Why HR Should Lead Change Initiatives

change-keyhole-Carol AndersonChange management is about people, performance and leadership, ergo, one would think HR should be leading the charge (or at least playing a major role). Unfortunately, in many cases, HR is not involved because it does not bring the skill sets that would be useful to organizational change or is simply not even invited to the party. More concerning is that CEO’s don’t hold their HR leadership accountable for building the necessary expertise that would facilitate effecting change. Without the internal expertise, organizations, more often than not, look to outside consultants to provide the needed assistance to effect the organizational changes they’re looking for.

What’s striking here, even with the expertise of outside consultants, change guru John Kotter, (Kotter International) still claims that 70 percent of change efforts fail; this is a pretty dismal record. Kotter’s approach for “change management” is for organizations to “take a consistent, holistic approach to changing themselves,” and “engaging their workforce effectively.”

Hmmm. Changing themselves. Engaging their workforce. Sounds like learning, development and human resources to me so why isn’t HR part of the solution?

Kotter’s research spans four decades and I have almost four decades of HR executive roles in large, multi-unit organizations behind me. From what I’ve seen, Kotter’s research is dead on. Change may come in the form of a merger, a shift in technology, the launch of a new strategy, or a change in organizational leadership. And each change or combination of changes create anxiety and concern in the workforce, which requires strong, coordinated leadership that understand the dynamics of change, foster open channels of candid communication, and facilitate a careful exploration of organizational culture in the context of the change.

Leading the leadership in providing the organizational guidance is where HR can bring tremendous value because HR has, or should have, a top level view of people, programs and process. They have a unique vantage point to breach silos and facilitate organizational change.

If HR is going to “lead the change” process, they need the knowledge, skills and resources to make it happen. Many HR Teams, though, are missing the critical expertise needed for leading change. For example, HR needs:

Project Management skills. I’m not talking about HR being project managers but they must understand the need for effective project management so they can provide good counsel as part of the leadership team, counsel that could include ensuring there is executive sponsorship with authority and courage to make key decisions, having a having a clear definition of the purpose, scope and expected results, and evaluating the results against the expectations.

Learning and development skills. With organizational change comes the need for behavioral change, and the more dramatic the change, the more intentional the organization must be in defining, teaching and holding themselves accountable for the behavior change. Kotter says to “engage the workforce,” but that is not an easy task. It means that the workforce needs to clearly understand both the change and the need to change. It means that they need a voice to share concerns and provide input.

Organizational learning is all about setting clear expectations, providing knowledge and resources, and evaluating and tweaking the result, and developing strength in leadership to lead change. The programs and processes that are typically owned by HR – training and performance management – should align to the realities of the organizational change.

HR needs to lead this effort because “HR is all about people.” HR leadership that can assess learning needs, create formal and informal learning opportunities, and evaluate the effectiveness are, in fact, leading organizational change. If the HR programs do not accomplish this, they are not relevant.

Systems thinking skills. Change in today’s world is complex, and a change in one process can have unintended consequences that ripple through the organization. Understanding how systems work, and being able to facilitate the discovery of interacting systems among diverse groups of people brings credibility to the change leader.

With organizational complexity often comes silo’d thinking that leads to decisions being made without effective analysis and risk assessment. Leaders need to understand the implication of their decisions, and collaborate effectively across the organization. This is a skill that must be developed in leadership. It is also a process that begs for oversight, to maintain the coordinated perspective of the organizational change.

If HR programs are aligned and relevant, they provide good business intelligence that illustrates challenges and opportunities with the organizational change. If these programs are not aligned and relevant, they are wasting valuable time.

But there is an opportunity here

CEO’s need to challenge their HR teams to provide the leadership the organization needs to successfully effect change and hold them accountable for the skills and performance. This may mean shifting workload so that HR can truly be a change partner, coach the organization and through this, drive successful change.

But only HR has the overall insight into the people, teams and organizational performance that gives them a vantage point that is unique within the organization. If HR is up to the challenge and is aligned and relevant, they are in the best position to lead organizational change and the whole organization becomes better. If CEO’s need to bring in outside expertise to do the work HR should be doing, then the question needs to be asked “Why do I need HR?”



Carol Anderson

Carol Anderson

Carol Anderson is Principal of Anderson Performance Partners. She is a nationally recognized thought leader, author, speaker and consultant on aligning the workforce to business strategy with over 35 years of executive leadership.

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