Stay a Step Ahead With 5 Key Skills

October 1, 1997
It's difficult to have been anywhere near the HR profession in the past five years, and not to have noticed that human re-sources has changed dramatically. HR is no longer the administrative dinosaur it once was. It's now more of a gazelle that must be able to leap tall HR problems in a single bound. In other words, HR professionals have become strategic business partners whose chief deliverable is still providing their businesses with capable, competent workers -but they're going about it in an entirely new way. Personnel professionals now must be "internal consultants" providing HR expertise to their businesses, not just individuals processing paperwork and providing HR solutions when asked.

These dramatic changes in HR have created a brave, new world for HR professionals. Consequently, the skills they now need are vastly different. You might say, the bar on the skills has been raised to new heights. Although HR people still need many of their old competencies (because they're still overseeing most of the administrative processes they used to do manually), there's a whole new set of competencies they need to fulfill their role as internal consultant.

What is the internal human resources consultant?
Simply put: "An internal consultant works inside one part of an organization to help another part of that organization," explains Marcia Meislin, author of "The Internal Consultant" (© 1997, Crisp Publications; Menlo Park, California) and president of MCM Management Consultants in Harts-dale, New York. In her book, Meislin explains: "Help usually means solving a problem, enacting a change, giving advice or, in some case, even working on large-scale transformations. What makes the consultant's job unique is that internal consultants work with people over whom they have no direct authority or control."

Meislin, a former corporate training and development director before becoming an external consultant, further ex-plains in her book that the difference between internal and external consultants is that internal consultants "live" inside the organization for which they're consulting. External consultants don't. And internal consultants usually report up the line to the same managers as their clients. In short, an internal consultant is an individual who supports business units that share the same external customer. Internal consultants usually:

  • Fix or install something
  • Introduce a new product or service
  • Solve a problem
  • Research the feasibility of a specific change
  • Reengineer, reorganize, relocate, renovate, downsize, outsource, sell, merge, acquire or shut down business operations
  • Create a new function based on a clear vision and provide the motivation and support to make it happen.

"Internal HR consultants are professionals who link their expertise to their business partners' goals and objectives," explains Marilyn Condon, a senior consultant specializing in internal consulting at Personnel Decisions International (PDI), a global HR consulting firm, based in Minneapolis.

For example, Condon tells the story of a multimillion-dollar firm she worked with as an outside consultant for a number of years handling pressing HR issues. But surprisingly, it wasn't the company's HR managers who hired her. It was the company's line managers who hired her (bypassing HR) when they wanted expertise in such areas as team-building or competency modeling. "[The line managers] didn't view their HR people as being either capable or interested in doing the more strategic kinds of things," says Condon. "Those HR people finally realized they weren't getting invited to do any of the fun, interesting HR work."

When it dawned on the HR team that their company's business unit managers were going outside the organization to get HR expertise, they were shocked. They quickly obtained consulting skills knowledge and now act as primary business partners in their organization, consulting on HR issues. "It was a survival question for them," adds Condon. By default, they were losing opportunities to add value to their organization's operations. Once they decided to jump into the internal consultant's role, their first step was figuring out what skills they needed.

First and foremost, internal consulting skills require credibility.
Whereas human resources professionals used to need individual contributor skills, management skills and team skills in addition to their HR knowledge and competencies, they now need skills that span the realms of personal, professional and business effectiveness.

PDI's Condon, who frequently coaches HR professionals on how to be better internal consultants, has extensively researched the skills personnel people need to step into the new internal consultant's shoes. After analyzing multirater data from 1,563 HR professionals and their customers (bosses, peers and clients), Condon deter-mined that the skills internal HR consultants need are (in order of importance from highest to lowest): credibility, customer orientation, leadership, diagnostic insight and versatility. These skills are confirmed as essential by other industry experts.

Credibility is the first and single most important trait that HR individuals need in this role and forms the foundation for business relationships. HR professionals not only need HR expertise, but they also need to know how to build relationships with the people who are their customers. They need to demonstrate an understanding of the company's business before their customers will give them the chance to apply their expertise. "That begins to demonstrate [HR practitioners'] desire not to be viewed simply as enforcers of the company's policies and procedures," says Condon.

HR people establish themselves in this role by acting credibly in that role. "[One becomes credible] by consistently providing tools and information that enhance individual, departmental and organizational performance, and by demonstrating (objectively and quantitatively) that one's intervention was linked to the enhanced performance," explains Jesse M. Llobet, a Sunrise, Florida-based industrial psychologist who consults on issues of peak performance and is president of PsyMetrics.

Cultivating customer skills is a close second.
Credibility is closely linked with the second important competency for internal HR consultants-knowing thy customer. HR employees build customer orientation by sitting down with line managers and other customers when there's no crisis on the agenda and learning what their issues are. They need to find out what keeps operations managers awake at night. They must understand senior managers' goals. They should ask what employees need to be effective in their jobs. They've got to look at organization charts, read business units' mission statements and read articles highlighting their customers' industry challenges. They should visit their customers' offices. They'd do well to call their customers' service centers and get a feel for how they do business. They must know their customers, spend time with them, understand their business passions, and live and breathe their business.

It's only after HR people do these things that they can have a true customer orientation. From there, personnel managers can begin to formulate HR strategies that will help their business partners and customers with their problems and help them achieve their goals. But they need to view everyone, not just line managers, as customers. They must build relationships vertically and horizontally in their organizations. They must ensure customers receive the services they need, when they need them-whether they provide them themselves or coordinate other resources to help their customers get what they need. This is how HR pros will become known as leaders.

