The Future of Work — and How HR Can Help Get There - A #SHRM18 Interview with Michelle M. Smith



Human resources leader Michelle M. Smith reveals how HR leaders today have a rare opportunity to think more strategically.


Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, recently stepped down as a vice president at O.C. Tanner to focus on speaking and writing about the issues facing the workplace today. With more than 30 years in human resources and recruitment/recognition, as well as leading a dot-com startup and a large organization, Smith often talks to CEOs about their needs and frustrations.

We reached out to her to learn more about her talk, “The Future of Work: What CEOs REALLY Want from HR,” at the 2018 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition. Here’s why she believes it’s “make-or-break time for HR.”

Capitalizing on Emerging Opportunities

The first thing Smith says she has learned is that in the past, CEOs often haven’t shared openly with their HR leaders. After the Great Recession, though, they became more appreciative of what HR can do for them. More than one CEO has said their HR department saved their bacon in times of crisis.

At the same time, many C-suite leaders are thinking about the future of their HR department—including whether they need one in-house or can outsource that function entirely. Do they want an HR department that’s administrative or strategic? One that nests within another area of leadership or that has its own corporate structure and VP?

Currently, about 40 percent of chief HR officers (CHROs) don’t come from human resources; instead, they’ve being brought in from sales, marketing, operations or other areas of the enterprise.

It’s up to HR leaders to show the value they bring to the table, Smith says, or risk losing this moment. Right now represents an opportunity, not a crisis. “The spotlight's on. It's our time to shine. If we don't, there are going to be some serious consequences,” she says.

Embracing an Entrepreneurial Mindset

One thing HR leaders should do is offer initiatives that can be taken up tomorrow to reframe their role and position within the organization. It’s about having an entrepreneurial mindset—thinking about the entire organization, and where HR can make a greater impact. Beyond making sure the company has great talent, HR needs to find any kind of people issue and look for ways to address it.

This could mean letting go of some functions typically seen as core to HR, such as payroll or benefits management. This would give HR leaders the time and space to think more strategically about the entire organization. This can be a challenge in which HR pros often have long to-do lists and daily fires to put out.

“If we don’t change the paradigm and do some higher-gain initiatives in the organization, we’re never going to get the results we want and be given a seat at the table,” Smith says. “Not only does HR suffer by that, but so does the entire company.”

Aligning the Corporate Brand

One common problem is that new hires want to work for the company based on its corporate brand. Then they come on board and find that the internal employer brand isn’t consistent with the corporate brand. This is a key area where HR can partner with marketing, Smith says.

This is especially an issue with Millennials, who have far less patience for a big disconnect between the organization’s public image and the one the employees experience day-to-day.

“If you don’t have your act together, you’ll be seen as inauthentic. Things that used to get a pass are now given more scrutiny,” Smith says.

Looking Past the Silos

One way CEOs would love for HR to be more proactive is in looking past the lines between divisions in the organization. “They would love nothing more than to break down the silos and get people to work more collaboratively. That's one of my invitations to HR, to reach out to your colleagues,” she says.

Smith gives a word of caution, though, about being wary of competitors within the company structure who are looking to add to their own standing by having HR report to them. Frame the discussions with colleagues in a way that makes clear you are coequals working toward common goals.

Breaking Out Your Big Ideas

With the upturn in the economy, perspectives are changing on what HR can do for a company, Smith says. CEOs and boards of directors are more-receptive to new ideas and allocating funding to see them through. This is due in large part to institutional investors increasingly recognizing the importance of talent and culture to the sustainability of an organization.

Smith says now is the time to break out the big ideas you’ve been keeping locked in that desk drawer; polish them up and put them on the table. HR leaders may find that CEOs and boards are more-open to listening to these ideas than ever before.

“We’re at the tipping point of really making those changes in HR that we’ve all wanted to make for so long, and now we’ve got a receptive audience. So let’s drive a truck through that open door.”

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