It's HR's Turn to Lead

By Christina Folz Jul 6, 2016

Imagine a future in which CEOs actively seek the counsel of their HR teams and all business leaders understand that if you put people first, performance and productivity will follow. It's a scenario where the talent exodus has ended and employee engagement is on the upswing.

This is the utopia that could result if HR professionals were in charge—and it may be within their grasp, according to business consultant Ryan Estis, who presented a mega session on the future of work and HR at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C., on June 20.

"There's never been a bigger opportunity for you to impact the success of the organization," said Estis, a former chief strategy officer at advertising firm McCann Erickson and now chief experience officer at Ryan Estis & Associates. "This is absolutely the moment of time that HR can rule the world of work—if we're willing to think of work a little differently."

There are many reasons HR, and the workplace at large, is ripe for disruption. Research shows that 60 percent of the North American workforce is underengaged, Estis said. In addition, only about half of managers and rank-and-file employees report having trust in the leadership of their companies, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Meanwhile, as younger employees enter the workforce in droves, they bring with them changing notions of loyalty. The average time that the next generation of the workforce is projected to stay with an employer is slightly less than three years.

Shaping the Future

As a result of these business challenges, CEOs are looking to make significant changes to the HR function over the next few years. At the same time, HR professionals are in a good position to spur change themselves, by taking the following steps.

Initiate continuous reinvention. To succeed in this time of disruption and chaos, HR must be both a champion of change and an agent of change.

"This is your opportunity to play offense," Estis said. "No more reacting to others."

For example, Donna Morris, senior vice president of people resources at the tech company Adobe, helped spur a revolution in thought about performance management when she led the effort to abandon traditional annual reviews there in 2012.

They were replaced with informal and less time-consuming regular "check-ins" between employees and managers.

"Yes, that's a risk. Yes, it takes courage," Estis said. "But that's where breakthroughs happen."

Following the change, Adobe experienced a decrease in voluntary turnover and a rise in involuntary attrition (losing people who were experiencing performance issues). The company earned a spot on Fortune's 2015 best place to work list.

Adopt a digital mindset. With tech-savvy Millennial workers (those under age 35) comprising the largest portion of the workforce of any generation, it's no longer optional for businesses to integrate social media and new technology into their people strategies. The leaders at British luxury brand Burberry understood that when they implemented a robust digitally focused communications strategy to engage customers and internal staff. It includes a chat platform through which senior executives can instantly communicate with the entire workforce.

"The way we connect and communicate is being fundamentally transformed," Estis said.

Hold others accountable. Employees at every level must take responsibility for adapting to a changing world—and HR can lead the way.

"The good news is that you don't need position to have influence," Estis said. "What you do need is effective two-way communications skills."

You also need to be brave and bold.

"You've got to be courageous enough to hold people in the business accountable," he said. "You have got to get a little more comfortable being uncomfortable."

One strategy for encouraging accountability is to "go first" by setting clear expectations for the HR team and then tracking and communicating progress throughout the organization, he said.

Choose to act, not react. That means making "specific and intentional decisions around how you show up, moment to moment and day to day," Estis said. Your ability to succeed has less to do with your external circumstances and more to do with how you decide to respond to them, he continued.

"Amateurs react," Estis said. "Pros anticipate."

With many top executives beginning to grasp the importance of having the right talent in the 21st century business world, he thinks the timing is right for HR professionals to seize a major leadership role in their companies.

But they must act quickly.

"The world is going to change much faster in the next five years than it has in the previous 10," Estis said.

In a very real way, the future is now. 


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