HR and Manager Partnerships: Building Accountability in the Workplace

Rayna had just received an interesting request. J.B., a recent addition to the front-line management team, had come to her following the division wide quarterly town hall update. The division president, Anne, had given a talk on accountability. She’d been firm in her resolve to increase division wide understanding of what it meant to be accountable at work. J.B. wasn’t questioning the directive. He was struggling with the meaning. What did accountability mean for him as a manager?

“Rayna,” he said. “In my last job we talked a lot about a culture of responsiveness. We gave a lot of lip service to building good teams, but in the end, it was really all about getting things done – fast. There was a lot of blaming; nobody wanted to be the one to holding the bag. It was about covering your backside – always.”

“Ugh,” said Rayna. “That must have been tough. We are trying hard to be different here. Anne is all about building a healthy workplace. She wants people to feel good about coming to work.”

J.B. replied, “I hear what she’s saying. It just doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about accountability at work. I know, it sounds crazy.”

“Anne’s talk got me thinking,” said Rayna. “I’ve been doing some reading and listening to podcasts on what accountability means. How about we set up some lunch dates to talk about what I’m finding?”

“Perfect!” said J.B. “Thanks, Rayna, I really appreciate you taking this on with me.”

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Building Trust and Increasing Employee Engagement in the Workplace

Ben was concerned. Emma, a manager new to his group, had just received her employee engagement scores. They were not good. Emma had been a rock star in her previous individual contributor role. She was seen as talent for the future in the organization. As her HR Business Partner, Ben had watched her struggle as a first-time manager. Now, it appeared that her employee team was willing to put those struggles on paper in the form of not so good engagement scores. This had always been a good team. But their responses were a strong signal to Ben that something was not right.

“Emma, let’s talk about what these employee engagement scores might mean,” Ben said.

“I know, Ben,” she replied. “I am trying so hard to get this managing thing right. I am not happy with the responses and how the group sees me right now. This is such a good team. The one that really bothers me is the feedback from the ‘do you trust your manager?’ question. I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty trust worthy person, so this one really bothers me. I can’t seem to find a way to earn my team’s confidence and trust.”

“Emma,” he replied. “I’ve been doing a lot of studying on how managers build trust on their teams since we started this whole employee engagement initiative. We are trying to understand how what we do in HR helps build trust in the organization. Would you consider studying with me? I really want to help you. We can learn together.”

“Ben, that would be great,” Emma replied. “Let’s do it!”

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Grow Your HR Career by Helping to Grow Your Organization

“Argh…it’s frustrating,” said Jennifer, taking another bite of her kale and apple salad. “He drops these articles in my inbox as part of our new mentoring agreement. I’m not sure how to think about it.”

“What is it this time?” Nicole, Jennifer’s friend in marketing communications, replied. “I think it’s cool you have a mentor. Not only do you get to assist your VP in running the talent management program for the company, you’ve been chosen for the ‘Rising Stars’ program.”

“I know,” said Jennifer. “It’s just frustrating to get articles about the future of HR and how senior leaders don’t always value what we do in an organization. I love HR. I love having a degree in HR. I worked hard for my credentials. I just don’t get it.”

“Why don’t you ask him?” Nicole retorted, as she dashed off to her appointment with the company webmaster. “He’s got his reasons. Ask him.”

In my teaching and consulting practice, HR professionals often recount stories like this.  Someone, somewhere, makes a disparaging remark about human resources as a “dead end”, “non-value add” or “being the department that just gets in the way.”

Here’s the news. This is no longer truth. This is wonderful time to be an HR professional. It’s time to grow into a true business partner. It’s time to be seen as someone who “gets it.” In the same way that the finance and technology functions have moved from the “number crunchers” and the “geek squad” to strategic business partners, it is time for HR professionals to step into strategic human capital management roles with a full understanding of what that means to their organization.  In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Ram Charon and others (Ram Charon, 2015, p. 63) write that “it’s time for HR to make the same leap that the finance function has made in recent decades and become a true partner to the CEO.”

