27 September 2023

Hidden resources: Why the best HR is invisible

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Lars Schmidt* says more and more employers are discovering the strategic benefits of a less centralised human resources function.

There was a time not long ago when “getting HR involved” generally meant diffusing an employee relations issue.

Twentieth-century HR was all about control, enforcing compliance around hiring, training, development, performance, talent management, culture, holiday parties, facilities, and more.

The HR function was generally reactive rather than strategic.

Times have changed.

The rise of twenty-first–century HR has given birth to a new breed of HR executive, with a much broader skill set, who is leading the transformation of what’s possible in the field and reinventing HR as a data-driven strategic function critical to an organisation’s success.

This shift removes some of the “us versus them” friction that framed HR as an outlier to the business functions and embraces a new approach based on partnership, accountability, and shared outcomes.

You can trace the tipping point of this shift back to the creation of one particular position: the HR business partner role.

Rather than keeping HR isolated as a centralised team, this model embedded HR practitioners inside the business functions they support, allowing them to integrate more deeply into work units.

These embedded relationships allowed HR executives to have a much clearer view of an organisation’s health, turnover risks, and culture shifts — enabling them to be more proactive in addressing challenges and developing people strategies more closely aligned with the organisation’s mission and goals.

Contemporary HR is more focused on providing strategic value to drive business outcomes.

The focus is less on control and ownership, and more on understanding and aligning the people strategy to goals, supporting and empowering the employees to do their best work.

Here is a look at several organisations with HR practices that reflect this shift in approach.


In ultra-competitive Silicon Valley, the battle for talent is legendary.

If hiring, talent development, and retention aren’t priorities for the executive team, you have little chance of success.

Few know this better than Bryan Power, a veteran HR executive who led global people teams at Google, Square, and Yahoo.

Early in his career, Power worked for a product executive at Google who assigned strategic HR outcomes to each of his direct reports — hiring to one person, talent management to another, employee communications to a third, etc.

This created a structure that made each leader accountable for the development of the global organisation.

Later, at Square, Power implemented a similar ownership mentality as the organisation designed programs and built processes to scale out of the startup phase.

Like most fast-growing tech companies, Square had many new managers who were quickly expanding into leadership roles for the first time.

Power understood that their success would be largely driven by his team’s ability to get them trained as managers as quickly as possible.

He also understood that for these new managers to take this development challenge seriously and invest the right amount of time and commitment, it had to be driven by the top.

So, Power and his team enlisted the company’s top executives including Square’s CEO and key members of the executive team to teach manager training modules.

“When managers think of these people challenges as their own issues to resolve, rather than issues for HR to solve,” Power says, “that ownership and accountability transforms the organisation.”


What can an iconic 73-year-old toy manufacturer show us about progressive HR?

Quite a lot.

Last year Mattel brought in a new Chief People Officer to transform its organisation and modernise capabilities.

Amy Thompson, a HR veteran with leadership roles at Starbucks and Ticketmaster, was hired to lead a HR transformation effort within the organisation.

She brought with her a new leader-led model of HR, where managers are given the tools and support to evaluate the talent and capability health of their organisations and then develop the people strategy alongside their HR business partners.

This shift towards collaborative talent mapping put the planning focus on leaders as opposed to HR.

The HR team provided a general framework, then let the organisation design the structure that best served that unit’s goals and deliverables.

They also translated their values into behaviours needed at each level of the organisation.

Managers are then empowered to weave these behaviours throughout the employee experience life cycle.

This shift put the onus on managers to own their employees’ experience end to end and allowed HR to focus on more strategic initiatives to support the organisation.


How does a HR team at a high-growth organisation ensure employees in the field are supported?

That’s the daily challenge faced by Equinox SVP of People Services, Kelly Rew-Porter.

As Equinox continues to grow, HR had to find a way to partner with field operations.

The People Services teams create the frameworks for HR services spanning compliance, recruiting, training, and development and then work directly with their general managers and field leaders to implement them locally.

One of the core advantages driving this adoption is that all of their GMs are hired from within, so their familiarity with the operational standards, culture, HR practices, and programs allows for autonomy and continuity.

“The perception of the role of HR is changing,” Rew-Porter says.

“It used to be ‘why is HR in the room,’ now it’s ‘why isn’t HR in the room.’”

As more organisations shift toward a twenty-first–century model of HR, the very nature of the function will begin to blend and integrate more into the organisation itself.

Relinquishing control may feel counterproductive to legacy HR, but ceding it may actually be the key to unleashing the people team’s full potential — and impact.

* Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify and cofounder of the HR Open Source initiative.

This article first appeared at www.fastcompany.com.

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