How To Talk Strategy With Your Executives In a Support Function

Monday, December 08, 2014 | Category :
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By Peter Mulford

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The leaders of support functions — IT, HR, Legal — have long struggled with how to be seen as a valuable "business partner." Ironically, choosing this as an aspiration is often part of the problem.

A firm's performance is no less than the total sum of activities that occur across the business — in every function. The problem is that many support functions have a tendency to isolate themselves from the company strategy as a function of the tasks they perform, and the context in which they choose to perform them. In 2005 an article in Fast Company entitled Why We Hate HR captured this inclination artfully — it described the HR function as focused on compliance, administration and programs with no strategic value or link to business goals. In the current environment, this will no longer do. 1


So now what?

Adding value at the executive table requires that one recognize the role their support function plays in driving the business strategy — and then having the confidence and capability to describe that role in strategic terms.

Find Your Place at the Table

"All stakeholders need to be involved in creating the dynamic enterprise," notes Lisa Friedman, Ph.D. and Herman Gyr in their essay, Creating the Dynamic Enterprise: Strategic Tools For HR Practitioners. "To do so, they need to understand what they are facing together and need to be able to communicate with each other — throughout the enterprise — about changes ahead."

Doing this means first recognizing the inner design of your firm's strategy. The most effective articulation of strategy that we have seen actually used in the field (versus merely in the classroom) is captured in A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin’s book Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.

Martin and Lafley describe a strategy as the answer to five inter-related questions:

  1. What's our winning aspiration (The purpose and guiding aspiration for the firm)
  2. Where we will play? (The playing field in which we can achieve our aspiration)
  3. How we will compete? (The way we will win in our chosen playing field)
  4. What capabilities need to be in place? (The set and configuration of capabilities required to win in the chosen way)
  5. What support systems are required? (The systems and measures that enable the capabilities and support the choices)

Look closely and you'll see that the answer to each question, and the relationship that exists between, forms what the authors call "a re-enforcing cascade, with the choices at the top setting the context for the ones below, and the choices at the bottom refining the choices above." 3 To be able to articulate your strategy in these terms means that you have 1) a clear understanding of where, how, and why the things people do ladder up (or not) to strategic success — including the things you do in your support function — and 2) a heightened ability to discuss your work in strategic terms.

Our Seat at the Table

Once you and your team can answer the first three questions above, you are ready to establish where and how you contribute to strategic success. Specifically, the role of the support function is to enable the capabilities (question #4) and provide the systems (question #5) that support the firm's strategic choices.

Viewed this way, it can be said that role of the support functions is to enable those activities that enable a firm to execute its where-to-play and how-to-win choices at an exceptional level.

"A firm's strategic position is contained in a set of tailored activities designed to deliver it," noted Harvard Professor Michael Porter. "A competitive strategy is about being different … [and] means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver unique value." The support function's role, therefore, must be to equip and sustain the firm's ability to perform those differentiated activities at an exceptional level.

Now What — Talking About Strategy

Once the team has a clear understanding of the elements above, and a shared view of the language used to describing them, there is an opportunity to shift from discussions about competencies and HR processes to describe the capabilities required to deliver on the leader's where-to-play and how-to-win choices, and the area of focus and investment for the company needed to build those capabilities. This means, for example, that HR and Talent teams can and should shift their budget conversations from discussions about spend to discussions about decisions about investment — decisions to invest in current capabilities, to build up others, and to also reduce investment in capabilities that are not or will no longer be essential to the strategy in the near future.

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About the Author: Peter Mulford is an Executive Vice President at BTS and the Chief Innovation Officer.

1 "Why We Hate HR", Fast Company, August 2005.

2 Friedman, Lisa and Herman Gyr. "Creating the Dynamic Enterprise: Strategic Thinking Tools For Human Resources Practioners", The Enterprise Development Group.

A.G. Lafley, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, Harvard Business Review Press, 2013.


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