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Learning the Art of Painting the HR Landscape

It’s Saturday morning in cottage country. You’re hugging a cup of coffee on the porch. The mist is just clearing from the lake. The view from the deck is stunning. The geese are feeding at the shoreline. A hawk circles above the pines in the distance. Waves lap the deck, reminding you that you promised your cousin a kayaking lesson later this morning. He’s coming with your Aunt Sally on the train as part of the adventure. Aunt Sally recently discovered plein art painting. “Bring the SUV to the station,” she said. “I have the easel.”

Your mind is on the meeting you were invited to in ten days with the Director of Really Big Stuff. Your assignment: present your thoughts on the two-year view of the strategic people project that became your task when you accepted your new role as business unit support human resources leader for your division. It’s big and you’re just getting your head around it.

“Keep it simple,” her executive assistant said. “She doesn’t want to know about the trees, just the forest. I’ve seen her chew others up when they start talking about the trees. She doesn’t have time for the trees. She takes care of the forest and lets those taking care of the trees do their job. Sorry about the metaphor, but I wanted to give you a head’s up.”

“Wow,” you think. “The forest. Not the trees. Every presentation I made in my last role was all about the trees. My manager wanted the details. He wanted to know that I had a firm grasp of everything and had tied it all up in a nice, neat package. My team members wanted the same thing – to know that I had their back and they could see it in the spreadsheets I’d prepared.”

“How the heck do I approach this?” you think. “I’ve got twenty minutes to cover my thoughts on a two-year seriously strategic project?” Then you remember the Queen’s IRC Advanced HR course your new manager had asked you to attend when you accepted the role in the business unit. At the time it was still pretty new, and frankly, slightly overwhelming to make the transition from subject matter expert to business unit support leader. You remember something from that session about turning the curve on the way to the next level and how things at the next level require a different kind of thinking.

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The Art of Mountain Driving: Navigating the Curves

Driving mountain roads can be very tricky. With the exception of those who drive a super-powered something able to negotiate a significant vertical climb, mere mortals learn that reaching the top of the mountain requires learning the skill of turning switchback corners. Go too slowly around the curve, and you run the risk of the vehicle stalling in the climb. Go too fast, and it can be a kissing-the-guardrail moment, or over the edge you go.

I love mountain driving, but I’ve also learned to be very respectful of switchback curves. Just the right acceleration and your right hand on the wheel keep the vehicle on the road. Rounding a corner without going over the edge brings you to a whole new “aha” moment. There is a vista there that you could not see ten minutes ago. The mountain was in the way. The corner had to be negotiated to take in what was waiting around the curve. Signs point the way and tell you the speed at which to take the corner, but they cannot possibly capture what is waiting around the bend.

Moving from one level in an organization to the next is a lot like negotiating switchback corners. Go too slowly, and you can stall out. Go too quickly, and you can go over the edge. For the HR professional moving from a Specialist to a Business Partner role, learning to negotiate the switchback curve is critical. The road tells you what you need to know as you make the turn. It is a matter of paying attention and learning to be aware of what all your senses are telling you at the same time.

In the book, The Leadership Pipeline (2001), the authors describe passages, or bends through pipelines, as one moves from one level of the organization to the next. Each of these passages, they assert, “represents a change in organizational position – a different level and complexity of leadership – where a significant turn has to be made”(p. 6-7). These turns, they contend, “may involve a major change in job requirements, time applications and work values” (p. 7).

From this writer’s perspective, there are several significant changes in skill sets, values, and how time is spent that must be learned for a highly skilled Human Resources Specialist (no matter the area) to successfully meet the requirements of a highly skilled HR Business Partner. In the IRC’s Advanced HR program, we talk about this shift of moving into an HR Business Partner role as learning to lead in a more advanced area of HR. The complexity of the Business Partner role changes significantly and the capability and skill set requirements are dramatically different than those of a Specialist role. It is a “coming around the mountain curve moment” in an individual’s career.

The Scenery Ahead

The first–and perhaps most poignant–shift for most individuals moving into an HR Business Partner role is that the space within which they work changes. This can be as simple and complex as changing their physical location in the company. Many organizations require their HR Business Partners to move into the business unit, to be one with the everyday comings and goings of that part of the organization. Preparing to move from a centralized “everybody thinks and talks like me” HR unit requires a downshifting pause. The Business Partner is moving to their business unit’s space, culture, and group, complete with all its interesting dynamics and quirkiness. It is entirely possible that you will look like a complete stranger whom your colleagues are not so sure they want in their midst. At best, on first arrival you may appear to be an accidental tourist to the locals who are very comfortable in their own environment.

