POPULAR is the view that human resources (HR) in Zimbabwe is relegated to handling administrative tasks.
The summation of this line of thinking seems to suggest that HR in Zimbabwe has no strategic value. After many months of interrogating this thinking, which I have always intuitively regarded suspect, I came up with an alternative thesis.
Recently, the RBL Institute, the world’s most respected HR think-tank concluded a study that shows that they are just five roles common to all excellent leaders which they called the leadership code. These roles are personal proficiency, strategist, implementer, talent manager and human capital developer.
A closer look at these five roles of leadership shows that four of the five are purely HR! That’s the foundation for my thesis that every CEO is an HR manager. The real debate is about their competence as HR managers. Thus over 80% of what CEOs should do is pure HR. That’s not by choice. That’s what leadership entails.
The leadership code explains, to a large extent, the misunderstood set-up of HR in Zimbabwe.
Many organisations, including the very successful ones in Zimbabwe do not have formal HR departments. This does not mean that HR is despised. Some form of HR strategic work is interwoven with the leadership functions of senior executives. This tends to be common among SMEs.
Some organisations that do have a separate HR function tend to have their HR operating at the administrative level. This is because the senior executives have no time for administrative work. They retain the strategic functions of HR and create an HR function to do the HR administration as the number of employees grows. CEOs do not want to spend time filling and filing forms.
The other type of organisation in Zimbabwe divides the HR department into administrative and HR programmes. HR programmes are the semi-routine HR activities such as hiring, inducting, disciplining and industrial relations management. In this set up the senior business leaders still retain the strategic HR functions. A common variant of this set-up is where a senior finance manager is tasked to oversee HR administration and basic HR activities. A sober analysis of the logic behind reveals payroll and employee tax management are already part of the finance manager’s bag of skills. More important, the finance manager’s feel for numbers makes them have a better strategic grasp of business than a purely HR specialist without a solid business background. Finance managers are also seen as hard people who can “straighten workers”. Thus as the organisations grow, CEOs logically delegate some of their HR work to the finance manager to leverage the skills the finance manager already has. This model is very popular among medium-sized for-profit and not-for-profit organisations.
To handle the growing number of issues touching on the labour laws, the finance managers may find themselves inadequate to competently handle these. Maybe one or two embarrassments before the Labour Court push the organisation to hire an HR manager to handle the demanding industrial relations issues. This is usually after the realisation that HR is not commonsense. However, the HR manager is made to report to the finance manager and not to the CEO. Budgetary and company politics may have a hand in arriving at this decision.
Many people have a fatal misconception that HR is commonsense. HR is built on an elegant foundation of theory, practice and research.
The CEO as a strategist
Being a strategist is half the story. HR brings the other half. In the words of Ulrich, strategic HR “takes the (business) strategy to the masses”. The CEO who retains all the HR strategic functions needs to obtain the skills and knowledge in articulating the business strategy in simple but powerful ways. The test of business strategy with a “mass appeal” is asking your cleaner to explain it. If you have not found a way to make your cleaner understand your company strategy, I bet that your shareholders will not understand it either. At the Ritz-Carlton Hotels, the driver who chauffeurs you and the porter who ushers you out of the car understand the Hilton Hotels’ business strategy as much as the Harvard MBA executive. Ritz-Carlton’s strategy simply reads: we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. Just nine short, simple and stunning words. That’s how you “take the strategy to the masses”.
The CEO as an implementer
A story about a fishing cooperative is told. Highly priced experts were obtained and so were the latest fishing technology and the best hands in the fishing business. Every thing was done but the actual fishing! Implementation is predominantly an HR competence. CEOs need to go beyond competence analysis to embrace cultural engineering. CEOs must have the skills and knowledge to build a culture that delivers the business strategy. Building a strategy is a mere intellectual exercise. The CEO must make sure the company hires, fires, inducts, trains, designs the organisation, pays and punishes, assesses performance against the delivery of the identified business strategy supporting cultural capabilities.
The CEO as a talent manager
The CEO must ensure that the people who join and stay in the organisation have the relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes. This is where most CEOs without sound training in HR are found wanting. They focus heavily on the “commonsense” HR activities such as scrutinising CVs and interviewing. They unprofessionally base hiring decisions on this incomplete process. The aspect of measuring attitudes is highly specialised. As a result, most CEOs skip this and rely on references to assess behavioural traits. I find this prevalent in Zimbabwe. When CEOs neglect to measure the behavioural traits of employees they are failing big time as business leaders. Without a proper analysis of behavioural traits, a company may hire a person with a high mobility inclination for a job that requires patience and steadiness. Such job misplacement brings into the organisation a person who will cause serious disciplinary problems. No interview will tell you that.
Coca Cola versus Apple
While as a talent manager, the CEO ensures today’s talent is fully contributing, the CEO as a human capital developer prepares tomorrow’s talent. Recently, I spent quality time with the CEO of a highly successful company. He alerted me to the news that Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple had just announced his decision to take an indefinite sick leave. The Apple share price fell in response. Over 20 years ago, Coca Cola faced a similar challenge. Roberto Gozuietta, its legendary chief executive announced that he had a cancer. The share price didn’t move! The market knew that Gozuietta had been thoroughly preparing his successor for many years. Gozuietta’s temporary or permanent absence would not negatively affect Coca Cola’s ability to generate good profits in the future. That’s the impact of strategic HR.
Strategic HR in Zimbabwe is done by the CEO. What is debatable is the quality of that work. “HR is commonsense” is a dangerous myth CEOs must dispense with, more so seeing that more than 80% of a CEO’s job is HR.
A CEO who despises HR condemns himself.
Let’s discuss at brettchulu@consul- tant.com.