HR Consulting Skills

by Designed Learning

“I was never only staff. I wanted to make a contribution and work in a partnership role with my clients. In fact, some of my clients in production and marketing used to say, ‘Are you sure you are staff? You certainly don’t act like staff,’” says a human resources professional from a large manufacturing organization. Her remark exemplifies how staff professionals today are reshaping their roles by becoming consultants. No longer is their mindset “I’m only staff.” Now they are contributors who care about the business as well as the soft issues: “I’m a partner.”

Affecting the Bottom Line

Staff positions in many organizations may constitute up to 40 percent of the workforce. Among the qualities engineers, personnel, systems analysts, purchasing agents and human resources professionals have in common are expertise and the desire to have some impact. Often, however, they have limited direct authority over the application of their expertise. In the face of dramatic reductions, however, many staff organizations are reevaluating their role. Human resource groups are seeking to move beyond serving as policemen, implementers of ineffective policies, experts with solutions in hand or pawns available for manipulation by powerful line managers. Staff professionals concerned with an organization’s human resources want to partner with managers as equals, collaborating to discover solutions to the challenges facing their organizations. They want to help solve problems and make a difference to the bottom line.

Playing a Consulting Role

Organizations need human resource professionals to become consultants who can be liaisons between departments or divisions, retaining their status as experts in their field and acting as a channel or broker for the human resources function. In his book, “Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used,” Peter Block describes a consultant as someone who has some influence over an individual, a group, or an organization, but who lacks direct power to make changes or implement programs. Often consultants are thought of as a “pair of hands” to implement a predetermined solution to an existing problem. At other times, they are asked to fix something with their expertise. Consultants often appear as solutions in search of problems. If the solution works, the line person who chose the solution is a hero. If the implementation fails, the staff consultant becomes the scapegoat.

Frame of Reference Changes

The idea of partnership requires a new frame of reference for both managers and human resources staff. Managers need to work with human resources consultants to solve problems while continuing to take responsibility for their problems and remain involved through to the implementation of solutions. For human resources staff, new perspective is more complex. The task is to maintain the position of technical expert while keeping line manager clients involved and responsible for solutions to their own problems. Consultants are changing the way they begin to work on assignments. Human resources professionals are characteristically people who want to serve. They commonly delve into assignments with good will, expecting management support for their recommendations. If support is not forthcoming, problems will follow. Consultants must know how to establish quickly a foundation of commitment and responsibility

Being More Helpful

Most human resources practitioners come from an earnest perspective: “I only want to be helpful.” They are reluctant to articulate their own wants and needs. Client managers usually express clearly their wants and needs; staff people often find it difficult to do the same, even when what they want is rarely selfish or idiosyncratic. They simply want to enhance the organization’s effectiveness. Their advice is provided to make the organization’s work more effective and productive. Jeff Delanoy of Michigan Consolidated Gas works handin- hand with his internal clients, recognizing that his needs and theirs have a common foundation. “Expressing my needs is  new tool I never used in the past. Before, I thought I had to do whatever they wanted. Now I know they have as much responsibility for meeting my needs as I have to meet theirs. Instead of causing problems, this attitude wins respect.” Similarly, Althea Duggins, a department trainer for Hewlett Packard has learned to say, “Here is what I want so I can make the project successful. I want it! It’s not just what the project needs to be successful.”

Consulting Skills

Staff resource professionals need to learn to keep clients focused on their problems. As developed y Peter Block, a clear process can be established for human resources professionals to manage relationships with clients:

  •  Contracting for the work.
  •  Making an independent diagnosis of the problems.
  •  Giving feedback about personal and organizational data to facilitate decision making.
  •  Carrying out the plan.
  •  Evaluating the main events.

Successful consulting projects — whether they last ten minutes or ten months — follow these five phases in sequence. Skipping one (or assuming it has been taken care of) can invite trouble. Skillful consultants are competent in the execution of each step. Successfully completing the business of each phase is the consultant’s challenge.

Contracting is Essential

A contract, written or not, is an explicit agreement of what the human resources consultant and the client expect from each other and how they will work together. “Every project I’ve had that has gone south, when I analyze it now, has failed because the contracting work was not done well,” says Arnie Winkler, a senior human resources development consultant for Pacificorp Electric Operations. “Now, I get agreement every time on the boundaries and objectives of the project. We agree on the kind of information we are going to get. We define my role and the client’s. We agree on the product I will deliver and what support and involvement the client will give me. And we set a time frame.” Consultants must practice asking for what they need to serve the project. They need to discover how to hold back from offering solutions, instead concentrating on making sure their clients retain ownership of the problem. They should learn to identify their clients’ concerns about exposure and loss of control, and learn to identify all the players. In addition to the primary client (typically a manager) and the people working in the project or area of operations, there are workers in other areas who provide assistance or information. Higher levels of management — for the consultant and the client — are often forces to contend with, as are people affected by changes that might occur. All need to be considered and addressed during the contracting phase. “I volunteered for an experimental assignment to coach first line foremen to be better leaders,” recalls Michael Cristiani, a former consultant staff manager with McDonnell Douglas Electronic Systems. “I had an agreement with the manager who made the assignment, but I soon realized I did not have the cooperation of the foremen themselves. When I began to discuss a contract with them, I realized I also needed to contract with the general foreman and even the superintendent. I finally decided to start at the top, with the program manager of an entire aircraft operation, and work back down to the foremen. Specifying what they and I needed at every level yielded the cooperation that made the project successful.”

Giving Feedback

A consultant often must reduce a large amount of data into a manageable set of issues to feed back to the client. Conveying this information effectively requires consulting skills that include providing all relevant data, even when this information is not a part of the assignment. Consultants need to be able to give descriptive rather than evaluative feedback. This can include data about the client’s personal behavior in handling the problem with the targets of change. One personnel specialist in the systems division of a high-tech conglomerate was empowered to play a consulting role rather than merely offering technical expertise. The manager she was supporting complained of excessive turnover because of inadequate pay and proposed a plan to increase pay to about 40 people. The personnel specialist recognized that the manager thought compensation would be the simple solution. She interviewed several former employees and concluded that pay was not the problem. Instead, she found another major dissatisfaction to address. The company solved the problem effectively and with considerably less expense. To manage the business of the feedback phase, consultants should structure and control feedback meetings that elicit client reactions and involve them in the choice of next steps. Consultants also should learn the importance of being present at meetings when action steps are determined.

Dealing With Resistance

No matter how reasonably data and recommendations are presented, clients resist, a reaction that can be puzzling and frustrating. Consultants must learn to avoid viewing the resisting client as stubborn and irrational. This can deteriorate into confrontation. Skilled consultants understand that clients need to express resistance directly in order to learn how to handle a difficult problem. Unless resistance is expressed and addressed, there is little chance the client will genuinely accept and use what the consultant has to offer. The skills to deal with resistance include being able to identify when it is occurring and supporting the client to directly express to resistance. Consultants need to understand that an expression of resistance is not a personal attack on their competence.

Working on Partnership

In effective organisations, line and staff work together to solve problems and to take advantage of opportunities. This requires everyone to work in a partnership that is mutually responsible for successful change. While the line manager remains the client in such a partnership, the human resource staff partner takes on a consulting role, working with the manager toward an outcome beneficial to the entire organization.
Consultant must learn to manage relationships as well as the human resource issues associated with projects. Effective consulting increases the potential for a human resources professional to have a strong and positive impact on the bottom line. In this way the human resources consultant become a business partner, committed to organizational success, instead of someone relegated to “mere” people problems.

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