How to put people ahead of profit

HR leaders need strong business skills to help prioritise people, HR Indaba Network hears.

The value that people deliver to a business needs to be clear if their welfare is to be a priority, said the HR leaders participating in the Standing Your Ground – Prioritising People in a Profit-Driven Environment discussion at the 2020 HR Indaba Network.

Changing the agenda
Xolani Mawande, chief foresight champion at SABPP said that, realistically, the primary objective of any business is to make money and not to take care of you. If HR professionals want to be taken seriously and recognised as an essential business function, they need to have their own house in order and take steps to win credibility.

“If you want to be the right-hand person of the CEO you need to have a backbone, lead and make decisions,” said Xolani. “You also need to know the broader business issues that your company is confronted with. That means you need to immerse yourself in the business, know its ins and outs, and then once you’re seen as a trusted voice and that you add value to the bottom line of the business, your value rises.”

Phindokuhle Mohlala (pictured), group executive human resources PPC, said demonstrating HR value is important, especially when markets and business environments shift. She explained that PPC used to have a product that sold itself whether staff delivered or not. However, in recent years the company has been confronted with a lot of competition through imports, which have hurt profits.

The market changes necessitated having people who were agile, creative and could deliver at a high level. So there was a need to upskill and develop employees. Phindokuhle explained that they had to reorient employees to being more empowered, willing to multi-task and take decisions.

“Taking ownership is now encouraged, not working narrowly on your tasks,” she said. “We also changed the system to align remuneration with performance. Now people earn money based on their delivery, not on cost of living adjustments.”

Buyani Zwane, founder and CEO of Breakthrough Development, agreed that the financial imperatives of the business were important, but insisted that there is no business without people because no strategies can be implemented without them.

“Covid-19 has demonstrated that CEOs looking to the future are providing solutions for people, not just products and services,” he said. “So, if you don’t look after your people you will fail in the long term.”

Tools for being a priority
According to Phindokuhle, to get leadership to prioritise the people agenda you must be convincing as an HR practitioner. The biggest hurdle in any transformation is changing people’s mind-set, she said, and this must start with you and your team.

She shared that a common mistake HR people make when wanting to drive change is not earning trust first. “You also need to show expertise on operational and finance issues, and get entry level knowledge if you have to. Participate in discussions that don’t centre on HR alone and be inquisitive enough to ask colleagues about deeper business issues you don’t understand,” she said.

She advised leading by example and said when she pilots a new idea or an initiative, she uses HR as guinea pigs to illustrate the new change. This show and tell approach proves that you believe in what you are doing and generates tangible evidence for the rest of the organisation to follow.

Buyani emphasised that HR professionals need to show that the value they deliver is important and they do this by going the extra mile. “Too often we have become too comfortable with a good enough result. As HR we need to aim for excellence to be the standard, so we operate in the crucial interchange of being purpose-driven and profit-driven.

Be a trusted advisor
Xolani said foresight is important when heading the people component of a business. He asserts that all HR professionals should aim to understand the bigger business and the future of the company.
For instance, if you know that in 10 or 16 years’ time there will be driverless cars on the road, ask yourself what it means to the company. “Our role as HR professionals is defined by the quality of how we negotiate, respect and guide stakeholders such as unions and our grasp of current situations,” he said.