From my mountain driving experiences, it is like coming around a curve, only to see ahead a herd of mountain sheep standing on the side of the road. To this day, I still stop the car, pull out whatever photographic device I have with me and get as close as I can to the critters to observe and snap a photo or two. The locals, flying by in their vehicle of choice, either smile and wave with an “ain’t it grand” kind of air or do some other version of hand signaling to indicate their displeasure that I’ve pulled off the road for my own look at the local wildlife. From their perspective, my need to see and be with the critters results in yet another traffic element to be attended to on the drive up the mountain.

Learning to live with the locals, while taking in the interesting sights, is a skill set that can be developed. I’ve learned it in mountain cafés, listening to the conversations around me. Yes, I am a flatlander, I’ll never be one of them, but I am respectful of what they know, who they know, and what they can teach me. Showing up as some sort of expert is not helpful–for any of us–as we learn to be together in what is my new place in their space.

David Ulrich and others (2012) describe this learning to live with the locals as becoming a Credible Activist (p. 88). In describing this competency, he states, “credibility comes when HR professionals focus their time and attention on issues that matter to the business” (p. 87). Further, he states, these same HR professionals, must “do what they promise, meet their obligations and commitments, communicate effectively and build relationships of trust with line managers” (p. 87).

If a move to a business unit is part of your next role as a Business Partner, learn to see the space as they see the space. You will never be one of them; that is not why you’re there, but you can learn to see and hear what is important about the unit and what drives their part of the business. The first responsibility in this new space is yours. Yes, they should welcome you, but no, they may not.

Enter their space respectfully. Learn to see what they see. Learn about what they value–what’s important, what is not important, how they think, and how they gather as a group. As a Specialist, you were part of a group who understood you. Accept that your new neighbours may never completely understand you. With a little time and patience, you can win them over to accepting the flatlander in their midst. Breathe a little and learn to enjoy their space. Your credibility depends on it.

Jam Sessions on Friday Afternoon

There is a certain kind of music that happens in mountain cafés. Someone starts pickin’ on his guitar; another just happens to have her concertina accordion in the truck. Someone else grabs a pair of spoons and you’ve got music. The next thing you hear is “Hey Lila, call down to the house and have Joanna Rae bring her fiddle up here!” Fingers and toes start tapping out the beat, a couple starts dancing, the kids are clapping, and even the cook starts humming along. Just like that, you’re making music and the whole place is involved.

Finding and keeping good talent is an accountability that belongs to everyone in the organization. Yes, the hiring manager needs someone capable of doing the role. Yes, the group VP is always on the lookout for the next rising star. Yes, the HR Recruiting Manager is overloaded and knows which university or agency is the best for sourcing good talent. No, the organization does not always take time to document the full extent of internal talent. And you, the HR Business Partner, are right in the middle of it all.

Developing the skill set to know that Joanna Rae and her fiddle would make the music even better is another key to coming around the corner on a mountain road. In HR from the Outside In, Ulrich and others (2012) describe this competency as an “innovator and integrator domain” (p. 164). The factors involved in that domain include: working with managers to understand the talent requirements of the organization, assisting in developing that talent, hearing the needs of the various managers, and integrating the search for talent. Often, it may also include helping to construct the compensation systems and packages for finding and keeping talent.

Moving from the role of a Specialist, highly effective in a particular area, to one of Business Partner , requires a whole new framework for making music. The move, as Ulrich describes, requires the HR professional to “move from the outside in” (p. 8). You are living and breathing strategic planning, talent development, and day-to-day challenges with the business unit. You are now seeing up-close the benefit of having the right talent in the right place. You are living, right along with the rest of the team, the pain of having someone who is not quite right for a role. In the constant search for talent in the organization, you are in a linchpin role. You are the one who can work with the manager to ensure the right person is in the right role, as well as coordinate the work with the HR Specialists.

