Michael Beer: HR Key to High Commitment, Performance

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SAN DIEGO—If building and sustaining a high commitment, high performance (HCHP) organization were easy, everyone would be doing it. It is those who have the will and the vision to ask the hard questions and confront the tough challenges who are creating successful organizations and getting a level of commitment from their workers that push this success, according to Michael Beer, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the Harvard University Business School, and speaker at the June 30, 2010, session of the Masters Series at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference here.

Beer told the audience that the best business leaders at the most successful organizations have a vision that looks beyond the bottom line and improving quarterly earnings statements. These leaders have a vision of building an institution and corporate culture that allows people to excel and perform at the highest levels.

He pointed to organizations such as Volvo and Southwest Airlines, companies that have leaders who have said their ultimate goal is to create an organization that provides the best service to their customers and employees.

"Once they achieve those two goals, then they believe that success and all the rewards that come with it will follow," Beer said during his two-hour presentation.

He pointed repeatedly to the example of Southwest Airlines and said that the company has had the opportunity to expand rapidly through the years. However, a rapid growth mode was not consistent with the airline’s corporate culture. Beer said Southwest's growth plan is to expand the number of cities served by one or two a year, when the potential was there for the airline to grow by 10 or 15 cities.

But the executives at Southwest told Beer that the rapid growth would have forced them to sacrifice their commitment to the corporate culture, which would mean hiring more people than they were prepared to hire.

"It would also mean hiring people that were not a proper fit for the company, and they are not willing to take that step," Beer said.

One of the keys to committing to a culture and building an HCHP organization is to be willing to have honest – and public – conversations about the organization’s culture and to ensure that the business is living up to its commitments.

During his years as a management consultant, Beer said that CEOs and business leaders told him repeatedly that receiving feedback from employees is indispensable when shaping strategies. Beer told the audience that everything he described during his presentation was an element of HR.

"In the broadest sense, this is all HR-related, which makes the strategic role of HR in this process critical," he said.

Beer concluded his session by outlining the strategic role of HR in building an HCHP organization. He told the audience that the strategic approach involves much more than employee relations and talent management, which many view as the traditional roles of HR.

He said that the strategic role of HR in the process is about helping business leaders and top-level management to align performance and align the psychology of the workforce. Beer told HR not to be a messenger and just parrot information back to leaders, but to present new ideas and solutions.

"The one thing you want within your organization is the capability to learn," Beer said. "HR can make a difference in developing a great organization, but it takes knowledge and courage to reach that goal."

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.