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Leadership and Management Development
  Tara Kimbrell Cole
Column  Updates
December 15' 2010

Key Challenges to Becoming an HR Business Partner in Asean    

             The story of an experiment that was conducted at the University of Arizona at a conference on consciousness provides a compelling analogy.

In this experiment, the observers were asked to closely watch two teams of participants throwing a ball. The observers were told to focus on the number of times the team in white threw and caught the ball. While they were doing this, a man dressed in a gorilla costume walked directly through the line of sight between the participants throwing and catching the ball. What percentage of the observers do you think did not see the gorilla?

There are four choices; 10 percent of the observers did not see the gorilla, 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent ?

Only 50 percent of the people watching the ball throwers did not see the gorilla. And this was at a conference during which all were focused on their awareness!

Why am I telling this story and what does it have to do with the key challenges to becoming a Human Resources business partner in Asia?

I’m telling the story because it describes the fundamental challenge that underlies all other challenges: the discovery and realization of opportunities from what appear to be problems on a Human Resources executive’s road to becoming a trusted strategic partner. Indeed, it is the fundamental challenge that Human Resources executives in Asean corporations face in shifting the current mindset in their organizations and influencing up.

The first point of the analogy is that if a Human Resources executive goes through the business day fully focused only on the business tasks “at hand”, he/she will miss opportunities that are out of focus. We can only see them by shifting our perspectives. This is the way problems get transformed. Seeing a gorilla is the beginning of the process.

The second point is that most humans upon seeing a gorilla have a “knee jerk” reaction that it must be a dangerous problem. It can’t possibly be good. It’s a gorilla! Let’s avoid it. It’s the same, when many HR executives see their CEO or any C level executive that thinks of HR executives as policemen or singularly implementers and not as strategic partners managing one of the company’s most critical assets, its human capital.

Human Resources leaders need to change the prescription in the lenses of their own glasses, so that opportunities may be grasped. These lenses are the hidden assumptions that underlie their observations.

The third point is that Human Resources leaders and CEOs face the exact same challenge in discovering and realizing opportunities that first appear as problems. So here Human Resources leaders and CEOs have a significant fundamental challenge in common.

While the Human Resources leader may see the CEO as a challenge, the CEO may not even see a Human Resources leader in the role of a strategic partner. As Human Resources executives navigate their way, remembering this can be helpful and empowering. There are four other key challenges that rest on top of this fundamental.

The second challenge is leading and influencing up

• to coach the leadership in one’s company to understand the concept that executives are human capital, a vital asset and why,

• to communicate in financial terms and metrics the value of the company’s executive assets, its human capital.

This entails developing the ability to communicate the regional and global economics of the talent crunch. These are based on not only the changes in demographics but also the revolution taking place in the information economy, which is shortening the lifespan of meaningful knowledge. Information is increasingly more perishable. Continuous education is “a must,” alternatively executives’ knowledge becomes outdated and irrelevant. At the same time, the complexity of business challenges continues to increase relentlessly. There is a pressing need for executives to build their capabilities to handle complexity in order for their respective companies to compete.

Once the CEO understands this fundamental reality, he/she will more readily perceive of the role of the Human Resources leader as a strategic partner.

The third challenge is for Human Resources leaders to perceive of themselves as partners, to begin to think about the business challenges the company faces from the perspective of total and complete responsibility as a partners do. More than 6000 years ago Lao Tzu wrote, quote “the way to do is to be”. I think the essential point that he was making is applicable here. If one cannot take on the part or perceive one- self in the role, no one else will, nor will one be able to succeed in it.

The fourth challenge is for Human Resouces executives to prepare themselves for this business partnership by developing the quality of their own thoughts and business thinking capability. There are three aspects to this challenge.

First, to do this requires deepening one’s understanding of not only the company’s business but also the overall regional and global business environment. Ideally, I am an advocate of MBAs studying psychology, human dynamics, organizational development and liberal arts. As well -Ideally- I am a proponent of Human Resources executives obtaining MBAs. I recognize that this is costly and often out of reach for many. The degree is not the necessity but rather it is the learning that is requisite. Executive cross-discipline has become requisite, if a business is to compete interregionally or globally.

To underscore this point, when I was at the Annual Global Conference of the Milken Institute in Los Angeles, I asked Michael Milken, the chairman, when did he think we would see more women CEOs. He responded that he wasn’t sure exactly when, but he was quite sure that they would come from the Human Resources channel.

Turning back to the fourth challenge, whether male of female, it is not only necessary to take as many courses as individual or company funds will permit but also to plan one’s own self education program. This brings us to the second aspect of the challenge, to develop a habit of /discipline for continuous education.

To do this, one must develop a reading discipline and one that includes

• respected business publications such as the Economist;

• leading business school periodicals and journals such as those from the leading universities in Asean as well as Wharton and Harvard.

• leading books on business, not only those focused on human resources or organizational development issues.

• web sites of think-tanks such as national centers for strategic and international studies and those in other countries. Learn about the topics that are under discussion and keep current every quarter on the latest.

For many years now the Internet has delivered the library of the world and access to courses from all over the world and yet it is only a few that actually have taken advantage of it. The challenge is the discipline to use the resources.

The third aspect of this challenge is to practice wearing the CEOs, board members, shareholders and other stakeholders’ hats. Put it on and review the issues from those perspectives, literally, play the role. How will uncertainty, rapid change and the many challenging issues of our time affect the company’s future, in each of its various business channels, and in the short, medium and long terms.

The fifth challenge, after the Human Resources leader has prepared him/ herself for the partner role is to begin to communicate this newly gained depth of understanding and insight to the C level. After succeeding in the previous challenges, confidence will undoubtedly have been gained along the way. The challenge now is to stay alert for opportunities- those moments in which the Human Resources executive could make a contribution with a quality thought or insight, whether in meetings or the corridors. Once those opportunities are found, the Human Resources leader’s

colleagues and C level executives will begin to notice the quality of thought and the depth of the Human Resources leaders’ understanding. Credibility as a Human Resources partner will begin to take hold. The CEO will likely be able to hear the Human Resources leader better, because the Human Resources leader will have learned the CEO’s language. Now the Human Resources leader is in a position from which coaching up can really be effective.

The sixth challenge may be getting enough time with the CEO to communicate this. If this is the case, build credibility with and coach those around him.

The first lesson in the book, “Leading up, How to Lead Your Boss so that You Both Win,” by Michael Useem is, “Building your superiors confidence in you requires giving them your confidence. Once you and they have established it both ways, your organization may have an unbeatable competitive advantage, whatever the battlefield.”

While I recognize that in the current Asean context this may appear distant, at the same time, it was Lao Tzu who said “the way to do is to be” not a westerner.

The development that I have described is not sequential and there will be no diploma that will tell the Human Resources leader that he/ she has graduated. As the development process is engaged, the Human Resources leader will come to know that he/she is ready.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the CEO will grow as much as the HR leader will have, at that point. In any case, the Human Resources leader will have built his/her personal impact and credibility and a reputation with others in the organization, while preparing for the strategic business partner role. After coaching, influencing and leading up, if the CEO is not up to leading a collaborative intelligent learning organization, then Human Resources leader may want to look to join a company where he/she can indeed make a difference. The Human Resources leaders’ capabilities will be much sought after.


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December 15, 2010
Key Challenges to Becoming an HR Business Partner in Asean
The story of an experiment that was conducted at the University of Arizona at a conference on consciousness provides a compelling analogy. More

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