The skill sets, turning this mountain corner and coming into a new view, require savvy and sophistication. You are doing multiple things at multiple times–listening to the individual players, hearing the tune as they play, how the music comes together, and where to go for help if something is missing. With this coming around the curve, you move from being an expert in guitar pickin’ to the guy or gal who hears the whole tune. And, you have learned where to go for help in finding what the group needs to make the sound even better. It’s about the music, not just your own particular tune.

Becoming a Mountain Muse

Part of the mountain experience is learning to navigate the trails. As Specialists, we are part of the outfitter’s team. We know where the boots and poles are located. We can help program the GPS and make sure the climbers have the right trail map. We know that the bears wake up hungry in the spring. We know the sound a magpie makes when angry, and we know that bull elk can get aggressive in the fall.

When moving into a Business Partner role, we join the climbing group. The manager is always (hopefully) the leader. The group is climbing the trail. They see the trail in front of them, but they cannot always see the whole mountain. They’re on it, living in it, and working toward a collective goal to get to the next place in the trail.

On the climb, our role as Business Partner is an interesting combination of medic, muse, and encourager-in-chief (especially on the high country trails). As Specialists, we learned how to serve as medic and encourager-in-chief. We know how to triage a painful situation. We know how to encourage someone having a tough time. We train others, we know how to plot an organization map, and we are experts in the (employment legal) environment.

At the risk of taking Greek mythology to a whole new meaning, it is the muse role that is the new learning for most HR Specialists, as they move into a Business Partner role. The handy Oxford American Dictionary (1980) I keep in my writing desk has two definitions for muse, useful in this framework. The first, muse as noun, is “one of the nine sister goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology, presiding over branches of learning and the arts… a poet’s genius” (p. 587). The second useful definition is in the verb form. To muse is “to ponder” (p. 587.)

If you accept that managerial leadership is both a science and an art, it is in that creative artist place of “musing” that we can be great partners for line managers. Sometimes, the managerial leader just needs someone they can talk with to get their ideas out of their head; someone who can hear what they are trying to do, and frame it in a way that the team can understand. In my own work as a consultant, I find that managers at all levels of the organization often just need someone who will listen and help them paint and frame what they are thinking about and how they envision leading their team. Individual members of the team each have their own goals while working to meet the group goals. They are also subordinates, and as such, it may not be appropriate that they serve as a manager’s muse or thinking partner. Done well, an HR Business Partner can serve a huge role in an organization, by learning to help managers think through and create what is important for their unit. This is not about the strategic planning process, although strategic partnering is a critical component of this skill.

This role of muse is more about listening and helping the creative learning to come to the forefront. It is a matter of moving away from “I have to be an expert at (insert HR Specialist area here)” to “I am becoming someone who is respected for her listening, thought organizing, and framing skills.” If active listening is tough for you, if you have a high need to inject what you think the speaker wants to hear before they have finished their thought, you will have a tough time going around this mountain curve. You acquire the skill set to listen, summarize what you’ve heard, and ask the next “just right” question to successfully navigate the curve. Anthropologists do this well, clinical psychologists do this well, and kindergarten teachers are the true masters (as in, Bobby… “I think I just saw you put your paintbrush on Jen. Is that really what you meant to do?”).

Becoming a mountain muse to a group of creative managers climbing their own mountains is not about you expounding on your own expertise. They know you have expertise; you know you have expertise. When they are climbing the mountain, sometimes they just need someone to listen and ask them when they might be okay pausing by the side of the trail for a rest. They need someone who can help them hear what is happening with everyone on the trail. That is, who is lagging, who is holding back to take their own photos, and who is itching to run ahead. Learn to listen–to individuals, the group, and the mountain. They need to know that you see it, get it, and will help them create the next opportunity.

Remember to enjoy the view…

The organizations in which we work face many challenges. We live in dynamic times, with constantly shifting expectations. We have big mountains to climb. We have switchback curves to navigate. We have climbing teams who need us to listen, hear, and experience right along with them. Learn to do these well and you will be respected as full partner on your team. Good luck and watch the curves…


About the Author

Sandi Cardillo

Sandi Cardillo is president of Conrad Associates based in Omaha, Nebraska. Sandi consults with both profit and not-for-profit organizations applying accountable management principles in structuring, talent management and improved managerial practices. She has over twenty years experience in management, human resources, organization development and internal consulting.

