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HR Leadership Column

Thinking Strategically

While thinking strategically is an innate skill for some HR professionals, others need to learn what it means to take that step toward one of the most valued HR competencies. Take a broad view of the HR function and the role you play within it, and then look for ways your actions might help achieve the business goals of the organization.

Monday, May 16, 2011
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Recently, as I prepared to make a presentation on HR competencies (see the slides from my presentation here), I looked at various models and read or re-read some of the research on the subject. What's the competency that shows up in virtually all HR-competency models? Strategic thinking.

In one 2010 research report from the Society for Human Resource Management entitled What Senior HR Leaders Need to Know: Perspectives From the United States, Canada, India, and the Middle East and North Africa, HR executives were asked their views on the most important competencies for the profession.

Not surprisingly, in all four countries/regions, strategic thinking was one of the top two most highly rated competency; the other was effective communication.

The research also found that a larger percentage of HR professionals believed it would be easier to teach someone to communicate well than to think strategically.

Thinking strategically can be a real challenge for some HR professionals.

During my years at SHRM, I was struck by how often I was asked to explain what it meant to "be a strategic thinker" or "how do I become a strategic partner?" I still cringe when I think about it. I used to think, "If you have to ask that question, you probably can't get there."

But over time I began to realize there is a reason many HR professionals haven't learned to be strategic thinkers. I noticed that those who are most challenged to think strategically are frequently people who simply "ended up" in HR; they took a job, they didn't enter a profession.

And, as so often happens when people take a new job, they focus on the immediate needs -- sort of Maslow's hierarchy of needs for new employees: They try to stay safe by taking care of the immediate problems.

For someone's first HR job, that might mean making sure the payroll is right or that the employer doesn't get sued. These people are in survival mode and their most pressing concerns are trying to learn the tactical and compliance aspects of the job.

Learning about the function can be particularly difficult for those with no business and/or HR educational background. They can't even understand the context within which they're operating, so how can they be expected to be strategic?

What happens next is what's important.

As time passes, some keep their heads down, focusing on the details of the job and the daily fire drills. They remain focused throughout their careers on making sure there are no lawsuits, no missed filings, no positions unfilled. They figure they're doing a good job if no one sues the company and no government agencies show up at the door.

Others, over time, learn the business. They figure out who makes money for the company, and how. They learn more about the industry they work in -- whatever it is -- and ask questions to learn more.

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They seek out what industry thought leaders and other analysts are saying about the future of the industry.

They spend time pondering ways to link HR's efforts to the strategy of the company. They take a very broad view about their function and the role they play within it, and how their actions might impact the organization.

They're curious and ask questions. They challenge assumptions about the way things are done. They're not just aware of the day-to-day demands of the job; they're also focused on the long term -- past, present and future -- and their role in helping the business achieve its strategic objectives.

So I learned I was wrong to assume that "if you have to ask that question, you probably can't get there." The fact is, if you're asking questions, you're on the right path.

Some people seem to have an innate ability to think strategically. For others, it's a learned skill.

While I think it's a lot easier to learn if you've got a foundation of HR knowledge and business literacy, it can be done.

Just take the time to lift your sights above your HR role. Instead, focus on the entire business first, and then consider your role within it.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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