New Chief Human Resource Officer: Sink or Swim In 48 Hours
New HR Leader or CHRO:
5 Questions to Ask in the 1st 48 hours
Earlier this year I took an assignment as the interim Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), affectionately known as the ‘T’. This is the organization that moves people to and through the city of Boston via bus, subway, ferry and commuter rail. Several leadership changes lead to the vacancy and I was asked to ‘fill in’ while a permanent CHRO was selected.
Sounds simple, but in the world of Human Resources (HR) things are rarely straight forward. Without divulging secrets, I quickly relearned five key questions that every new CHRO needs to ask in their first 48 hours. Yes, these are the same questions that you asked in the job interview. But you were likely given politically correct responses without the unvarnished truth.
1. How Mature Is The HR Function?
Do ‘work-arounds’ abound? Are processes documented? Do key members of the team just know what they have to do but don’t have processes documented? Is a high percentage of HR time spent on transactional activities e.g. HRIS data entry, program / continuous hires, absence management, benefits administration or is your team firmly at the table? Does HR advise business partners on the workforce strategy and how it should be executed? Is HR involved in identifying the hi-potential talent and plan how to invest in them? Are business leaders discussing the emerging competency and how best to acquire them as a strategic differentiator?
The answers to these questions determine the ‘work’ and priorities of HR. As a new leader you must understand the relative maturity of the HR function’s capabilities. Balance that against the business expectations of the function. Use this to establish an agenda and goals that improve the HR capabilities while better meeting business needs.
2. What Is The Reputation of HR With The Business?
All too often HR is told that we are strategic business partners and are asked to ‘…fill a list of job requisitions, create a cheaper benefits package, or come up with solutions to reduce employee absenteeism’ …anything the business can’t be bothered with that relates to people. It gets worse when leadership regards HR as the holders of the culture, the ‘advocates for the employee’ or the ‘folk’s employees talk to about problems’. In these all too common cases HR is, at best, a support capability. At worse the function is perceived as a transactional cost verses a valued investment vital to business success.
3. What is The Human Resources Budget?
This is a straight forward request, but unless you dig into the numbers, unpleasant surprises could be lurking. While there is always a budget, there may have been significant cuts that reduce available resources to deliver HR capabilities. Ask what the budgeted headcount is for HR, and how many open HR positions there are. Find out if the open positions have ‘live’ requisitions that have budget approval for hiring. If you encounter confusion, misdirection or the numbers just don’t add up, be ready to fight. Ensure that your department is staffed to meet the commitments of HR.
This is often the case when you replace an ineffective HR leader or the CHRO position has been vacant for a while. Leadership may have trimmed the overhead budget by cutting the HR staff if no one was fighting for the needs of HR.
4. What Projects Are Underway, Big or Small?
There is always a project underway somewhere. It can be as simple as refreshing job descriptions, or as massive as a Human Capital Management system upgrade. Knowing where your team is spending their ‘extra’ time is vital. Projects need Subject Matter Expert’s (SME’s), the same SME’s that are doing the day to day work. Knowing who is expected to be involved and their level of commitment vs. how much time they are actually spending on projects is critical to determining how precious HR resources are invested … or over allocated.
All is well if the team is staffed to deliver what is asked of HR on a day to day basis. But when the demands of ‘priority’ projects emerge, the team may be stretched too thin to do the work of HR delivery while busy serving as advocates (often doing much of the actual work on the project) for HR.
5. Who Are Your Allies and Who Is Gunning for HR?
As the new CHRO, are you invited to lunch within the first couple of days with the CEO? Is your office located with the other executive leaders of the business? Are you being introduced to your business colleagues as a peer, and a vital partner to enable their strategic goals? How are you being introduced to the outside world, to the Board, to the media? The CHRO is the advocate for people. You ensure that the right people are offered great careers, leadership is held accountable for providing an excellent workplace and that there is a workforce strategy in place to deliver business goals. Are you getting the right introductions? Are you having the right conversations?
As the CHRO you are a member of the executive leadership team. You do not have to ask permission. You are the Chief Human Resources Officer. Your role is to define the people strategy and to work with your business partners / peers to further their agenda with your valued support.