Solving the HR conundrum

By Scott Rude / Guest Column

GE’s legendary former CEO Jack Welch was interviewed recently and asked which function he felt was most important in a company. His answer? Human resources.

When HR is effective, he explained, it has the greatest impact on a business. He cited HR bottom line contributions in talent acquisition, strategic development and change management, and warned against a purely transactional HR function.

Nevertheless, HR seems to retain its checkered (yet often undeserved) reputation. A respected executive coach who has worked with leaders in a variety of industries wrote me last year, saying “It is no exaggeration to say that for 25 years I have been hearing about HR needing to step up and become true business partners, but it doesn’t seem to happen.” Several major publications, including the Harvard Business Review, have also criticized the function. HBR headlines blast out phrases like “It’s Time to ‘Blow Up’ HR” (2015), “Why We Love to Hate HR” and so on.

What’s going on?

There’s a conundrum in HR. Over the last 20-plus years there has been a call for the HR function to become more strategic and take a larger role at the leadership table, with HR gurus and academicians championing the cause. This business model puts HR front and center with an opportunity to impact business decisions, thanks to the function’s expertise in talent, culture and leadership.

Unfortunately, conflict often ensues. Highly qualified professionals in specialties like compensation, benefits, training, policy, compliance and recruitment are asked to step up to strategy and organizational change with mixed results. Conversely, a “new wave” of highly visionary HR strategists bristles when tasked with administrative specialties, in contrast to being a leader at the table. In the end many are dissatisfied, or at the very least, agitated.

Recently, while teaching interpersonal dynamics at a project management workshop, I became curious as to what the 20 attending professionals from Corridor companies thought about the role of HR, and conducted a survey*. The results were enlightening.

In short, these professionals looked to HR to stay on the basics of staffing, record keeping and compliance, not business strategy or organizational leadership.

So are the gurus and academic leaders who press the function to become more strategic right or just stirring up a hornet’s nest? The answer is “it depends,” because one size does not fit all. Instead, long-term vision and the functional expectations of HR are the determinants.

Fortunately, we know how to fix this – it takes work, but it isn’t hard. Take these critical steps to get alignment and an HR function in line with your vision:

  1. Define HR’s role. Clarify why HR exists in your organization and provide functional priorities.
  2. Build the team. Decide on and secure the right people to fulfill the role and mission.
  3. Create organizational clarity. Support your HR team by communicating the mission and role of HR throughout your company.
  4. Teach the business. Train HR employees about the company’s business model and their role in contributing to its success.
  5. Follow through. Communicate direction and update on progress often.


There’s the lynch-pin: Each business must define for itself how to leverage HR, and then clearly communicate the role they envision and expect. Failure to do so creates mixed signals, unclear demands and a function likely to struggle to add the value they are capable of providing.

The steps above will work, so long as you’ve made the tough choices to put the right people in place, trained all staff on the business basics and communicated roles in the business. Use these steps with each and every function in your company to create organizational alignment. You will start a dialogue you’ve likely never had before, putting you on a road to clarity of purpose and an HR function matched and meeting the needs of your business.•

* The survey I used to assess the role of HR is available free for you to use – it’s a great discussion starter.

Scott Rude is a strategic advisor and speaker on organizational culture, leadership and talent management. He teaches at the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Business in management and organizations. He can be reached at