The qualities needed to achieve success in the development and ongoing management of an Employer Brand represent a promise for some in the HR world and a threat for others. That is because success calls for certain qualities which whoever leads an EB project must have, e.g.:
- The confidence to work closely with leaders of other functions and line management. HR cannot create and manage an EB on its own.
- The courage and persuasiveness to win the support and engagement of senior management – the heart of an EB is in the overall working experience which the organization offers, and changes to that can mean making tough decisions.
- The ability to research and establish the key insights into what makes an EB distinctive, compelling and also the truth. Many EBs fail here with standard phrases which could come from any company. Again, it takes courage and confidence to stand out from the crowd.
- The establishment of effective measurement data which audits the working experience and how it is regarded inside the company and externally. Furthermore, it is necessary to ensure that it is regularly reviewed by senior management alongside financial and marketing information.
The above isn't just me. Jackie Orme, the ex PepsiCo leader of the CIPD (the UK's top HR body), said this about the EB at her first national conference: Now it is absolutely integral to business strategy – resonating well beyond the doors of the HR department. With a shift in what organizations want to be known for, and the associated changes in the dynamic of business leadership, there's an opportunity – no, a necessity – to consider what the implications are for HR. CEOs are focusing on the EB and upholding the values of the business. They're focusing on ethics, ethos and reputation, and on the way they manage and develop their people.
It is that thinking which, to their credit, lies behind the CIPD’s campaign to build the attractiveness of HR as a significant career choice with the line “Think HR – think again.” Behind the promotion are important initiatives to enhance the skills of HR people.
To my mind, however, the problem for HR in tackling big company leadership challenges like EB management is not primarily about skills, it is about attracting people with the necessary character, judgment, courage, self awareness, ambition and fortitude. For people like this, HR should represent a great opportunity, given that the point of difference for any business today is its ability to attract, retain and engage outstanding people.
I believe a good example of this type is David Fairhurst, People Director for McDonalds in Europe. He took the problem of the “McJob” slur (Webster’s Dictionary’s term for a low skill, low pay and no prospects job) head on. He established how wrong that was within McDonalds, gained significant academic support and won senior management approval based on powerful research. It is a classic example of working on a weakness and turning it into a strength. Since then, he has led educational initiatives for thousands of McDonalds employees and gained the support of government as part of a national education project. Recently, the people aspects of McDonalds have shown a higher external profile than any other aspect of the company. Fairhurst strikes me as a rounded business leader who, while he cares about the world of work, would have succeeded in many other disciplines. At a recent conference, he described his upbringing in a small family business, and that shows.
I believe there is a vacuum in this part of business life which, given how vital it is globally, will be filled by others if HR does not attract more leaders with the qualities I describe. In my experience, some great HR chiefs often have had a broader experience in line management or other functions, e.g., the law, than typically is the case. Within HR, many Resourcing executives demonstrate both toughness and sales ability, albeit without the necessary breadth, or sometimes desire, to address necessary changes to the working experience. Another area of influence can be found in the intelligent thinker-planners within Organizational Development and, particularly in financial services, Compensation specialists who have highly relevant contributions to make. However, none of these three can easily demonstrate the range that is necessary for effective brand management.
Marketing does have a major contribution to make as an analytical and coherent discipline. A company I know has engagement, communications and employee research located in the Marketing department, not in HR, leaving the latter to manage the day-to-day people processes. I wonder what HR thinks about that? Maybe it’s a relief not to have to deal with emotion and uncertainty. However, while Marketing has produced many more business leaders than HR has, marketing people often lack the sensitivity and understanding of human beings at their most complex – i.e., people at work! The needs and attitudes of customers can be child’s play in comparison.
Don't get me wrong – I am a committed supporter of HR at its best and have done my best to influence it for many years. It just needs the will to change how it works and thereby to attract successful people who believe that the function is one they would like to be part of because it is has such influence on success today. If it is also a springboard to the top, then that is an added bonus. In truth, not that many people make it to the top of an organization from ANY discipline, but there must be enough to show that it is possible from the one you choose to be an expert in.