I recently read an article citing 10 of the most overused business buzzwords. Most recently making the hit list included words like “leverage,” “value-add” and “cutting edge.” Even my favorite, “disconnect,” made the list. I looked for the word “strategic,” but didn’t find it (thank goodness). For years now, though, HR has heard the “strategic” mantra—“We must be more strategic; we must get a seat at the table; we must drive our value proposition…”
The problem is that many new to the profession as well as those who are involved in doing the dailies of HR management either have no concept of how their contributions drive business success or how the HR department itself could (and should) be an integral part in the development and execution of the organization’s overall business plan. HR professionals in small companies, or worse yet, larger companies but running a bare bones department, are so caught up in the tactical, data and people demands that to lift their eyes and look beyond the stack of papers on their desk or the myriad people issues that flood the department seems more like an unattainable ideal than the reality of business success.
Please don’t misunderstand me. We must, as former Board Chair of the Society for Human Resource Management Johnny Taylor, JD, SPHR said, “do HR well.” The tactical must be handled efficiently. However, underneath the everyday activities lies the undercurrent of why we do what we do. If we as HR professionals don’t look beyond the problems and the paper, we rob ourselves of an opportunity to promote our value as a department and as individual contributors.
Lewis Carroll, in his classic Alice in Wonderland, contains a wonderful dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat:
- “Which road do I take?” (Alice)
- “Where do you want to go?” (Cheshire Cat)
- “I don’t know,” Alice answered.
- “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”
So where do we begin this strategic journey? Does it matter our organizations are for profit, not-for-profit, public sector or volunteer run? The answer is no — the process is the same, but the inputs might be quite different. Every strategic plan contains variations of the same elements. The purpose of strategy is to align and integrate the daily work of all employees around a common, focused direction. How strategic plans are prepared and executed is as diverse as the organizations developing them, but the goal is the same — getting from here to there.
Where is here? Where is there? These questions are central to the first steps of any strategic plan — defining the mission and vision of the organization. Can you summarize in one statement why your company exists? Do you have a formalized mission statement? Do you know where you want to be in three, five, ten years? Remember: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there (also adapted from Alice in Wonderland).
However, in addition to your mission and vision, a third essential component — part of what I call the foundational triad—is your company values. These three: mission, vision and values, form the plumb line for any strategic undertaking. Without them, any planning effort would be like setting sail without a compass or GPS. You’d get somewhere, but not necessarily where you wanted to go. More succinctly, your mission is your here, your vision is your there and your values are the forces that keep you on your path and push you back on that path if you start to stray.
Once we define our foundation, we must evaluate our realities. What are those factors that will assist or hinder us from achieving our vision? Most commonly called a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, this process examines competitive advantages and impediments both internally and externally. I personally prefer a brainstorming approach to generate ideas. I also think that involving all levels of employees can spawn thoughts and opinions that those in middle and upper management may not, simply because they are not on the front lines; they don’t interface (sorry, buzzword) with the consumer or customer as often as individual contributors. The insights garnered from staff members might completely revolutionize the entire business process.
Understanding present and future concerns will help you to formulate goals and objectives. These are the nuts and bolts of any strategic plan. What are those initiatives that will reinforce our mission, propel us towards our vision, all the while maintaining our core values? To get a little more granular (buzzword?), what will we start, stop or continue to reach for in order to become that which we want to become? From goals and objectives, we formulate an action plan to actually carry out our objectives. Along with an action plan, we must be able to identify key measures of success. In other words, how will we know if we have hit the mark unless we have objective criteria by which to measure success?
Although on paper this sounds rather simplistic, the concept of aligning our daily activities may not always be a smooth process. Our action plan may start with small, measurable steps, or may be as complex as changing business models, overhauling cultures or letting go of long cherished, but unprofitable, inefficient practices or product lines. Don’t be surprised if you’re met with some resistance. Change is hard. Big change is even harder. Preparing your employees for what is to come and, more importantly why change is occurring well before the change is implemented will help prepare your workforce.
One suggestion is to make sure that the mission, vision and core values are a part of your daily messages to your staff. The more they understand the why, the more prepared they will be for the how. One of my favorite fables that illustrate this involves two stone masons. When asked what they were doing, one said “I’m chipping stone.” The other said “I’m building a cathedral.” That second stone mason got it. He saw the bigger picture. When our employees get it, they will be able to connect the dots (sorry, last buzzword) between what they are doing, and how that helps their company achieve its vision.
Finally, how will we know when we have achieved our plan? I guess a better question is, will we ever arrive and say we’re done? Far from being a static process, strategy is dynamic, based on shifting circumstances, changing environments, a fickle economy and other uncertainties. I’m not sure we can ever say we have arrived. Strategic plans should be calibrated often, checked against stated objectives and success factors and reworked on a cyclical basis. For some organizations, a yearly review will suffice. For others in more volatile sectors, more frequent review is necessary to assure that the organization isn’t drifting away from its stated mission, vision and values. As Jimmy Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
Pamela Baldwin, SPHR, CEBS, is a HR professional with a masters in human resources and second in instructional design. Certified as an SPHR by the HRCI and a certified employee benefit specialist by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, she has over 15 years experience in human resources and administration.