HR’s Role in Building High Performance Organizations

Ensuring HR adds real Value

Back in my GE days, the Finance Director was skeptical about the merits of the HR function which he labeled the‘Health and Happiness Department.’ He honestly didn’t believe that HR added any value. It was part of his worldview that social science was basically bullshit, totally un-provable. It was a great put down.  Despite his misapprehensions about the function, I liked the guy and subsequently came to be more confident about HR’s role in building High-Performance Organizations.

Phone Call: We were recently involved in an interesting project in Galway which reminded me of that GE story. The project started when I phoned a senior HR Director, congratulating him for winning a high-profile award at the end of the previous year. He was (naturally enough) in good form. The business was making money, the HR team had ‘clicked’ into place and the relationship with the Chief Executive and broader executive team was upbeat. “That’s the problem”  he said. “Everything is going so well, I don’t know what are we going to do next.”

Our Encore: This issue (it might be labeled: ‘what will we do for an encore?’) is a dilemma for all successful HR Departments. When there are big ‘presenting issues’ in an organization it’s relatively easy to ride in on a white horse, complete your diagnosis and ‘fix’ the place. Visible problem solving is an obvious way to prove your worth to the business. But what do you do when there are no obvious problems to be sorted?

Winning the Peace: Paul Vickery of I.B.M. fame, had earlier described this syndrome as follows: “A lot of HR people are good during the war but not as able in peacetime.” Schooled on a diet of constant firefighting, some HR Managers become ‘fix-it’ junkies and don’t have a good understanding of their role when the presenting issues are not jutting above the waterline.  “Hey, I’ve just thought of a great idea”, my contact continued during our phone conversation. “Why don’t you take some time to figure it out and come back to me with a list of possible ways forward.”

What ‘To Do’ when things aren’t broken

So, what do you do when there’s nothing obvious to be done? How do you add additional value in an organization that’s performing extremely well? The challengein this case was to take an award-winning HR function and improve their impact on organisational performance.There are several broad approaches – and in a short blog post it’s only possible to provide a ‘flavour’ of these.[1] A summary of respective approaches is detailed in the following table.



Option 1

Strategic HR Plan

Develop a robust HR Plan — superior to anything done historically — that addresses real business issues. There are a number of sub-possibilities here (e.g. focus on increasing customer service, cost reduction, speed, etc.)

Take HR specialists off-site for 1-2 days, work them through a defined agenda to tackle these issues before going ‘public’ with the outcome internally

Option 2

Ask the customer

Devise a semi-structured interview format and ask the customers what they want from you. Discover the critical needs of the top team and ‘fix’ these

It’s normally some combination of remedial (tactical) fixes and longer-term development options

Option 3


Decide which key areas you are particularly interested in

Spend time (phone/net/in person) benchmarking the best in class sites in Ireland and internationally

Option 4

Executive Teambuilding

Take the top team through a robust strategy/personal planning session. There are several possibilities e.g. (a) ‘hard’ agenda that focuses on core business issues versus (b) a ‘soft’ agenda that focuses on the interpersonal issues among the senior team
Option 5

Engage the Troops

Review a range of mechanisms that drive up participation/employee voice levels

Ask: how well are we currently tapping into this key resource?

Option 6

Superb Management

Goal: Best management team in the industry & within the company worldwide

Put together a world-class programme of offerings and development processes: underlying goal = develop ‘self sufficiency’ in this group

Option 7

Play with rewards

Build a system that drives performance upwards (reward systems are often under-used in driving performance).

Introduce new/fun/novel reward mechanisms to drive specific outcomes/changes

Option 8

Organisational Audit

Conduct a robust organisation audit (not limited to HR function) & confront the organisation with this

Present data to management team in a ‘health-check’ meeting


The Genius is in the details. Making the options work in practice

Making a significant performance contribution to an organization requires a detailed understanding of the specific operating environment. You need to assess what will work (and what won’t) in the real world.  But the central point remains.  Even when you are doing a fantastic job there’s always room for improvement. Apply the Nike slogan ‘There is no finish line’to the HR function.

In this we can usefully take a lesson from the sports professionals. After the tournaments are over, when the cameras have been switched off for the night and the crowds have ‘hit the bar’, the golf professionals go to the driving range or to the practice bunkers – trying to perfect aspects of their game. The ‘top players’ constantly notch up their game to keep themselves sharp. As HR professionals, should we do any less?



Lighter Notes:

 A HR manager was knocked down (tragically) by a bus and was killed. Her soul arrived at the Pearly Gates, where St. Peter welcomed her. “Before you get settled in”he said, “…we have a little problem. We’ve never had a HR manager make it this far before and we’re not really sure what to do with you.

“Oh, I see,”said the woman, “Can’t you just let me in?”

“I’d like to,” said St. Peter, “But I have higher orders. We’re instructed to let you have a day in hell and a day in heaven, and then you can choose where you’d like to go for all eternity.”

“I think I’d prefer heaven”, said the woman.

“Sorry, but we have rules…” at which point St. Peter put the HR Manager into the downward bound elevator.

As the doors opened in Hell she stepped out onto a beautiful golf course. Around her were many friends, past fellow executives, all smartly dressed, happy, and cheering for her. They ran up and kissed her on both cheeks, and talked about old times. They played a perfect round of golf and afterwards went to the country club where she enjoyed a superb steak and lobster dinner. She met the Devil (who was actually rather nice) and she had a wonderful night telling jokes and dancing.

Before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everyone shook her hand and waved goodbye as she stepped into the elevator. The elevator went back up to heaven where St. Peter was waiting for her.

“Now it’s time to spend a day in heaven,”he said. So she spent the next 24 hours lounging around on clouds, playing the harp and singing; enjoyable but a bit boring. At the day’s end St. Peter returned.

“So,”he said, “You’ve spent a day in hell and you’ve spent a day in heaven. You must choose between the two.”

The woman thought for a second and replied: “Well, heaven is certainly lovely, but I actually had a better time in hell. I choose Hell.”

St. Peter took her to the elevator again and she went back down. When the doors of the elevator opened she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. She saw her friends dressed in rags, picking up rubbish and putting it into old sacks. The Devil approached and put his arm around her.

“I don’t understand,”stuttered the HR manager, “The other day I was here, and there was a golf course and a country club. We ate lobster, and we danced and had a wonderful time.”

The Devil looked at her and smiled:

“Yesterday we were recruiting. Today you’re staff.”

Good One-Liners:

“You can’t fix crazy. All you can do is document it.” 

“I need to make a Pencil drawing of Shakespeare for my art exam. 2B or not 2B? 

“I’ve been trying to teach my dog to dance but he’s useless. He’s got 2 left feet”

“I was doing some decorating, so I took out my step-ladder. I don’t get on well with my real ladder.”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development

[1]For a more detailed discussion of this route see ‘Turbo-Charging the HR Function’, Paul Mooney Ph.D., CIPD, ISBN # 0-85292-896-3.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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