Who owns people development? Not HR

Quentin Millington , 02 Nov 2012


"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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Great analogy

Sandrine Bardot, Compensation Insider 04 Nov 2012

Of course, all HR professionals will agree with the argument, and say this is not news. And yes this is not a hot new topic. Yet, it still needs to be asserted time and time again... I really like your comparison to the travel situation and will use it again if I hear one more manager complain about the lack of results of performance management systems when they never give feedback to their teams or set expectations !

Absolutely agree!

Graham Frost 06 Nov 2012

This article is so true. People development cannot be delegated to H.R., it is the responsibility of every manager to enable the development of their own team, and ultimately the CEO is responsible for everyone's development. People development can no more be delegated than employee engagement can.


Benjamin Herman 10 Nov 2012

When I first started my most recent personal development project with our team I went back and the read "the oz principle" cause I knew fostering individual accountability had to come right at the front of the program. I find myself using the analogy of a shop window for what I am offering as training solutions.

Put Talent Development in the Hands of the Talented

Jay Perry 13 Nov 2012

It's clear to us that the most powerful engine for talent development is with the talent themselves. In our upcoming book "Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life (BK, January 2013)we not only make a compelling case for asking each and every individual to take responsibility for their talent development; we offer a concrete set of tools and exercises to enable people to do just that. It's time to broaden the focus from talent development aimed at high potentials and acknowledged leaders and recognize the value that everyone has to offer. This points us directly to solutions for vexing problems like engagement and innovation. Employees don't necessarily need managers and CEOs to fire them up; they need the encouragement, structures, and tools to fire themselves up. http://www.takechargeofyourtalent.com/

True, but...

roger 19 Nov 2012

I like your note, and agree with most of what you have written. However, the vast majority of HR leaders are to blame for accepting the ball tossed across the fence by leaders. Indeed many think it is a measure of their power or position at the table. It is for this reason I really like Jac Fritz Enz's recent article diassembling HR. http://www.hreonline.com/HRE/view/story.jhtml?id=533350819

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