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Global HR Doing What’s Important—First

April 1, 1997
Related Topics: Your HR Career, Featured Article
Frank O’Connell explains: "I have a sign posted on my office wall, so I look at it when I look up from my desk." The sign says: Keep the perspective without losing the focus.

As the vice president of human resources for Gillette International based in Boston, O’Connell knows that keeping perspective and focus isn’t easy to do when the job, literally, spans the globe. "As HR professionals, particularly in the international area, we tend to get so caught up in our fast-paced world, that we may neglect some of the important aspects of our jobs and lives," says O’Connell, who has had 17 years of experience in international HR. "Because everything is moving so fast and changing so rapidly, and this electronic age is making communications that much more instantaneous, what it does is it brings the problems to you quicker." He adds: "[For situations in which] I might have had to wait for the overnight courier [a few years ago], now I know about a significant crisis on the other side of the world in as little as 15 minutes after it has happened." It makes planning your day very challenging.

There’s an old saying: "If you fail to plan, you pretty much can plan to fail." This is particularly true for international HR professionals because often you may feel like the world is on your shoulders. And that may, in some cases, be true. One minute you’re taking care of details regarding several expatriates’ returns, the next minute you’re getting an urgent call that an employee has been kidnapped in Iran or that there’s a strike happening at one of your facilities in Scotland.

The global HR job is filled with many challenges—not the least of which is trying to prioritize your schedule. If most days you feel like your schedule prioritizes itself for you, instead of the other way around, you’d likely benefit from some expert advice.

Focus on leadership.
Roger Merrill, co-author with Stephen R. Covey and Rebecca R. Merrill of "First Things First," and a founding vice president of Provo, Utah-based Covey Leadership Center (which announced in January a merger with Franklin Quest, to be finalized later this year), has some good ideas on how you can stay focused on what’s important when everything and everyone around you vies for attention. With 30 years of experience as a line manager, a senior executive in HR, a trainer and a consultant, along with education in the area of professional and personal effectiveness, Merrill is convinced that HR professionals should first focus on the role of leader. "Your job as an HR executive is to integrate the needs of people with the mission and strategy of the business in a way that is win-win," says Merrill.

Leadership, he says, comes down to character and competence. "The degree to which people at all levels in the organization—from top management down to individual employees—have trust in you to help accomplish the corporate mission and solve problems, is one of the great challenges of the HR professional," says Merrill. "Often, as HR professionals, you’re seen as nice people and competent in solving a few problems, but the key is: Are you really competent in strategic thinking?" And, although strategic thinking about your leadership role and priorities is a somewhat nebulous concept, it can be broken down into concrete steps—if you know where to start.

Mission/vision statements.
First, Merrill suggests, think about your leadership role and what you want to accomplish. Write a mission or vision statement that will guide you in strategically focusing on your major goals. Some questions to ask yourself might be: What am I trying to accomplish in this job or role? What are the significant roles I must play within that main role to accomplish my objectives?

Second, sit down at the beginning of each week (or once a week) and review your mission statement. From there, prioritize your goals for that week. "I suggest always starting with the single most important thing you need to accomplish that week in each of your strategic roles," says Merrill. Then look at your week (with your best gut feeling and inner wisdom) and figure out when, realistically, would be the best time to get at that specific goal—and block out time for that most important goal before doing anything else.

Next, fill in everything else you want to do during that week based on your priorities. "If you have filled in the most important stuff first, what it does to your thinking is as important as what it does to your schedule," says Merrill. It focuses you each week on your most important goals.

Finally, look at your priorities at the start of each day. "Because things change so rapidly, there’s no easy way around doing some daily organization," says Merrill. You’ll probably end up shifting tasks during the week. That’s inevitable. But if you’ve planned ahead for the important things, you’ll have a better chance of achieving your vision as the days, weeks and months go by.

Merrill emphasizes that what’s important is that you start seeing your work as a function of importance, instead of as a function of urgency. "The degree to which urgency takes over is the degree to which we don’t have a clear focus on what’s important," Merrill adds. The key is learning how to know what’s important.

Keep a journal.
So that you can capture all the great insight you have in your job and role, Merrill suggests you keep a journal. Don’t stress yourself out by thinking it has to be elaborate. Just keep a separate record for what you learn each week, how you think about your role, what issues and challenges arise and how you solve them. From there, you can begin to find patterns in how you work and how you think about how you work.

"In a fast-moving, complex job, your perspective can be so [blurry] that you don’t see the patterns amid the complexity," says Merrill. "By keeping a journal and looking back at it every week or two, you get a perspective that allows you to see patterns and directions that give you a real capacity to be on target." In the end, it allows you to see the big picture—both for your company and for your own role as an international HR professional. After all, you do have control over much of the writing that’s on the wall. Shouldn’t it have your own signature?

Global Workforce, April 1997, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp.14-15.

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