In Conversation With Deborah Wilkes, Author, Coach and Consultant on Empowering Human Resources in 2022
Deborah has been passionate about HR and its value since her early career establishing and leading UK and European HR functions. Then, as a consultant and coach for over 25 years, she developed leaders and managers in some of the world’s leading organisations, such as General Electric, Diageo, and Roche.
In recent years, Deborah has brought those two strands together. She and her team researched what makes great HR and created a unique framework of seven HR Enablers.
She is CEO of Enable-HR International Ltd, which enables the HR function to become more strategic and business savvy in its approach, activities, and behaviours. They run virtual development programmes for HR leaders, managers, and HRBPs and offer consultancy in strategic projects such as workforce planning and reviewing the HR function.
Q- You enable HR leaders and managers, and specialize in building effective HR functions. Tell us about your latest book Empowering HR?
These really are exciting times to be in HR. The world has changed so much and there have been dramatic shifts in the world of work that have been accelerated by the pandemic. Organisations need HR to be at the forefront – the people agenda has never been more important in supporting the business agenda.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to be in HR right now. HR still has the legacy of being seen as an admin function, and it’s hard to shake that off. To add real value, HR needs to operate from a position of strength, and I know from my HR community that many HR leaders are still fighting for that position of influence.
CEOs are surrounded by issues and want HR to clean them up. There is a gravitational pull towards being reactive – and yet HR people know how much more value they can add. How can you shift that when you’re already overloaded and feel burdened by others’ perceptions of HR? That’s what I explore in this book.
Our research showed that the critical factor is the quality of the relationship between HR and the business. You can have the most elegant solution imaginable, but if it’s not fit for purpose and easy to understand, it won’t be embraced and embedded into the organisation.
I learned this the hard way during my career, and I share some personal stories in the book – it’s realistic and practical. I’m delighted that Dave Ulrich endorsed both the book and our Enablers as a valuable contribution to the HR world.
Q- How can HR become more strategic and business savvy in their approach, their activities, and their behaviours?
We know that HR people want to become more strategic – so why is it so hard? That’s what we recently researched with HR leaders so that we could work on solutions. You can download our report on ‘how to get HR to the next level’
The top theme that emerged was the mindset of business leaders, and the second was resource issues in HR. Another was how difficult it can be for HR to be involved early in business decisions. Often HR is told after strategies or decisions are already decided, and this leaves them able to add value only operationally, and feeling in catch-up mode.
So, within that difficult context, let’s get back to the question – how can HR rise up and win more influence and involvement in strategic decision-making?
Building business acumen is vital within this, and this comes from learning from stakeholders as well as from spreadsheets. Only when you really understand how your business ticks can you become more strategic. HR people need to speak the language of business, and that’s numbers.
This isn’t the norm for HR people, and this links to another theme that emerged in our research – the mindset of HR.
A good start point is to check out your fundamental beliefs about the role of HR. Do you really believe that your purpose is to drive profitability as well as culture? If you don’t believe it, you can’t BE it. HR leaders have to make business priorities HR’s purpose.
That can feel hard when HR people tend to be values-driven. You can’t change people’s emotional drivers – but you can realign them. It’s good for everyone when business is successful – and then you get the win-win of more influence.
Once your beliefs have shifted, then you can realign how you position yourself, what you say and how you come across. Becoming more strategic is a behavioural challenge as well as intellectual. It’s about presence and credibility – what you say as well as how you say it.
Q- How to develop HR’s capabilities and re-align, energize and inspire HR people?
First, it’s important to work out the capabilities you need, and where you are now – and that’s why we developed our HR Profiling System. People self-evaluate using our 7 HR Enablers so that they can decide how to shift the way they operate with the help of our interactive Development Plan – it’s like a mini-workshop. We use 360-degree evaluation to get input from stakeholders, and Team reports to create discussion about what’s important and work out how to get from here to there. It’s important to bring the team along together – to build on what they already do well.
The energy and inspiration follow – there’s so much commitment in HR, it isn’t difficult to channel that once you can provide clarity about where you’re going and the benefits. Developing skills, capabilities, and behaviours in HR people builds their confidence as well as their impact.
Q- How do you see the impact of COVID-19 on Diversity & Inclusion in corporates?
The impact has been massive, at least on the face of it. It’s in headlines and strategic reports. Intellectually, corporates get it. The point has been made in dramatic fashion. D&I is a long journey, however – a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s about changing behaviour, day in and day out, under pressure as well as when the going is easy. It’s had a major push – I hear corporates talking about it far more than before – but actions have to follow words. There’s a long way to go.
Q- Any concluding remarks?
This really is a great time to be in HR. The appetite is growing for HR to fully participate at the strategic level of organisations. The crucial importance of talent is more fully appreciated than ever, and that’s the core remit of HR.
We must care for business and care for people – the two go together. With skill and courage, HR can take their rightful place as strategic partners in driving profitability as well as culture.
Thank you, Deborah!