"In a big organisation like ours," explained my lunch companion Charles, the managing director at the sharp end of a global investment bank, "all that people stuff is done by HR".
True, Charles rarely concerns himself with performance standards, leadership development and skills training. Likewise for his peers. The result is that the 'people stuff' is hardly being done at all, for paradoxically the HR department cannot drive firm-wide people development.
Charles might ask his travel agent to research hotels, negotiate a seat on a busy flight or advise on vaccines for his daughter, but he would hardly expect the consultant to take a holiday on his behalf. Similarly HR executives can identify the best solutions and trainers, ensure that budgets are spent wisely and offer guidance on standards and metrics. Nevertheless, only Charles can board the plane, and only Charles can be held accountable for his own learning.
The beguiling mantra that HR should drive people development harms individual and organisational performance. People in 'the business' ascribe a low priority to learning and change, and enduring success is sacrificed on the altar of instant gain. Legitimised by cultural artefacts such as remuneration strategies, such myopia kills competitive edge.
The symptoms are likely familiar. People complain that learning takes them away from the 'real job' of meeting clients, selling products or running operations. Individuals engage in sporadic development through training programmes and annual appraisals, but fail to take stock of everyday experience, a rich source of feedback and a springboard for high performance. Denied the political authority to be effective, HR professionals are accused of being out of touch with, or irrelevant to, the business. Ironically, the perception that HR should own development renders its executives impotent to deliver the value they may be uniquely positioned to offer.
Senior management may have confidence in the firm's technology patents, brand franchise or global balance-sheet. However, these artefacts of employees' past achievements have a limited shelf-life and must be sustained and boosted through on-going high performance. In today's fiercely competitive environment, this means all employees hold themselves personally accountable for continuous learning and performance development. Individuals are advised to reflect proactively on their own work, understand their own development needs and direct their own learning. HR professionals must develop the business and personal credibility to engage managers and teams across the organisation.
Cultural shift is required to support such new behaviours. Top leaders are encouraged to endorse continuous learning, the force behind tomorrow's high performance, alongside day-to-day responsibilities. Line managers are to enable team members to split their time between existing commitments and learning activities. Employees, regardless of role or seniority, require a voice in improving work processes, and experimentation should be supported. Finally, organisations have to be sympathetic if performance dips, as it often does, while a person spends time and energy acquiring new skills.
To be competitive, demonstrable commitment to performance improvement is required in the job specification of all managers and team members. Only when individuals take charge of their own development will HR be in a position to do its job: enabling employees across the firm to fulfill their pledges to excellence.
Quentin Millington (pictured ) runs Noble Stamp, a professional development consultancy for senior executives, and is part-time specialist in cross-cultural leadership at Cambridge's Judge Business School
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