The HR pros who operate solo deal with a conundrum: They're assigned long lists of administrative tasks, but they're likely to want more strategic work.
This problem pushes single-person HR departments to prioritize agility and efficiency, according to Lori Kleiman, a consultant and speaker who specializes in small business operations. To make progress toward their goals, practitioners need to consider the practical and the philosophical, said Kleiman, who once staffed an HR department of one. They'll need to find tech tools that help them multitask, for instance; they'll also need to devise a strategy to ensure their department contributes to business growth.
During an Aug. 24 webinar, Kleiman offered three tips to those who are attempting to get up from their desks and claim their seat at the proverbial table.
Tip 1: Cultivate executive presence
To step up as a leader, Kleiman recommends HR pros cultivate something she calls "executive presence." It's a quality practitioners can develop by both physically showing up for formal and informal leadership opportunities and creating signals that show others they're ready to take on more.
To gain ground in this area, HR pros need to position themselves as trusted advisors to leadership. "You want to be the person that when someone needs to bounce an idea, they're coming from you," Kleiman said.
In these conversations, practitioners can highlight how their departments can offer solutions to business problems. HR pros may consider how they contribute to organizational culture, connection, creation and collaboration — "the four Cs" that are often referenced in business school, according to Kleiman. Executives and other company leaders will likely be familiar with this language, giving HR an easy way to demonstrate its importance.
"How can we say HR doesn't belong at the leadership table when we know these are the things we manage all day, every day?" Kleiman said.
As HR pros engage in this work, it's important they focus on building up another kind of "executive presence," one that helps others perceive them as ready to lead, Kleiman said. "We have to walk the walk. We have to show up every morning and be that person we want to be," she said. "Give thought to where you want to take your HR career. Show up every day and be that person."
If someone wants to rise up to the executive level, they can't wear a wrinkled T-shirt to work, even if the dress code allows for it. "Show up dressed an eighth of an inch above everyone else, and let them know you're here to do business," Kleiman said.
Executive presence is more than a wardrobe. HR pros need to make sure their desks reflect their focus, for example. A desk cluttered with task-oriented material tells passersby that its occupant is too busy for strategic assignments. But a clean workstation with a book about business and a certificate from a class will communicate a different story.
Practitioners can also make sure their speech reflects their goals. "You don't have too much to do," Kleiman said. "Instead, your department is run with an agile mentality that allows you to yin and yang between what's most important that day."
Tip 2: Reclaim the workday
A lot of solo HR practitioners can't figure out how to "get it all done," Kleiman said. It's a common challenge — one that can't be discounted — but it's conquerable. It's also something that's necessary for anyone looking to take on strategic challenges. "You want to be ready to say yes to people," Kleiman said.
"What I know is that we, especially as HR departments of one, allow other people to decide how our time is going to be used," Kleiman said. "We in HR tend to focus on wanting to be there for employees. That's great, but not at the expense of you aligning with strategic priorities."
HR pros need to practice prioritizing their must-dos, Kleiman said: "We need to be those people who say, 'Here's what is on my plate. I'm going to make sure this gets done.'" Kleiman recommended measuring tasks by their organizational importance and urgency. "If something is not important and not urgent, eliminate it or put it on a parking list," she said.
To continue cutting down their to-do lists, HR pros may discover they are able to outsource some of their easier tasks — another strategy to help them reclaim their time. A receptionist or someone else with a capacity for clerical work could mail out employees' W2 forms, for instance.
As practitioners take back some of their time, they need to publicize what they're working on, Kleiman said. "Make sure everyone in your org knows you're here to do important nonadministrative things." HR pros can set up a whiteboard in their offices to list their yearly goals and initiatives. One of Kleiman's industry colleagues keeps such a list, but they never erase the items. That way, visitors can see what they've accomplished and what they're still working on.
Tip 3: Step outside HR
As practitioners grow their strategic capability, they'll need to step outside the world of HR, Kleiman said. One easy way? "Get involved in your industry," she said. "Not human resources. The industry in which you do business."
HR pros can work on this by branching out into other areas of their organizations. People-department staffers may be tempted to keep to their corners of the office, but that may perpetuate the myth that their task lists are as limited as their workplace socialization. Practitioners can take different approaches to get to know their colleagues. Kleiman recommended inviting a coworker to lunch or sending a fellow department head a $5 Starbucks gift card and asking them to a virtual coffee date.
The key is in the invite. "Take the initiative," Kleiman said. "They're not necessarily going to reach out to you."
The meet-ups don't have to be social, Kleiman noted. She recommended HR pros attend other department meetings. "Listen," she said. "Just be there to hear and understand what the issues are that they're facing in their department."