Raise the bar


I am in charge of training at our company. I’ve been here for about five years. For the first four years, I had a boss who supported my ideas about how training should be done. About a year ago, that boss quit and a new HR director was hired. The change in approach has been huge. Now, everything I do is questioned. As an example, rather than develop training programs that fit our specific needs, my new boss is a believer in buying pre-packaged programs from big name vendors – he seems to be impressed by all the glitz they offer. I have a different view of things – I think training should focus on meeting the needs of the employees that work here, taking into account our company’s situation. I think off-the-shelf programs have a place; I just don’t think they’re the only answer. Anyway, all of his micromanaging and questioning has left me really frustrated. I used to have pretty open access to the president/
owner. He hired me and supported my ideas for what training could become. Now my boss positions himself so that I have to go through him – in other words, he blocks me. I’m feeling pretty powerless, my voice is not heard, and I feel like every day is another step backwards. Worse yet, morale in our department is slipping – my boss’s dictating style is a real turn-off, he doesn’t talk to anyone, he sits at his computer all day and writes memos about what we’re not doing right. Bit by bit, he’s dismantling a lot of good programs and putting his ideas into place – most of which are retreads of things he did at his last job. I could go on and on, but what do you think I should do to hold my ground? What can we do to get the owner to see that my boss is mostly smoke and mirrors?
Upon initial inspection, it appears that you have two courses of action, both of which are negative. On the one hand, you can go to your boss and lay your cards on the table. You can let him know what your concerns are and point out where his approach falls short. Given the way you describe him, this approach is not likely to work. He will dismiss your concerns because he knows what he’s doing, he’s done this kind of work for years and years, etc. So, you lose.
On the other hand, you can try to get together with the owner and lay your cards on the table with him. The owner has been a supporter of you in the past, and you want to ensure that he is aware of what’s going on between you and your boss – and, importantly, you want to be sure that he hears your side of the story, not just your boss’s. Now, while you may find a receptive ear in the owner, if you pursue this course, your boss will likely feel that you went behind his back and pulled an "end run." Under those circumstances, you lose – again.
Reflecting on the situation, though, there is at least one other avenue that could be pursued. A third course of action, and the one I recommend, is to minimize the personalities by focusing on the big picture. The big picture in this case is how training (and HR more generally) fits into the company’s business strategy. I recommend, therefore, that you and your HR colleagues embark upon some planning and strategizing in which you define how what you do impacts the company’s bottom line.
So, the idea is to meet with your boss and rather than trying to sell him on a particular training program, sell him on the idea that you want to help him advance his agenda, the larger HR agenda and, ultimately, the company’s agenda. In essence, this approach moves your argument from one that is position-based (i.e., your approach to training vs. your boss’s) to one that is principle-based (i.e., a strategic approach to HR will help everyone to do their jobs better).
You will help your cause by enlisting your colleagues along the way. Further, you will want to sell an objective, defensible framework for moving forward – this will be a more compelling argument for your boss to consider.
Here is an example of what I am talking about in terms of a strategic HR game plan:
1. Clearly define the business strategy – Document and define the overriding objectives with which your company is most concerned.
2. Build a business case for HR as a strategic asset – Philosophically, where is HR coming from? What are the investments that HR offers? What are the costs (and perceived costs)?
3. Create a strategy map – Link HR practices with the company’s business practices. Examine the core processes of the company and identify where HR fits in (and could fit in).
4. Identify HR deliverables within the strategy map – Identify the services, programs, deliverables, etc. (including training!) that HR can bring to the table to help the company meet the objectives identified in No. 1 and drive the processes outlined in No. 3.
5. Align the HR structure with the HR deliverables – This is the step where your personal concerns get addressed. The question to be answered here is, "In order to carry out the work attached to No. 4, above, what is the route that should be pursued?" Clarifying roles, responsibilities, and boundaries will go a long way toward addressing the current gap between your view of how things should be done and your boss’s.
6. Design the strategic HR measurement system – How will you know if you’re doing well or not so well? To pursue the kind of comprehensive system that I allude to, you will want to also make sure that your measurement approach is augmented. Measuring transactions will no longer be sufficient. You must measure value-added. In the training area, this means doing more than counting how many programs were offered, how many people attended, how much money was spent, etc. You need to develop a measurement model that answers additional questions like, "Did they like it?" "Did they learn it?" "Did they apply it on the job?" "Did applying it on the job have any impact?" And so on.
7. Implement management by measurement – Use the data from No. 6, above, to influence the kinds of fine-tuning adjustments and programmatic modifications that are pursued in the future. Steps 6 and 7, taken together, are critical. If you follow steps 1-5 only, then you will have a guided system. This is pretty good because at least you will have a system that has a clear-cut target at which to aim and a way to get there. But, by including steps 6 and 7, your system changes from one that is guided to one that is adaptive. The data that attach to steps 6 and 7 can be used to adapt HR’s practices as the company’s practices change. What is ineffective, inefficient, irrelevant, etc. is discarded. As new company strategies emerge, new HR strategies are built. Over time, this dynamic cycle ensures that HR is engaged in practices that matter.
In the final analysis, I guess I am telling you to "raise the bar." Rather than get involved in debating particular programmatic options with your boss, encourage him to sponsor the building of a comprehensive HR strategy.
Sell your boss on the idea that the kind of system that is built will dictate the kinds of training programs that are pursued. In a transaction-based system, canned training programs may be just fine, thank you. In a strategic system, canned training programs may not be just fine. In fact, they may be the wrong way to go.
As the telephone advertisements used to proclaim, "The system is the solution."
Or, so I would suggest.
Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., of Organization Development Consultants Inc. (ODC) in Brookfield, provides "HR Connection." Small Business Times readers who would like to see an issue addressed in an article may reach him at 262-827-1901, via fax at 262-827-8383, via e-mail at schroeder@odcons.com or via the Internet at www.odcons.com.
April 30, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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