of business. So HR needs to be in the room alongside finance, supply chain, and other key business functions. 

As an HR leader, you always have to be ready to speak up and contribute insight into how people can solve business challenges. Make it a point to share your deep expertise. The more you speak up, the more practiced you’ll become in advising the business — and you’ll become an indispensable part of the leadership team. By learning to speak the language of business, you can shape your workplace for the better.

As VP of HR Transformation at Betterworks, Jamie helps customers reimagine the way employee performance is managed with proven systems and processes that work. She is co-author of the book, Make Work Better, and draws inspiration from her more than twenty-five years of HR leadership experience, spearheading organizational development, HR transformation, and employee engagement strategies that boost business performance.

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