Dow SVP of HR: Risk of becoming a support function

The head of HR at global chemical company Dow has warned that HR risks becoming a support function if practitioners do not become more business orientated.

She added that HR leaders and teams needed to stop taking on projects that were not their responsibility.

Speaking at the European HR Directors Summit, Dow corporate vice president of human resources and aviation Johanna Soderstrom said she was concerned that industry figureheads felt that HR had to earn their place in the boardroom.

“When someone stands up here and says we have to earn a seat at the table, that worries me,” she said.

“Why? Because you should already have it. You shouldn’t be asking yourself whether you get that seat or not. Your CFO doesn’t ask, he has it. And if you were to call up your CEO or whoever you are working with in the leadership team and say I have a very important question to talk to you about, would he or she take your call? Of course.

“You already have a seat – it’s what you do with it, that’s the question,” she added.

However Soderstrom highlighted that it was not always easy to maintain that position and HR leaders needed to be aware that failing to perform could see them relegated to a support function.

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Asking the question: what is HR?

“When I started my job at Dow I thought I knew everything there was to know about HR,” she continued, “but I was given some good advice – talk to people, don’t assume.

“I spoke to 60 people (business leaders, function leaders) and I realised I really didn’t know what HR was about. What they told me in their own different ways was that if HR can’t help this company grow you are not relevant. You are just another support function.

“I’m extremely proud of the HR profession and a comment like that hurts, Soderstrom added.

The first and most important way to ensure that does not happen was to align the HR strategy with the business strategy, Soderstrom explained.

However she added this was easier said than done. And she warned that HR teams should not be taking on work which was not theirs to own.

“HR has a tendency to take things on that nobody wants,” she said.

“Please don’t own culture, it’s for your leadership to own. Please don’t own healthcare, I don’t think it’s for you to own.

“Please try to stay pure on what you want to be relevant for in your company and find metrics to direct the link to your company strategy,” she added.

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Marketing is crucial

Soderstrom also emphasised the need for HR to understand and become good at marketing – internally and externally.

“We have to become marketers, we have to understand marketing. Believe me, HR is about internal and external marketing,” she said.

“If we can figure that one out we can solve so many problems. Think about all the phenomenal programmes that your companies have today. If you can’t sell it to your employees as a benefit, do they really care? No, you’re missing out on the value.

“It’s like you having the best product on the planet and no-one knows. You win all these phenomenal external rewards because you know how to fill in the surveys, but our own people haven’t heard about them or don’t know about them.

“Why? Because we can’t tell the story in HR. That’s internal marketing.

“External marketing is all about positioning yourself to win talent. We have to as HR professionals get better at marketing,” she concluded.

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A cropped image of Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School.