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HR Magazine: What’s Your HR Creed?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal  6/1/2001

HR Magazine, June 2001

Vol. 46, No. 6

Use inspiration, creativity and barinstorming to write your HR mission statement--but keep it real.

On May 29, 1953, Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Ne- pal, and Edmund Hillary of New Zealand became the first people to conquer Mount Everest.

Since then, many have followed in their footsteps, but each climb presents a challengeone that may seem insurmountable depending on many factors. One of the most important factors to success is the need for climbers to hook their belts to others who are ready and able to make the climb.

For Bob Whitman, CEO of Franklin Covey in Salt Lake City, a mountain climber himself, that metaphor became the foundation for the companys visionas well as the basis of the HR mission statement.

Wherever you get the inspiration for your HR mission statement, HR professionals agree that it should be tied to the overall company mission statement, written in concert with your staff and your corporate leaders and adhered to by the HR department.

Follow the Leader

When Whitman became CEO of Franklin Covey in January 2000, after a six-month stint as interim CEO, he initiated a reorganization process that resulted in substantial changes at the company. Throughout the process, he encouraged managers to look around and pick people to stay with the company who youd be willing to hook your belt to on this climb, says Pam Walsh, executive vice president of human resources at Franklin Covey.

When Walsh began developing the HR departments mission statement, she started by reading about Sherpasthe Tibetans who often carry equipment and serve as guides for the people who finance Himalayan climbs. Unlike Norgay, she says, most Sherpas dont particularly care whether they make it to the summit; they simply have a job to do and they want to get home. The more Walsh learned about Sherpas like Norgay, the more she began to draw parallels between the role of the most successful Sherpas and the role of an HR staff.

Both serve in a support role because they are not financing the climb, she explains. But Norgay, says Walsh, had certain qualities that caused Hillary to not even think of going to the summit without him. Walsh decided she wanted to develop an HR staff that was so invaluable that the company would never think of going to the summit without us. That became my metaphor for the groupand the first step in developing an HR mission statement.

Walshs success in linking the HR mission statement to the companys vision is rare, says Helene Uhlfelder, a director with the Atlanta office of AnswerThink, a management consulting firm. While almost every HR organization has a mission statement, few actually tie their mission to the mission of the organization, she says.

Uhlfelder believes that an effective HR mission statement, one that is closely aligned with the organizations mission, can help the HR department move from this historically administrative role to a more value-added strategic role.

HR organizations in the top quartile of companies surveyed by AnswerThink spend 40 percent less time solving administrative problems and twice as much time on decision supportreally spending time helping people make the right decisions about the business as opposed to deciding why someones paycheck didnt come out last week, she explains.

"Its amazing how many HR departments go about starting to write their statement and never even consider what their organizations mission statement says, says Lynda Ford, SPHR, president of the Ford Group, a consulting firm in Lee Center, N.Y., and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Human Resource Development Committee.

HR staff members also need to know what the company expects of the HR department. I think its a mistake for the HR department to go off on their own and brainstorm and come up with a mission statement, says Allison Sumrow, SPHR, managing director of developing and deploying people at People Solutions Inc., a Dallas-based provider of HR management consulting and outsourcing services.

At some level you have to have executives involved, saying, This is what we want out of HR. If their vision differs from yours, There needs to be some serious alignment work done, she adds. Its not a case of deciding who is right or wrong but how the two organizations can work together to merge the ideas of the concepts.

David Ripley, SPHR, agrees. He is with the department of management at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and is the author of the SHRM white paper Key Questions and Actions Related to Strategic HR Analysis.

If you want anyone in the organization outside HR to pay attention to your mission statement, it ought to fit reasonably with your culture, says Ripley. Its OK to push the envelope a little if youre trying for some converts and have some credibility in the organization. But if you go too far, you run the risk of the mission statement being ignored.

The worst thing an HR group can do is to write a mission statement from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in, adds Uhlfelder. HR groups that are truly business-focused, she says, will have mission statements that look more like a business mission than an HR mission. You can see the line of sight between their statement and the business mission.

Your mission, Ripley says, has to be seen to be aligned with the purpose of the overall organization and be contributing to it. Never forget you exist in a contextin a broader culture. Remember that cultures tend to reject those things that dont fit.

