C-Suite Agenda

5 avoidable mistakes HR leaders make

Ilona Charles

Arguably, the human resources function should be considered at least equal to your finance function. In most, if not all businesses, people are the single largest cost and, in all likelihood, have the single biggest impact on customer satisfaction and advocacy. In an HBR article, Felix Barber and Rainer Strack write “ It is no secret that business success today revolves largely around people, not capital.” They argue that even slight changes to employee productivity can have significant impact on shareholder returns and that human resources management should not just be a support function but a core process for line managers.

Yet all too often, the HR function is either not considered necessary at all, or at best seen as a necessary evil and definitely a support function. HR has a credibility problem. HR is not respected and whilst attitudes are changing, the prevailing perception is that HR does not understand what the business needs and does not add value.

This is obviously a gross generalisation. Or is it?

David Maister, author of The Trusted Advisor writes that there are five mistakes HR professionals make:

  1. They overemphasise the technical
    This is not unique to human resources professionals. Most service professionals learn their craft at universities where the technical components of the role are taught and assessed. This is where we start our careers, however it is not what will gain trust or credibility. It is the ticket to the game and expected. Most human problems cannot be solved by technical solutions alone. Business leaders need results, HR professionals need to leverage their technical expertise to provide business focused results to often complex problems.
  2. They don’t listen
    This is an interesting one. It is assumed that HR professionals are the masters of the ‘softer’ skills such as listening and empathy. However, often HR is so busy and so reactive, that they focus only on getting the data they need to go away and solve the immediate problem. Taking the time to truly listen and understand the context demonstrates a level of care and empathy to the person they are talking with. This goes a long way to building trust and strong working relationships.
  3. They jump quickly to action
    Keen to deliver results and often driven by the first two mistakes, HR professionals often feel the need to prove themselves. They do this by jumping to action, often before truly understanding the whole context or basing it on the superficial data at hand. It takes a courageous HR leader to push back on management in a world where speed and velocity are viewed as critical factors for business success.
  4. They focus on the answers
    This comes back to an over reliance on technical expertise and often a felt need to be able to respond quickly and decisively. But is the right question being asked in the first place? Strong HR leaders will ask questions, probe and provide a sounding board to their business colleagues enabling both to explore alternative answers and solutions to a what becomes a clearly defined problem.
  5. They focus on me, not we
    Perhaps more than any other profession, HR needs to be seen as trustworthy. To do this, HR needs to believe that the interests of the business, senior leaders and employees are the same as their own interests. What and how HR professionals behave in the workplace must be congruous with the way they expect everyone else to behave. HR must believe and live the values of the organisation, they must role model what they expect of all other employees and leaders in the business. To not do so, causes a significant breakdown in trust.

Managing people is a difficult, yet key task for most businesses. In a people business, this task is central to success. Most CEO’s and business leaders know this to be the case, they know people are complex and most would jump at the chance to have someone in their team who they trust and rely on to support them in navigating the complexities of people. Human resources can and should have greater impact. By focusing on what is important to the business, demonstrating integrity, honesty and empathy, and taking accountability for delivering focused solutions to complex problems, HR can add significant and lasting value.


Written by Ilona Charles.

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Ilona Charles
Ilona Charles, author of HR for Impact: Practical steps for HR leaders to build influence and thrive, is an experienced executive and human resources leader. She is respected for her pragmatic and business-focused approach to human resources. Ilona is co-founder of shilo. a world leading provider of on-demand human resources professionals. She is passionate about supporting businesses and HR professionals to be successful and impactful. For more information visit www.shilopeople.com


Ilona Charles is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.