Sandi has been vice president, human resources, and director, human capital development for a major national financial services organization. In her director role, Sandi served as assistant-to-the-president and worked with executive leadership teams to implement organizational structure and roles needed to meet future business needs, providing clarity in the development of key accountabilities and managing “right person, right role” concerns. During her tenure in this role, she led the internal consulting team for a five-year business unit merger project that resulted in significant structure change, role clarity and increased profits.

She was corporate human resources director for a major manufacturing firm responsible for recruitment, selection, employee relations, organizational development and training. Her experience includes senior merchandising and management positions in several major department store groups and product manager for an importing company. These positions required extensive travel throughout the USA and abroad, including the Far East and India.

Sandi’s work with not-for-profit groups includes the recent Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska Council merger of five area councils into a statewide organization. She assisted the CEO and Leadership Team in developing the appropriate structure, roles and talent to meet the strategic vision for the emerging council. She has also worked with the CEO of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) in developing structure and roles to meet strategic expansion goals for the future.

Sandi brings practical management and human resources experience to her consulting work. She is known for her ability to integrate high-level conceptual frameworks for the executive level, assisting them in breakthrough thinking in the application of accountable management principles. Sandi is well respected for her ability to simplify complex principles and practices for mid-level and front line managers through her teaching and consulting style. She has over ten years experience teaching accountable management principles and practices to all levels of managers.

Sandi has presented at national and international conferences on topics including managerial leadership, talent management and using accountable management principles in managing process change. She teaches in the Executive MBA program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha using a curriculum focused on the application of requisite organization theory and accountable management principles in change management.

Sandi earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Nebraska. She is a Fellow of the Global Organization Design (GO) Society and a Certified Coach Practitioner.



Charan, Ram, Stephen Drotter, and James Noel. The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Ehrlich, Eugene, Stuart Berg Flexner, Gorton Carruth, and Joyce M. Hawkins. Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Avon Books, 1980.

Ulrich, Dave, Jon Younger, Wayne Brockbank, and Mike Ulrich. HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

The HR Professional’s Role in Building Organizational Success

At some point in his or her career, a human resource (HR) professional will encounter the notion of “earning a seat at the table.” This overused buzz phrase is fraught with meaning and can result in a serious case of consternation. Sitting at “the table,” from this writer’s perspective, is all about understanding the management systems of the organization, the organization’s relationship with its external customers, and the organization’s approach to change. It is a bit like Arthur Dent’s experience in Douglas Adams’ (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy consternation over being chosen to take an interesting ride through new space and time, while attempting to hang on to the backpack of our past experiences.

In my work with senior management teams, I often hear the frustrations that senior managers experience with their HR staff. That frustration comes in the form of comments such as “they’re too rigid,” “they don’t understand the business” or the infamous, “it seems like they are always about saying ‘no’ when we need them to help us figure out how to make it work.” On the other hand, as HR professionals we often find that we are offered a seat at the table just in time for dessert. The common complaint from HR folks in this dilemma is “if only they would have called us sooner.”

John Kotter’s (1996) book, Leading Change, illustrates the importance of “creating a guiding coalition” (p. 57) in leading and managing organizational change. I contend that most organizations today are wrestling with their own brand of change. The emerging role of HR professionals includes an invitation to participate actively in the change process, providing leadership on a business unit basis. The line versus staff distinctions of the past are blurring. These guiding coalitions, from Kotter’s perspective, are the right people with the right position, power, expertise, creditability, and managerial leadership skills to develop and maintain organizational trust in times of change.

For HR professionals, learning to be part of a guiding coalition, sitting at the table from the beginning, is a new ride in a new galaxy. With apologies for the many metaphors, this is the emerging work of our profession. It is both necessary and appropriate for HR professionals to move to a place of strategy architect that Ulrich, Brockbank, Johnson, Sandholtz, and Younger (2008) describes in the book on HR competencies. One of six competencies, Ulrich et al describes the strategy architect as someone who is prepared and knows “what to say and how to say when participating in business discussions” (p.125).

