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The HR Head -- The CEO’s “Life Support” (In Times of Crisis)

by Manuel R. Guillermo,CEO,KSearch Asia Consulting Abridged Version-The Business Mirror (07-15-09) 28.06.2011

Human Resource or HR sits in the middle of the most important competitive battleground in business.  Finding and retaining the best talent, among its many crucial roles, have become an increasingly vital competitive advantage, making HR a truly strategic function for any company today.  So, why do some top executives sometimes fail to appreciate this critical component in any human undertaking, despite the oft-repeated seemingly sheer lip service of many top executives who are quick to holler “people are our most important asset”.
I sought out a noted thought leader in corporate human resource, Ms. Susan Grace Rivera-Manalo, presently the HR Head of Globe Telecom, to elicit her views on the roles of human resource and that of the HR Head, particularly in times of economic downturns.  With more than two decades of combined line and consulting experience in the broad field of HR in telecommunications, broadcast/entertainment and financial services, among others, her specialization revolves around organizational development, communication and training interventions in improving organization effectiveness. 
Ms. Manalo has worked with CEOs and senior managers who have a deep appreciation of HR, and have worked with their Chief HR Head and his/her team to build organization capabilities and talents that deliver desired business results.  She maintains that business is ultimately about people.  Customers are people.  CEOs, boards, public servants and employees are people.  The right people in the right roles doing the right things with the right attitudes and mindsets are those that have the higher likelihood of succeeding. HR, she adds, is that discipline, science, and art that enable the connection between business or organization strategy and what people believe, talk about, and do inside and outside the organization, right or otherwise. 
According to Ms. Manalo, most CEOs when polled about what keeps them awake at night have among their top three concerns (i) building and sustaining the leadership, (ii) adequacy of talent, and (iii) culture the business needs.  Those are precisely the domain of HR as it partners with the organization’s leaders.  Does HR deliver on this mandate?  That perhaps is the root cause of the perceived “appreciation gap” - unenlightened corporate leaders who fail to leverage on the competencies of HR to build the capabilities the organization needs to succeed.  The flipside of the coin is that there are HR professionals who simply do not deliver on their mandates or fail to anticipate and transform in ways more relevant to business, hence the forfeited appreciation from management. 
According to Ms. Manalo, the effective HR Head sees and anticipates the people implications of business strategy and the business implications of people initiatives.  Decisions emanating from both points of view inevitably impact financial performance results. In a downturn situation, every role in the organization is put to a test, the HR function probably much more so.   
Ms. Manalo cited Jim Collins’s latest publication “How the Mighty Fall” where he studied the contrasts between successes and failures.  He writes “Whether you prevail or fail, endure or die, depends more on what you do to yourself than on what the world does to you.” Collins also demonstrated through insights from his research that decline can be avoided, detected, reversed.  Ms. Manalo checked out the term “human resources” in the index of this book and found none.  She didn’t even find the word people or talent. But found, ever repeatedly, words such as strategy, change versus consistency, performance, core values, customer, leadership, right people in key seats, succession, culture and reorganization. Are these not the very same things we refer to when we talk about “human resources?”  And these are the very same variables that differentiate the best from the good, those who prevail and those who fall.
When asked about the essential qualities the HR Head must possess to be able to help manage company crisis situations, working in tandem with the CEO and the rest of the top management, she itemized the standpoints, as follows:
(a) a keen understanding of business, customers and markets, and strategy and how such will be implemented within the context and limited resources of the business,
(b)   foresight and the ability to anticipate the future,
(c)  the ability to identify and recognize risks and craft mitigating plans,
(d)   decisiveness to make tough calls when the situations call for them,
(e)   excellent communication skills – from strategy to actual execution, and
(f)  equanimity and calm during the crisis, openness and capacity to learn from the crisis and move on.
Through all these, Ms. Manalo ascertains that she kept to the principle that HR must rise above administrative spheres and be seen as a unifying factor whose reason for being is ultimately the good of the total organization.

                                                                                 *          *          *          *          *
The HR function has obviously gone a long way from being mere administrative tasks (viz., hiring, firing, running payrolls, meting out disciplines, rendering benefits, negotiating labor contracts, providing advice to management on selecting and grooming key people for promotion to top posts or transfers, as well as providing analysis of the impact of demographic, social, and political trends on their organizations.).
The HR function is now evolving to do much more.  The HR of the future is expected to promote active learning; induce cost-savings and help upgrade revenues; help hatch, nurture and harvest ideas in the organization; connect people; and, above all, enhance employee engagement.  All these, the new HR will, in due course, be additionally immersed with; thus enabling top HR practitioners to be truly accepted as top management’s strategic partners.

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