The third important skill is leadership.
HR professionals can be known as leaders even if they don't supervise others or have management titles. Real leaders are the people who others in an organization tend to seek out, whether or not those leaders have management titles. "It just means they need to be more proactive," says Condon. Personnel employees must demonstrate they aren't afraid to raise difficult issues, even if their customers aren't happy about it. Not being afraid to challenge assumptions is how personnel professionals, or any leader for that matter, gain greater influence and have more over-all impact on their organizations.

"It's the difference between being tactical vs. strategic," explains an HR manager at a large banking firm on the East Coast. "HR practitioners focus only on immediate needs with little thought about the future of the business, while HR leaders strike a balance between meeting tactical needs and assessing how HR can structure its products and services to help the business successfully meet its strategic goals."

According to Condon, there are several ways an internal consultant can develop and demonstrate leadership skills. One way is for them to use their expertise so it's valued by their line partners, linking their HR expertise to their line partners' business objectives. Another way is for them to take reasonable risks to help other managers achieve their desired goals. This may require HR professionals to do things in new ways or come up with innovative solutions.

How do HR people get leadership skills? Meislin suggests HR staff members go back to school for organizational development knowledge, get advanced training in internal consultant skills, or just seek a broader range of experience within their organization. Learning by doing is always good advice.

The fourth skill internal consultants need is diagnostic insight.
Having a good understanding of how to diagnose customers' problems elevates HR people from order takers to analysts-people who can define problems and determine strategy. HR professionals must be able to effectively gather information, interpret complex issues and quickly be able to cut to the chase-figure out, HR-wise, what's critical for the business and what isn't. It requires HR people who know what they can and can't do, and who are able to assess that rather quickly.

In simple terms, diagnostic insight means not giving clients pat answers to problems. For example, instead of simply giving internal customers a time management program when they ask for one, internal HR consultants must first ask why they want one. They'll probably describe the symptoms: People are missing deadlines. By probing, HR people may find the problem is something completely different: That managers aren't clearly communicating their priorities or are sending mixed messages to employees about priorities. Once the HR consultant understands the underlying problem, he or she can diagnose the problem and then provide a solution, whether it's an easy, off-the-shelf approach, or a brand- new program he or she designs.

But HR consultants shouldn't get caught in analysis-paralysis. The pace of business is so fast these days, no customer can wait six months for a new training program to fit their particular problem. "You can't waste someone's time anymore because the minute they walk in your door, they're already be-hind schedule," says Meislin. Diagnose, then act swiftly.

Included in the diagnostic insight skill is mastering the art of communication, with listening and writing topping the communications list. "It might sound simple, but if you don't listen to what your clients are saying, you'll never understand them and their needs," says Christine W. Bozar, master's program director in HR design at The Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California, and a partner at Summit Consulting, in Chino Hills, California. HR professionals who want to be good internal consultants can't be afraid to ask simple questions. "There's a way to ask questions without looking like an idiot," explains Bozar. You do that by saying to your clients, "Let me ask questions so I can understand your business." Then spend time with them learning about what they do.

But HR consultants also must do their homework first. External consultants do this all the time. They do prep work to find out what's going on in a client's business before they go in and suggest solutions. And HR people can't be afraid to continue probing if they don't understand what their customers tell them.

Bozar says she sees many human resources professionals who can't communicate well in writing, and it hinders their effectiveness as internal consultants. They need to learn to write clearly and succinctly. Failing to do this can result in misunderstandings and miscommunication. Effective internal consultants need to communicate well with individuals at all levels of the organization.

The fifth most critical consultant skill is versatility.
HR professionals need to be able to work on a broad range of projects involving people up and down the organizational ladder. They have to come to the table prepared and be willing to take on tough projects, usually the ones they discover through their firsthand diagnoses. Once they've developed good business relationships throughout their organization, the most important projects will become obvious. Eventually, HR managers will be asked to become involved in the tough projects because of their proven worth.

For example, Pam Gefke, executive development manager (one of 201 HR people) at Pacific Enterprises, based in Los Angeles, was asked by senior management to be the lead person on a change-management merger team because of her demonstrated ability to be a good people strategist. Pacific Enterprises, which is the holding company for the Southern California Gas Co., is merging next spring with San Diego Gas and Electric Co. Gefke's merger team is concerned with change-management issues related to the merger. Gefke, who heads up the company's career-development center and executive development functions, is helping her team figure out the people component of the business plan as the two organizations become a single entity. "What we're striving to do is to create a new culture for both companies," says Gefke. "It's a real opportunity to help an organization reinvent itself. I'm getting to practice what I preach."

To help the organization move toward its vision of providing a work environment in which the firm's 8,500 people are freed up to do the very best they're capable of doing, Gefke has sponsored two-day career workshops that are helping individuals prepare for jobs in the new organization. She arranged for the company's chairman and senior HR director to speak to one of the groups that went through the program about their own careers and career challenges. "I think it's important for employees to know that their leaders are human, particularly during a merger," says Gefke.

That Gefke can bring senior-level executives into the equation shows how easily she has learned to be an effective HR consultant who can move across all levels of the organization to accomplish what needs to be done. She's a true internal HR consultant who's using her skills both internally and externally to benefit her company. As people issues have risen to the top of organizational concerns, so have human resources individuals risen to meet the challenge of providing HR expertise as internal consultants. With the right skills, it's a job that HR people can master with ease.

Workforce, October 1997, Vol. 76, No. 10, pp. 56-65.