How, then, does a human resource professional move from a strong and deep content area of specialty to a more generalized role of listening, learning, and framing the appropriate answer at the appropriate time? My response to those professionals asking that question is to spend time learning about your organization’s managerial leadership systems. HR professionals seeking to make what can feel like a ninety-degree turn in their professional development, need to become more comfortable with how the organization makes visible its strategic focus, the clarity of tasks defined to achieve that focus, and how the organization finds and develops the right human capital talent at the right time. I ask these HR professionals to pay attention to some key things when preparing for their new role in supporting a business unit. This “hitchhiker’s guide to an interesting galaxy” describes the important places in the road to pay attention to as one moves out of the specialist role into a place of business unit support in their organization.

Understanding Strategy – How does the organization think about its future?

The first, and sometimes unfortunate, question is “does the organization have a visible strategy?” Yes, there might be some interesting plaques on the wall and words on a website, but is the strategy visible to the front line? Can the individual directly facing the customer articulate how what they are doing ties to the strategy set from the top?

An HR professional, working as a business partner is perfectly placed to hear what employees are saying about the strategy and vision. What is the strength of the strategic message communicated to those employees closest to the external customer? An astute HR business partner understands the context of this larger strategic message. He or she is in the ideal place to listen, learn, and frame the message with the customer focusing parts of the business.

The challenge for the HR professional moving from specialist to this new relationship is that they have focused on working internally to support other employees in meeting their strategic goals. As a specialist, the tendency is to think of their customer as the employees and managers of the organization, hence, the “internal” customer. When one moves to a business unit support role, the definition of customer changes from internal to external. Learning to think like a manager who faces the external customer everyday is an important and necessary shift in thinking – a new galaxy, to borrow from our hitchhiker’s guide.

Ulrich et al (2008) describes this reframed thinking as learning to behave as a business ally, moving beyond the HR specialist, to a business ally and strategic partner. Working as a business ally means thinking as one who truly understands what is happening in the total competitive and social context of which the organization is a part. Who is the external customer? What does the competitive environment look like? What are the value chain and pipeline relationships that impact the organization on a daily basis? Learning to pay attention and understand these relationships deeply is critical to the HR professional being invited to the table.

Structure – Does it support the work that is to be done?

Architects, as Ulrich et al describes, “are not quite engineers and not quite artists” (p. 125). Good architects design with the function in mind, thereby honoring the adage of form following function. If we accept the premise that organizations exist to get work done (Jaques, 2006), then it naturally flows that a well-designed organizational structure follows the strategic vision to meet the needs of the external customer. This may seem like a blatant statement of the obvious, but I am continually in awe of organizations that appear to design a structure to meet their own needs, not what they profess the needs of the external customer to be. The key questions “what is the work?” and “how does that meet the needs of the external customer?” often fall by the wayside in the approach to building a solid structure.

Learning to sit at the business unit table requires learning to look at the boxes on the organization chart from an objective and “agile” (Ulrich et al., 2008, p. 124) perspective. I describe it to my HR clients as learning to play in the white space. Working with business leaders, the HR professional can serve as an objective voice of reason on process teams; learn to see the roles “boxed” on the organization chart from the vertical, as well as the horizontal perspectives. Skilled HR leaders understand that work flows both ways in an organization: top to bottom and side to side. They add real value to managerial leaders through staying objective and learning to see the organization through the external customer lens.

Playing in the white space takes courage. It means we sometimes stand alone in asking the tough questions as to how the roles might fit together in a more meaningful way. Bringing an objective, well thought out set of guiding questions to a manager making organizational structure decisions can be real value-add to their thinking process. Unlike an HR specialist role, where we do need the answer, the ninety-degree turn in skill here is learning to listen, frame good questions, and reflect back what we hear. Credibility comes when working from a place of understanding external customer needs, while guiding and framing through the right questions, at the right time.

Task Clarity – Does the performance appraisal system support the strategy through good task assignment?

Elliot Jaques (2006) in his development of Requisite Organization theory speaks of task assignment as the core of a good managerial leadership system. A lifetime of research led him to understand that human beings really do want to be productive and do their best in the contributions they make to society through their work. What we each do is different and unique, but in our heart and soul as humans, we are alike in this deep desire to fully “spread our wings,” value the work that we do, and meet our full potential.

