The business case for executive-level HR

Rahat Joshi
July 8, 2022
The business case for executive-level HR

Apple. Tesla. Comcast. Berkshire Hathaway. Alibaba. Johnson & Johnson. Visa. P&G.

That’s a handful of global leaders by market cap in different industries. And here’s the multi-million pound question: what’s the secret to their success?

Lots of things, for sure. But they all have one big truth in common: a strong leadership team. The CEO, of course, and a whole handful of senior VPs and big Cs, but notably in every case, a strong executive-level HR presence.

Whether it’s a VP of People, a Head of Global HR, a Chief People Officer, or something in between, each of these stratospherically successful companies positions HR at the pinnacle of the business. And there’s a good bet you could get through the whole 100 global leaders before you found anyone deviating from that model.

In the most successful organisations, HR has had a seat at the table for years. Let’s talk about why everyone else is scrabbling to catch up — and why you can’t afford not to pay attention.

People leaders are the guardian of organisational success

The pandemic made organisations a whole heap more aware of their people. Or more accurately, more aware of how painful their people problems can become if they’re not managed effectively. 

With employee engagement hitting crisis mode, absenteeism on the up, stress levels skyrocketing plus all the impact of organisational change thrown into the mix, few organisations came out unscathed. And as many organisations are realising, this is only the start.

Whatever workplace model you’re exploring, people’s expectations from and relationship with work have changed. The so-called Great Resignation has left many organisations desperately spinning plates, scrabbling for talent while trying to keep the best people firmly in-house, while competitors’ salary budgets seem to get bigger and bigger.

The gap between the boardroom and the workforce has widened, and there’s a whole heap of dissatisfaction that’ll bear rotten fruit over the coming months. Over 70% of HR professionals in the UK say they’re prioritising improving employee engagement in 2022, for example.

The truth is, organisations always have heaps of priorities to juggle —but few companies out there aren’t battling people problems right now. And unfortunately, those without effective HR leadership at the top aren’t positioned to solve them.

Market leaders are lauded time and again for amazing HR strategy and winning people leadership. Apple has topped HR Executive’s ‘Most admired for HR’ list several times. Alibaba is earning coverage for its “winning HR strategy during a crisis”.

Having strong HR leadership isn’t an immediate answer to a crisis, but it’s certainly a start — and integral to post-pandemic recovery (and upwards growth!)

                        Read more: 3 major HR roles that are trending right now

Little wonder, then, that other organisations are racing to catch up. Both DocuSign and Virgin Group have just created a Chief People Officer role, for instance. And there’s little doubt about their motivation. Says Josh Bayliss, Chief Executive Officer at Virgin Group:

“It‘s the right time for us post-pandemic to further strengthen our people team in this way – by recruiting a Chief People Officer – as it will bring even greater focus to this aspect of Virgin’s purpose. Nikki’s significant experience offers us an excellent opportunity to build on the success we create by focusing on our people”

Dan Springer, CEO of DocuSign, likewise recognises the link between growth and HR leadership:

"Over the past few years, DocuSign has grown from a popular app to an essential platform for how the world creates, signs and manages agreements– from anywhere, with anyone, and at any time. As we enter our next phase of growth, it's critical that we build a leadership bench ready to scale with our ambitions”.

The changes we’re all experiencing right now will leave winners and losers — and the gap will depend on the strength of your people leaders.

Now here’s the good news: you don’t need to be a multi-millon pound company with extraordinary budgets to learn from the principle.

How to elevate and empower your people leaders

Strengthening your HR leadership isn’t as simple as creating a Chief People Officer position. Unless you also empower that person with the right budget, processes, tools, and autonomy, you’re throwing them into the deep end without a snorkel.

Before the organisation decides to elevate HR to executive-level, you need to evaluate:

  • Current people team capabilities and shortfalls
  • People goals and how they relate to strategic goals
  • Your biggest people challenges and roadblocks to progress
  • Leadership team support for elevating HR
  • Operational challenges to elevating HR
  • The resources this elevated HR function will need to succeed
  • The processes needed to integrate HR into exec-level

When you speak to your current HR Team at the frontline of your biggest challenges, you’ll likely find they already have a good idea on how to solve but are disempowered to do so.

Creating space for HR to take more responsibility, accountability, and authority within the business means empowering the people you already trust with your biggest asset — your workforce — to make the difference you hired them for.

At a time when workforce decision-making more than ever determines organisational success, don’t hamstring your workforce decision-makers.

Winningtemp empower people leaders to build happy and prosperous organisations with better business results. Learn more.


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