Developing the art of global HR management

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Multinationals now recognise that HR professionals have to be strategic players to be effective within the business. We report on Shell's latest drive to develop their HR people's leadership potential.

"There is a science, craft and an art to HR. Until now Shell has concentrated mostly on the craft but now we have taken things a step further," says Rick Brown, Shell's Vice President for HR Functional Excellence.

Standing up to the line can be difficult

Shell has understood that HR professionals want to develop their technical and leadership skills and, as a first step, has developed a competence model to help HR see where and what they need to change to get on in the company.

Brown, presenting the model at a recent RSM Erasmus University business networking event, explained that the new model allows HR professionals within the company to compare themselves in competencies and therefore gives them more control and insight into their own function and career paths. And Shell is looking to groom at least 500 HR people for senior roles.

Through involving HR throughout the company in the process we managed to create one competence model out of the many existing models and whittled it down to 26 global HR competencies said Brown.

Mind the gap, learn the business

"Some of the gaps which we found in doing this work were about being a leader and business understanding, and business understanding is the key competence that HR people need," says Brown.

And this 'gap' was referred to repeatedly during the open discussion at the RSM networking event by HR managers from several other companies including Unilever and Philips. 

"HR is missing business knowledge and understanding," said one of the HR managers. "We need to understand how to approach line managers," she said.

Another HR professional agreed, "A lot of the problem is about holding up a mirror and dealing with pushback from line managers. HR needs to learn how to stand up to line managers with different competencies."

Standing up to the line

"For top HR people, in any company, one of the most difficult tasks is holding up that mirror confirms Brown. "It is usually to do with long term versus short term. HR has a responsibility to ensure that the organisation has a talent pool that will allow it to function long-term. Individual managers may be much more focused on short-term results," he says.

"Short-term results matter too, but often where the conflict comes in with HR people is where line managers can get so short-term focused that they are actually destroying the long-term," says Brown.

"HR has to say, 'hold on, I know why you are doing this but it is simply not acceptable, you are destroying the long-term value of the company by doing that. And then give their preferred solution," says Brown.

This sort of behaviour takes courage and confidence Brown admits. "And if you can't do that you're not a professional HR person you are just a servant of the line," he says.

Is what you want what you need?

HR people often get very good feedback from line managers.  But, one of the worst things about being in HR is "you can have your best reputation by doing the worst job," says Brown,  "by just giving the customer exactly what they ask for rather than questioning whether that is what they need."

Especially in smaller companies there is a tendency for HR to just give the line what they ask for – and that isn't global, high quality HR says Brown.

"You need some science; to understand the models which underlie HR.  You need the craft: there's no point in standing up to the manager if you can't tell them the HR tool or process or technique that will answer their question.

Learning the art

However, "Even if you know the science and have been trained in the craft, the personal characteristics you bring to bear – even if you have the confidence brought from the first two – are hard to teach. And this is the art," says Brown.

And Shell is trying to teach its HR people just that in two one-week long programmes they have organised for staff at top business schools IMD/RSM, and INSEAD/Cornell. "We picked business schools in both programmes because we wanted to teach them about business as well as HR," says Brown.

"So for the first two days in each of these programmes the HR people will be taught about business and finance. So that is giving them some of the science of the craft if you like."

Essentially, says Brown, we developed the programmes to "teach what it means to be an HR leader and how to manage the dilemmas faced, to have the courage to hold the correct line. And that is more the art."

7 July 2005

Natasha Gunn is the editor of Expatica HR. Any feedback on this article is welcome.

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Global HR management, international human resource management, leaders in human resource management

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