Honing the Statement

While the organization and its leaders should provide the framework for the development of an HR mission statement, HR leadership and staff members also have a role.

[Psychiatrist and author] Viktor Frankl said that we dont make up our mission, we detect it, says Walsh. I think HR leaders also detect the mission they are uniquely there to fill in their organizations. Too often, she says, We assume were supposed to come up with some mission thats some sort of weak consensus. A leader will help a group reveal its actual mission.

To lead her group, Walsh asked her staff to differentiate outstanding Sherpas from average Sherpas, using a list of qualities that Norgay had identified in his doctoral thesis. Then she asked the staff to vote for the qualities that they believed were most important in their department.

I simply sent them out and said, Knowing that were not just going to be ordinary Sherpas, which qualities will be most important for us? Then, they translated the chosen qualities into action through the following mission statements:

  • Passion: We are passionate for the climb. Were not just working from 8-5. We have a passion to reach the summit.

  • The ability to bond: To build relationships in the organization.

  • Fitness: We are really keeping ourselves fit and current and staying on top of thingswe know what the people who are financing this climb need from us.

  • Knowledge of the terrain: Were constantly knowledgeable about the terrain that the divisions were supporting are dealing with. Were in touch.

Like Walsh, Marilyn Weixel, SPHR, vice president of human resources at AGIA Inc. in Carpinteria, Calif., involved her staff in the development of her departments mission by asking them questions such as Why are we here? And, What are we all about?

We took what I call the helicopter view and really thought about what role HR needs to play in the organization. Its not enough to accomplish the goals that other people have set, says Weixel, who is a member of the SHRM HR Development Committee. We needed to come up with the umbrella under which the details would hang.

The result is a simple statement: To facilitate excellence, professionalism, quality and shared vision and values through the effective use of our human resources to enable AGIA to achieve all corporate and profitability objectives.

Janet Tidwell, PHR, deputy secretary of the Department of Employment Relations in Wisconsin, says every person in the department of about 85 literally had input into the development of the mission statement. The final version represents about nine different iterations and took about two months to develop, says Tidwell, who also is a member of the SHRM HR Development Committee.

It got wordsmithed to death, she admits. We didnt want one of those statements that takes up a whole sheet of paper and nobody really knows what it means. We kept whittling it down until we got it to one sentence that makes sense.

The statement reads, The mission of the Department of Employment Relations is to lead Wisconsin state governments innovative human resource system by recruiting and retaining a talented and diverse workforce to ensure the best service to the public.

There are several ways to get people involvedand to obtain their buy-in, advises Ford. Whether youre running focus groups, doing e-mail surveys or conducting virtual meetings, you want to involve as many people as possible. You cant have two people sit down and write a mission statement and then roll that out to 300 people in your HR organizations. Theyre just not going to buy into it.

My role as the HR leader, says Walsh, was to provide vision and then to have the group figure out how to make that vision better and make it their ownor completely reject it, which they didnt do.

Living the Mission

A mission statement that hangs on the wall and collect dusts is useless. So, how can HR departments ensure that the missions they worked hard to develop are meaningful and provide true direction for their staff?

If youve developed the mission correctly, it lives, says Walsh. And if you have the mission on a plaque or the wall and no one looks at it, its a really good sign that you have not detected the mission; youve simply done an exercise.

The mission statement is a marketing and communication tool, and your managers are a key audience, says Ripley. You need to convey, in terms they are comfortable with, how your mission supports them, he explains. This is true whether youre talking about frontline managers and their business objectives or the executive suite and their strategic goals. And, Ripley adds, dont forget employees or key external audiences (potential employees, shareholders, community members, etc.).

But, as Walsh says, its walking the talk that really counts. Her HR group has not made a point of sharing the mission outside the organizationnot overtly anyway. Our behavior tells everything, Walsh says. Lets behave so people tell us who we are and lets hope we behave so they get it right. We dont want to advertise except among ourselves, but we all want to behave according to these core values and according to our mission so people will tell us what great partners we are; we wont have to tell them.

Ford agrees. All of the actions that you do as a human resource professional should be consistent with what your mission is. Whether your HR organization is a single personjust youor whether its thousands of people, every single person thats part of that HR department should be living the mission statementevery action, everything they do.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999).

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