Somewhere between empowerment and micro-management, a common ground of task clarity allows the individual human spirit to be with others in the collective, called the organization, and achieve the goals of that organization. A system that aligns the tasks that need to be done to meet the strategic goals of the organization with an individual’s contribution to that organization is what we want from our appraisal systems.

To continue with Jaques’ thinking, it is managers who have the accountability for task assignment and the clarity of those tasks. It is my experience that skill in good task assignment is one of the most difficult competencies for managers to master. Good managers understand good task assignment, but they need help in learning to master the skill and keep their skills honed as the strategic needs of the organization shift.

Mastering the skill of clear task assignment serves as the basis of a solid performance appraisal system. What needs to be done? When does it need to be done? By whom? These are simple, straightforward questions that occupy a manager’s mind on a daily basis. Hopefully, the organization’s performance appraisal system supports this premise.

The hitchhiking HR professional in place in the business unit often encounters the lack of alignment between task clarity and the performance appraisal system in the form of the “procedures for disciplining an employee.” With apologies for revealing a bias on my part, the issue is often a lack of clarity in task assignment. The adult known as the employee is being disciplined for not doing something that may not have been a clear task assignment from the beginning. Taking a look at the work employees are being asked to do and their capability for doing that work can often help to determine the extent to which “bad behaviour” is actually occurring.

Employee relations issues can often be managed by spending the time to solve the task clarity issues. Sitting at the table with senior managers takes courage in asking the tough questions about the alignment between what the organization thinks it wants done versus how that is cascading through the organization.

Ulrich et al (2008) described this emerging HR professional role as learning to think as a culture and change steward. Changing an organization often means changing the work of that organization. Changing the work of the organization means changing the task focus of the organization. The HR function has traditionally been seen as the keeper of the performance management system at some level. Performance management belongs to the managers; HR facilitates the conversations and make sure the message is coming through clearly.

Think about a time that you were working through an employee relations disciplinary process. Did anyone stop to ask the question if the task was clear from the beginning? Asking that question is some of the best value-add we can give to our business unit managers.

Talent Management – How does the organization manage getting the right people in the right place at the right time?

Finally, we arrive at the place in the galaxy where the right people are showing up, at the right place, at the right time. How does that happen and what is the role of the HR professional?

Ulrich et al (2008) speaks of this domain as the place where talent management and organization design come together into a critical integration point. There are three critical elements of this integration: understanding the business unit strategy, keeping an objective eye on the structure and finally, and paying attention to the individual task assignments of each role needed in meeting the strategic goals. Understanding these elements, and learning to ask the right question, at the right time, is a key skill in assisting organizational managers in hiring and developing talent.

This role involves another ninety-degree turn from specialist to partner for the HR professional. It is about moving from an external recruiting focus of bringing talent to the door to one of collaborating with business unit managers on an ongoing basis, to facilitating the match of the right talent to the right assignment, at the right time. In the “war for talent,” learning to listen and integrate external customer needs with the strategic internal talent needs is a critical supportive role that HR professionals play in their organizations.

Managers value a partner who “gets it” from a talent perspective. Managers also value a partner who understands the larger, competitive framework in which they work everyday. When the match is not right, or a role remains empty for too long, it affects the work of the manager. Knowing that their HR partner is right there with them goes a long way to building credibility and earning a seat at the table.

We Live in Interesting Times

These are interesting times for HR professionals learning to explore new galaxies and moving into a more fully integrated role in the organization. From my perspective, learning to live in interesting in times is not the ancient curse that is often given to this quote. Yes, our organizations are moving at the speed of light. Yes, we are called to move into a different space and place professionally. Yes, it is more than a little unnerving. We are hitchhiking through a new galaxy. Stick out your thumb and enjoy the ride!


Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. NY: Ballatine Books,1979.

Kotter, John. P. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Jaques, Elliott. Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organiztion and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century. Baltimore: Cason Hall & Co., 2006.

Ulrich, David, Wayne Brookbank, Dani Johnson; Kurt Sandholtz, and Jon Younger. HR Competencies: Mastery at the Intersection of Business and People. Alexandria, VA: The RBL Institute, Society for Human Resources, 2008.


About the Author

Sandi Cardillo

Sandi Cardillo is a facilitator with the Queen’s IRC Advanced HR program.

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