Q&A with Shakil Butt, Islamic Relief Worldwide: The evolving role of HR

Shakil Butt, Human Resources and Organisational Development Director at Islamic Relief Worldwide, joined HRD Connect to share his thoughts on the evolving role of HR and how an early career in finance has influenced his current role.

How can HR Leaders adapt and innovate to meet future demands? What skills and knowledge are needed for HR Leaders to navigate the changing business landscape?

One of the gaps that I see amongst HR leaders is not being sufficiently adept with numbers and having that commercial awareness with some almost operating in a vacuum, focusing on only people issues. Whichever industry a HR professional finds themselves in, they really have to immerse themselves in that business in order to find and then address the ‘pain points’ by experiencing them first hand to understand the impact of systems and business decisions on people.

Senior HR leaders particularly need to be engaging in their business sector to understand their context as well as with other HR leaders outside of their sector to broaden their thinking and thereby their contribution in their own organisations. Being brave to be different should be a given whilst learning from others who have been down your path before can accelerate your own learning journey.

Finally sitting on additional boards or committees outside of your organisation naturally exposes a person to the unknown and that is where one can really grow and become better equipped to deal with an ever changing and evolving landscape.

The HR Director Summit/Europe is themed Enhancing Business Performance: Turning Strategy into Reality. Where can HR make the biggest difference in your organisation? What is HR’s role in enhancing business performance?

HR’s role should be at the forefront of every organisation as every business decision has two implications namely on people and on finance. For too long the focus has been misplaced by most organisations to only consider financial issues whilst the people area has almost been treated by some as an optional thing to do. It’s been said by many far more eloquent than myself that organisations are essentially driven by people. The right person, doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way can allow an organisation to make leaps and bounds whilst the converse is terrifying. What is the right thing? Most organisational functions including finance, procurement, facilities to core functions like sales and purchases are preoccupied with effectiveness and efficiency whilst HR is able to hold that important space I like to refer to as being the moral compass or the conscience of an organisation.

The danger arises when HR loses its voice or is a voice that stays silent. Multiple scandals have rocked many industries in the last decade resulting in share prices plummeting because of failing to act ethically. Organisations and corporations in particular are being placed under increasing scrutiny from their various stakeholders so failing on the people deal can bring serious consequences if HR don’t champion doing the right thing.

What skills and capabilities are needed for a successful HR Leader today? How is the role evolving?

Being categorised as a ‘HR leader’ is almost an over simplification of what a HR leader brings to the table. HR is still regarded across most organisations as being responsible for hiring and firing with many HR professionals conforming to this notion by focusing only on reward, retention, induction, performance management etc.

The truth is a successful HR leader by definition has to be a management and leadership expert able to walk between transactional HR and strategic HR. A HR leader needs to be comfortable in the OD space shaping culture, teasing out and shaping the values and developing and supporting the top team. If you are not ‘the go to person’ then either this is the challenge for you to rise up to or if the organisation is closed and single minded in its thinking, stuck in a Taylorist world then it is time to get out or to put it another way ‘let your vibe attract your tribe’.

Where can HR Leaders make the biggest difference within their organisation?

The more appropriate question comes back to my earlier point of: Are you regarded as a trusted advisor with a leader who gets it? If so then the world is your oyster but if not, then your hands are tied and you are going nowhere … fast. If you are not reporting directly at the highest level your voice is diluted, if it is present at all.

Promoting diversity not just in relation to the protected characteristics but pushing for difference in thinking enables leaders to challenge each other searching for new approaches. Only the HR leader has this mantle and needs to help facilitate free thinking and debate at the highest levels even when it means being an opposing voice.

I recall sharing the classic Hans Christian Anderson’s tale about the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ with one of our senior leaders reminding him that surrounding himself with ‘yes men/women’ was a slippery slope as if no one is brave enough to speak honestly with him then when he makes a mistake – and he will – then we are at risk of following him blindly and willingly into the lion’s den. I told him that he will not always like my advice but it will always be sincere professional advice based on what I believe and understand to be true in the best interests of the organisation and that whilst it may not make me popular it did not change what needed to be said and done.

How has having a background in two distinct backgrounds (both finance and HR) influenced your perspective and added value to the work that you are doing? 

I have always been struck by how many more job opportunities there are for finance professionals in relation to HR wherein the coveted seat in the boardroom is an automatic given if you are the accountant. However when I meet some of my peers I can see why that is the case. I know HR professionals who can’t see the numbers and the bigger strategic picture but similarly I have known accountants who lack that emotional intelligence to see beyond black and white, seeing the shades of grey that HR do so well in.

My finance background allows me that focus to drill down into the detail particularly useful when dealing with a complex employee relations case and allows me to look at issues with detachment when required. It has also enabled me to be more strategic, developing long term plans and accepting what is possible now, what needs to be ‘parked’ and what needs to ‘come off’ the HR agenda due to limited resources. My audit background has enabled me to look at the “people risks” in the organisation and devise strategies for mitigation and addressing concerns which often is treated as an afterthought rather than upfront as part of a strategic plan.

HR professionals are often described as being ‘woolly’ as we have not come armed with facts but knowing what works in the board room I have used HR metrics, bench mark research and staff survey data to support my submissions to push for board approval on HR initiatives.

Shakil Butt will join speakers including Dr. Reza Moussavian, SVP HR Division “Digital & Innovation” at Deutsche Telekom and Andre de Wit, VP Capability Building and Learning at Carlsberg, at HRD Summit/Europe on 30 – 31 May 2017.

Find out more about the event in Amsterdam and join us by visiting the HRD Summit Europe

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