Three Key Take-Aways from HR Congress Brussels

Last week I had the privilege of attending the international HR Congress in Brussels, Belgium. Over the course of two days I joined 900 HR professionals in listening to and exchanging ideas about where HR is today, where it needs to be tomorrow, and how we’re going to get there. The biggest thing that I noticed was that 80-90% of the points covered were the same as what I focused on during my bachelor’s studies in 8 years ago, and they all centered on the theme: HR Needs to Become a Strategic Partner.

In short, not much has changed.

Or has it?

The issue is that on one hand we’re still hammering on the fact that HR needs to be able to think strategically, but on the other hand we’re finding better ways to motivate employees as well as engage leaders in people-related activities. With that in mind, here are my three take-aways from the event.

HR STILL Struggles to Think Strategically

Time and time again I heard speakers discuss the need for HR to be able to think strategically and show how their work directly impacts business outcomes. Quite frankly, it’s depressing that we haven’t been able to move on from this point. The fact that we’re talking about it so much says two things: 1) Too many HR professionals lack the competencies needed to truly be a part of the business (which is why they are relegated to administrative sidelines and subsequently ignored); 2) HR leaders who can think strategically aren’t working hard enough to educate their less-strategic peers.

If you’re an HR professional and you are in a position where the business isn’t taking your seriously, it’s probably because you don’t know how to speak their language. There are entire books dedicated to this, but the simple version of is this: How does anything you do generate money for the business? Learn how to answer this question and you’ll already be on your way to being a partner.

A great example of effective strategic, bottom-line oriented thinking came from Ingrid Eras-Magdalena, EVP Chief HR Officer at Belmond. During her session she discussed cultural change and how she, together with senior leadership, made it happen at Belmond. This is a typical HR talk, but what made it not just unique, but exceptional, was that each and every action was directly connected to business outcomes, often with statistics. We need more people like Ingrid.

If you’re an HR leader who does know how to think strategically I beg you, BEG YOU, to please start coaching others in HR to think this way. Should you encounter people who can’t or won’t embrace strategic thinking, take steps to keep them out of key roles or remove them from the organization entirely. HR professionals shouldn’t be in the business if they can’t think for the business. That may be harsh, but it’s the only way HR is going to evolve. Otherwise, ten years from now, we’ll still be ignored by most business leaders and we’ll still be covering this at conferences – which I really don’t want to do.

Purpose Driven Organizations Are the Future

Dave Ulrich, arguably the foremost thought leader on HR topics, presented research that shows that a focus on organizational capabilities rather than individual talent yields 4X more business impact. One of the ways organizational capabilities are developed is by creating a shared sense of purpose. According to him, “When organizations become purpose driven, they are not only more likely to succeed in the marketplace, but they create societal good. These organizations don’t just have any culture; they have the right culture that creates market value.” Organizations that are simply focused on profit will fail to compete as effectively because their people won’t be as motivated.

We’re seeing this play out a bit already. Facebook ends each week with a story about how Facebook has improved the lives of its users. Airbnb has built a mission as well as an add campaign around bringing people together with #OneLessStranger. Both of these companies are for profit, but both of them want to do good for the world in general. The result? Positive social impacts and motivated employees.

HR professionals will need to harness this in their organizations and that will require them to help executive leadership understand its importance. It will also require them to run effective internal campaigns to make sure employees are aware of and buying into the mission.

Some CEO’s Get It

My favorite keynote came from the CEO of WD-40, Garry Ridge. He shared how and why engagement at the company is at 93% and how that has led to doubled revenue. WD-40 isn’t necessarily a brand that gets the typical person excited, but it became apparent that nearly every single employee absolutely loved working there, and much of that has come from the approach Ridge has taken.

Many CEO’s that I watch or speak to are good at providing platitudes about “putting people first,” but few of them actually do it. Instead they ignore people issues and simply demand that people work harder and innovate more in order to generate more money. (HR’s inability to speak in financial terms isn’t helping.)

So, what makes Ridge different? Ridge is fully dedicated to providing his employees with a good experience and he makes no apologies for it. He’s created a vision built around creating positive, lasting memories, employees are given a lot of autonomy, leadership roles only go to people who are willing to be leaders, and he makes his focus on people clear to everyone, including shareholders.

Here’s what he sent out in his latest shareholder letter: “Our job is to make sure we create an environment where our tribe members wake up each day inspired to go to work, feel safe while they are there, and return home at the end of the day fulfilled by the work they do – feeling that they have learned something new and contributed to something bigger than themselves.

“This is the world we envision. If we can create this world for our people, they will take care of our customers, and that will, in turn, take care of our stockholders.”

To be clear, Ridge is still focused on making money, but he knows the best way to do it is by helping his employees succeed. Companies with CEOs that think this way are going to smash their competitors, but that can only happen if HR is able to guide things properly.

What Can HR Do Today?

HR still has a lot of work to do. The first thing is to start thinking strategically (and removing HR professionals who can’t or won’t do so). As that happens it will become possible to create a shared sense of purpose that motivates employees while also helping CEO’s to become people-first thinkers. If HR is able to make this evolution, not only will businesses be more successful, but HR conferences will start feeling a little less redundant.


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