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From the bottom to the top – radical increase in HR team’s engagement in just a year

mountain climbing team 2What is the first step on the journey to becoming an outstandingly supportive and valued internal HR service provider?

You need a high-performing, motivated HR team.

A HR director participating in our Best of HR Project faced a big challenge two years ago: employee engagement within the HR team was one of the lowest within all the teams in the whole company.

However, through some radical changes – both within the HR team and in his own leadership style – he managed to improve things so dramatically that, just one year later, HR had become the most engaged team in the organisation.

In the interview with him he shared with us the key elements of their success.


At the bottom – the situation two years ago.

First, I had to understand the causes behind my team’s dissatisfaction. In our case, there were several reasons why the HR team was frustrated:

  • Changes at the top of the company were driving new expectations of HR. Several new managers had just arrived in the organisation. These managers brought with them completely new expectations, and these created a lot of extra work for HR. We had to redesign existing systems that had been in place for many years, systems which many regarded as being effective. This required a great deal of flexibility on the part of the HR team
  • The integration of the HR function had only recently happened. The transformation from a network of local HR teams to a system of centres of expertise allied to HR partners involved big changes for several people. Before the integration, every site had had their own HR team. Following the change, site HR managers became business partners, while members of their old teams – the HR specialists – moved to the headquarters. Thus, the old site managers not only lost their leadership positions – which was painful in itself – but also by becoming HR business partners their focus had markedly changed, from leading individual HR teams to now “merely” representing HR in a matrix organisation.
  • Roles and responsibilities were poorly defined. The root of the problem concerning the positions of the HR business partners was that their roles weren’t well defined. Their scope had become too broad following the transformation; moreover, the new centralized and standardized HR governance had just been introduced. Therefore, business partners had to cope with a large amount of administrative tasks they did not have before, such as writing employment contracts, etc. This was a time when business partners only experienced the “dark side of integration”: they felt that they weren’t getting enough support from the headquarters, yet they already felt stronger central control over their activities.
  • My leadership style focused on setting tasks and monitoring. As the manager of the HR team, I used to make sure that I was always in the loop. All information went through me. My leadership style was based on setting tasks and then checking afterwards. I didn’t place enough emphasis on development or mentoring my staff.

Journey to the top – what we did in one year.

  • I asked for a coach and I went through a 1.5-year-long leadership coaching process. The coaching made a big difference in helping me find the “right” leadership style. As a result of the coaching, I gradually started focusing on people instead of tasks, programmes and issues. I started functioning as a coach-mentor to my colleagues. Now I don’t just give them tasks; I have learned how to delegate responsibilities. I have become comfortable with not always knowing about everything. HR business partners should be left with their responsibilities as partners for the business managers; they should only be given specific advice in the case of complicated HR topics.
  • Clarification of roles and responsibilities. We organised a workshop with the participation of the HR core team, including the HR business partners. This proved to be a crucial step. At that workshop we jointly defined the roles of responsibilities of different functions.
  • Rules of communication. At the same workshop we talked a lot about communication. We drew up some rules of communication, we defined the different platforms, we agreed on a meeting structure. We also declared some guidelines that all HR staff agreed to follow, such as “before any communication one must always consider its effect on the HR business partner”.
  • It is the business partner who needs to be in the centre rather than the HR director. This is how I can summarise the essence of our new system. It is the business partners who always have to be in the loop, who the whole team should be focusing on. I, on the other hand, needed to get out of the centre and assume a new role of a coaching-style leader.
  • Regular workshops every half a year. Even though our first workshop played a significant role in the change process, we were aware that one would not be enough. We decided to have a HR workshop every half a year, which would be the forum to talk about relevant strategic HR issues.
  • Energy management. We work hard. We realise that we consciously need to deal with topics such as energy management, stress, etc. We have to learn how to keep our energy levels high even when we have a lot on our plate. Last year we participated in an energy management training course to help us fight stress together as a team.
  • Flexible working hours. We introduced some flexibility in the working hours, too. It has become natural now that on certain days people can work from home. This definitely contributes to successful energy management. In this respect, we also acted as a pilot program for the rest of the company. We are gradually introducing flexible working hours in areas other than HR.
  • Personnel changes. In the HR team there used to be a few demotivated experts who didn’t seem to be able to renew themselves and adapt to the new setup. We made the strategic decision to replace them. When choosing new colleagues for their position, we consciously focused on motivation and personality. These qualities were more important to us experience itself.
  • Getting together outside the office. I asked one of our young colleagues to organise regular get-togethers for the HR team. She is very keen and comes up with new ideas all the time. Sometimes we just go out for an evening beer, but we also do other things. This year we are even planning to do a marathon together as a relay.

One year later, it was reassuring to find that, thanks to these changes, from being at the bottom of the employee engagement list HR became the most engaged team in the company. This is especially important since, as well as satisfaction having an impact on our everyday work, HR is the “face” of the company to potential employees and other talented people on the job market.