HR professionals have never been better placed to contribute to top line growth, rather than simply cutting costs and reducing overheads. But to exert this influence on business performance, HR systems have to be embedded into the organisation’s strategy. This means more than alignment.

Becoming a strategic partner requires HR professionals to fully understand the skills and drivers required for success across the whole organisation – and how to influence them.

This three-part article series explores how HR can contribute to organisational strategy, and how practitioners can get buy-in to the initiatives that will drive the people agenda forward in 2018.

Skills HR professionals need for business discussions

Question: If we are in a room with business leaders, which skills do we need as an HR function to allow us to have meaningful business conversations ? 

Answer: Paula Leach, Chief People Officer, Home Office

There is not HR and the business. There is the business. We are business people and we need to be conscious of that. We need to be able to read and understand the finance and sale figures – or whatever the KPIs, metrics or missions might be.

Our job in that room is to think deeply and carefully about the things we know from evidence and research that make a difference to that conversation. We need to be able to root in with something that’s demonstrable or evidence based.

This is absolutely vital. People are one of the major resources associated with any company. Businesses are reliant on their people and HR is able to help them optimise that resource. Even if an organisation is more weighted towards automation with fewer people, the human technology interface is, and increasingly will be, something we need to understand and add value to.

Answer: Katy Downes, Senior Engagement Manager, Network Rail

One of the most positive things about HR having that seat is being able to ask the difficult people-based questions that might not otherwise be at the forefront of every leader’s mind.

Our role is much about challenging the rationale behind the people agenda. We should be there as a critical friend and make people think about things they wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise.


  • HR practitioners are business people, so they must understand and talk the language of the business – be it KPIs, metrics or whatever else is being discussed.
  • HR needs to act as a critical friend to business leaders – always questioning the rationale behind the people agenda.


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HR’s position within the hierarchy

Question: When adding value and getting buy-in for initiatives, it’s important we understand the level of input we have towards the organisation’s mission, objectives and strategies. Do we work directly with the senior leadership team or create our own initiatives?

Answer:Katy Downes, Senior Engagement Manager, Network Rail 

Collaboration is key. While senior leaders may set the direction, it’s about how we communicate it to best effect.

Relatively standard stuff like the strap line, the elevator pitch and the narrative have got to be key to any communications around mission, objectives, strategy and tactics. I sit on the ExCo of my organisation. All of my HR directors sit on their boards and are part of the organisation. It makes a difference because you hear everything right from the beginning and you can input. You are able to make sure right from the start that you are thinking about some of these elements.

One example of this is diversity and inclusion. I think about it deeply. All of my leaders think about it deeply but it’s not always intuitive to them. I can bring that into the conversation all the time so that when we’re developing our overall strategy it’s there as a golden thread all the way through.

Getting a seat at the table is most of this battle, but you also have to find your voice once you’re there. Sometimes the business conversation being discussed might not have the employee or the human connection at heart. HR needs to be assertive in asking the right questions to the board – but getting a seat at the table is a game changer as far as I am concerned.


  • At board level, employee wellbeing can naturally drift away in some conversations. It’s HR’s job to make sure the human element is front and centre.
  • Getting a seat at the table is most of this battle, but you also have to find your voice once you’re there.
  • When it comes to mission, objectives, strategy and tactics, collaboration is key.

Establishing the value of HR

Question: How do we appropriately balance the delivery of cost controls and value creation for the business? 

Answer: Paula Leach, Chief People Officer, Home Office 

It comes down to a perennial question about how HR is able to demonstrate value for the “relational” aspects of what we do.

There are lots of ways in which we can show value. We have talked about analytics, we have talked about ROI, we have talked about how you demonstrate the impact of these initiatives, we have talked about service standards. Now we need to articulate the relational value.

We are having conversations about using data and analytics and all these metrics to differentiate when we make interventions that are almost hidden.

If somebody has a grievance and you go in and stop it getting into a big tribunal case, or you get into mediation early, then you’ve avoided a huge cost. Being clever about how we demonstrate that value is the next horizon. There’s a huge amount of relational work that keeps the wheels turning in organisations. It’s difficult to create visibility around it.

Evidence around neuroscience and behavioural science is coming out to support this. It’s beginning to give us tools to be able to explain how to optimise human behaviour or human-to-system interaction. It’s an interesting horizon for us – being able to talk about how it creates value within an organisation or the diminishing value when it isn’t there.



  • The relational aspect of HR can indeed add huge financial as well as emotional value to an organisation – this needs to be articulated.
  • Use neuroscience and behavioural science as tools to validate your relational work within the organisation.

Trust in HR

Question: How can HR demonstrate its trustworthiness and credibility? 

Answer: Katy Downes, Senior Engagement Manager, Network Rail

We need to actually talk to people – to get out and have conversations. If you can become part of the team you’re helping, then you become integral to the business. Trust builds over time, but these smaller actions will help you to build your credibility.

This underlying credibility will strengthen your position the next time you want to launch a new initiative or talk to senior leaders about business change. Their trust will have been earned organically through natural conversations.

For example, if during a conversation someone mentions a family member having a hospital appointment, find out when it is and afterwards ask them how it went. It’s about bringing the human out of human resources, which sometimes we’re scared to do. Having those conversations and making people feel that you’re genuinely interested in them will pay dividends.

Answer: Paula Leach, Chief People Officer, Home Office

There’s a difference between trust in HR and employee trust in organisations. A number of factors affect trust in HR – it depends which lens we’re looking through.

1. Trust through efficiency

Having a trusted HR function is about having efficient shared services and transactional products. This runs from the basics of, “I am going to get paid without any issues,” all the way through to, “I need to make some clear changes and this is easy to use”. Transactions on accessible and efficient systems create trust. There’s something about just getting stuff done. If we fix stuff for people and are helpful then that builds trust.

2. Trust through confidentiality

Trust could also be interpreted as sharing something in confidence – a trusted place where people can go.

3. Trust through credibility

The other way that we build trust is around credibility. It’s about us having really good, confident expertise and evidence to back up what we say, making us trusted professionals.

In the HR function practitioners can look through all of those lenses. They can see where differences can be made in all of them. In terms of employee trust, this is much less about HR as a function and more about the individual’s experience – mostly of their supervisor or direct line management.

An individual’s level of engagement is largely based on their day-to-day experiences in their own teams – and any wider trust in the organisation is built there. HR is part of that indirectly, but an employee won’t be particularly motivated by trust in HR. HR’s role is inherently in the background – it’s about how we enable the relationship between the line manager and the employee. 




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