Being Strategic: What It Really Means for HR

Brainstorming concpets.HR professionals are well aware of exhortations for them to “be more strategic.” You can hardly pick up a trade publication these days without at least one reference to HR’s need to become a better strategic partner in organizations of all types and sizes.

But what does being strategic really mean?

“In all of our research with employers, being ‘strategic’ is one of the most sought-after attributes in a candidate and one that we measure for all employers and candidates on our platform,” says Claire McTaggart, founder and CEO of SquarePeg, an HR tech platform based in New York. McTaggart says being strategic is an attribute “that is valued more as an employee advances into higher managerial grades, while traits such as ‘adaptable’ and ‘efficient’ are more of a priority for juniors.”

HR Leaders Define “Being Strategic”

HR leaders are readily able to provide definitions for what it means to “be strategic”:

  • “We define strategic as the ability to think ahead and identify long-term goals and how to accomplish them.” – Claire McTaggart, SquarePeg
  • “For an HR group to ‘be strategic’ means that they elevate the people capabilities of the organization in ways that are aligned with the organization’s strategy.” – Kyle Brost, principal of Choice Strategy Group, a Kansas-based management consultancy.
  • “To be truly strategic, HR people need to pull back from human capital and think about business and strategy, first. They need to be able to clearly understand what business they are in, how the company makes money, what the product/service is, who the customer is, and what the strategy is to beat the competition and win!” – Ben Brooks, CEO, Pilot, a New York-based career improvement technology platform.
  • “At the end of the day, being strategic as an HR professional is about enabling individual competency, workforce capability and organizational performance.” – Mike Van Hoozer, Athenian Consulting Group, based in Houston.
  • “Being strategic in HR is all about optimizing human capital in order to achieve the organization’s key objectives. It involves connecting, listening and collaborating with business leaders to identify human capital pain points and opportunities and craft and carry out solutions and optimization plans.” – Elissa Tucker, APQC, a productivity and quality benchmarking and best practices firm, also based in Houston.

The bottom line: being strategic requires a focus on the end game and the ability to align HR initiatives and activities with meaningful and measurable business outcomes. Not all HR pros inherently “get” this. However, as they rise up the ranks within an organization their definitions become more long-term focused and more aligned not with HR outcomes, but with business outcomes.

So why is there often such a disconnect and so much criticism of HR not being strategic?

Agreement on What “Being Strategic” Looks Like Remains Elusive

The issue may be not so much what the phrase means but to what extent leaders, and HR professionals, can agree on where HR’s focus should be. There’s a missing link that leaves a disconnect between definitions that may be technically accurate—and results that really make a difference from the C-suite point of view.

When a business leader, or HR critic, says something like, “You need to be more strategic,” the meaning behind that statement is likely, “You’re not getting the results we want to see.” Getting those results, of course, is impossible unless HR and organizational leaders have had conversations and reached consensus on what strategic outcomes need to be achieved to further organizational goals and objectives.

The foundational question then becomes, “What does success look like?” The opportunity—and challenge—for HR is to frame that desired endpoint in language the C-suite not only understands, but agrees with. Reaching that endpoint requires communication and conversations.

Real communication is about more than simply talking or conveying information. It’s about conveying information in meaningful ways. As Mike Van Hoozer explains, “When an HR professional works with a business leader, they need to communicate in terms that the business person can understand and find value in, not purely HR terms.”

For instance, he says, when developing a leadership develop program, HR leaders need to communicate the “strategic intent of the program and how the program will help a business unit accomplish their goals or productivity, performance, succession planning and more engaged employees.”

Too often, Van Hoozer points out, HR leaders are focused on metrics that are low-level and tactical, such as cost per person, logistics and learning objectives. Instead, they need to focus at a higher level that equates to “top line business numbers like how engagement and productivity enables increased top-line revenue and sales growth.” Those are the numbers that get the attention of the C-suite and convinces them that HR is being “strategic.”

John Peebles, CEO of Administrate, a firm that provides training software, offers a number of key litmus test questions to ask in this area:

  • Is the organization leveraging HR to affect business outcomes?
  • Does the business need to grow revenues by 40 percent next year?
  • How is HR, specifically, going to contribute to its growth via various initiatives?
  • How will HR feed the impact of what it’s doing into the day-to-day operation of the business?

Making Progress

Despite the prevalent, and ongoing, exhortations of HR needing to be “more strategic,” there is some evidence that the situation is not as gloomy as it is so often portrayed. A 2015 SHRM survey, Human Resource Management Policies and Practices in the United States, indicated that:

  • HR’s representation on their organizations’ board of directors had increased from 41 percent in 2004, to 63 percent in 2009, to 70 percent in 2015;
  • Two-thirds (66 percent) of respondents indicated they had a written HR management strategy;

If you’ve been feeling stymied and under-appreciated in your organization for a perceived lack of strategic orientation, maybe it’s time to begin some conversations and seek consensus around the results that a successful HR strategy will achieve for the organization.