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Breaking Out of Traditional HR Silos: 7 Lessons to Achieve Operational Success

HR leaders at all levels face an ongoing stigma that they are just an expense to the organization—a cost center that simply hires and fires. How does one begin to dismantle the stereotypes associated with HR, along with the silos that keep us boxed in?

It needs to start with HR leadership being the guiding light to eliminate those silos. The change can and should start with us because HR leaders are expected to drive the culture and engagement of an organization.

Look at your current team. Almost every team has a singular person who is the keeper of all knowledge in their area of expertise. What we as leaders need to do to remove that silo is to create a bridge for that person to share their knowledge and to facilitate organizationwide understanding of their expertise.

In addition, as leaders, it is important to recognize that every decision we make is going to affect other employees outside of our department. This creates change management needs and requires HR leaders to understand the true meaning of a business partner mentality. That is truly a strategy, not just a title. Take the time to understand the operations of all business areas—and how and why they function—so that when questions or issues arise in other departments, you can meet them with empathy and a solution-based collaboration.

Learning to Start with ‘Yes’

With our workforces becoming more complex, HR leaders also need to further educate ourselves on how to navigate our roles not only with grace, but with a seat at the table to influence positive changes. But having that seat comes with great responsibility. HR leaders are expected to represent all of the people while keeping the organization’s best interests and operational sustainability in mind.

Being in an executive role has opened my eyes and ears to learn to start my response with “Yes,” even if a project is technically “not my job.” I am always seeing things with the perspective that something may be in the best interest of our collective team.

This has created opportunities to learn things about finance and operations that I would not normally be educated about. I choose to not only learn these functions, but also pass along that knowledge through teaching. There is no benefit in me being the only HR person in the organization who knows operations. I expect my team to shadow and to engage with these other functions, regardless of their role. Over time, these connections help debunk the inherited stereotypes about HR.

Building Bridges

How can you start to create operational excellence in your HR department? Here are some lessons I’ve learned through trial and error over the years:

1. Constantly be learning and growing. Push yourself by reading, networking, attending conferences, and building those organizational relationships to get invitations to non-HR meetings within the organization. This helps you become a valuable strategic partner at the organization’s operational decision-making table.

2. Listen before speaking. Ask questions, seek clarification, and pause before responding. This creates a safe space and a perception of good communication that will lead to further collaborations.

3Be vulnerable. Admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. But be curious, seek out answers, and be an active participant in presenting solutions.  

4. Build your house first. Before you get too excited about diving in and helping other areas of the company, be sure your own house isn’t fragile. Identify silos in HR first and address those before branching out into other areas. I realized that once something is working, it creates an opportunity to dive in elsewhere. In addition, your assistance is welcomed since you have a record of accomplishment.

5. Set realistic goals. Change is hard, and it does not happen overnight. Big goals are achievable, but that means you have smaller goals within those to complete first.

6. Celebrate the wins. Change is scary. No matter how small the change, share as much as you can. This helps show others that change can be a truly positive thing.

7.  Don’t give up. Sometimes what we inherit in HR is a heartbreaking stereotype paired with a mountain of silos that looks overwhelming at first. Just remember that you were hired to lead for a reason. You can make a difference if you keep going.


Michelle Miller, Ph.D., is a vice president and the CHRO at Carson Tahoe Health in Carson City, Nev.


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