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Join the line for credibility

Line management experience is no longer just a nice to have for HR professionals, its a must if they are to avoid the function being dismissed as fluffy. Stefan Stern reports

HR and operational line management: never the twain shall meet? Perhaps in the past, but if you ask senior HR managers today they are clear about the need for HR professionals to spend some time experiencing line management at first hand.

Some people might question whether HR loses its special impartiality by getting involved in the line, says Lynne Weedall, HR director for the David Lloyd leisure business, now part of the Whitbread group. But there is no use being a technically skilled HR person with wonderful values that are remote from the front line.

John Harryman, HR director at Bechtel, the construction company, agrees. There is a danger that without experience of the line you end up as a brilliant technician theres room for one or two of those in a department, but not too many. Thats when you get known as the fluffy HR department, and Ive seen too many of those.

The apparent conflict between line and HR management involves more than its fair share of clichs and stereotypes. There are the ruthless operations people who cannot be bothered with the niceties of HR, or the cerebral HR managers constantly out to stop line managers from treading on peoples toes in pursuit of quick results.

It is a story familiar to Harryman. The issue arises partly because of peoples different time horizons, he says. Line managers will be judged on an annual basis more often than not what is their P&L performance for the year, and so on.

But HRs deliverables are continuous, and may well extend far beyond the one-year horizon, he says. Culture, succession planning, leadership, development strategy these things might be measured over a 5-10 year period.

At David Lloyd, Weedall is clear about the benefits of her team having line-management experience. About a third of them come from operational roles, she says. You cant preach what you have never practised. It was a defining moment for me in my career when I took on an operational role; you find out what is possible and what isnt.

How might this work in practice? Harryman talks in terms of rotating managers within an organisation, so that HR and line managers gain experience of what their colleagues work involves. We did that quite systematically when I was at Exxon [Esso]. I had to run a canteen and a security force. It was a really useful experience.

Weedall goes even further. Its not just nice to have, its a must. It is the best way of building credibility with colleagues, and maybe the only way of breaking down those old tensions between HR and the line.

Harryman says that all HR managers are used to having to deal with line managers who say, Im running this show. Ill do what I want get out of the way. But over time, he says, it can become a non-issue. If you work with people, listen to them, understand what line managers responsibilities are, you can get the best out of the relationship.

No department is an island entire to itself. Neither HR nor line managers can afford to ignore each other. It may be time for all sides to get down from their high horses, and find out how the other half lives.

Whats in it for HR managers

  • Win credibility with other line managers

  • Test the limits of fine HR theory in practice

  • Learn what line managers are up against in the field

  • Develop practical management skills that may not get tested in the ordinary course of events

  • Have more variety in your working life