12/11/2009 04:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting In Front of the Change Train

My RBL Group colleague Allan Freed and I are leading an HR Business Partner Workshop (HRBP) with human resources executives from AXA, a leading global financial services company. Under the leadership of AXA Group HR head Alain Rohaut, AXA HR has made tremendous strides. The participants in our workshop are capable, insightful, hard-working HR leaders and senior professionals from Paris headquarters and from business units in the UK, Germany, Spain, Mexico, the U.S., Switzerland and Italy.

Over the last several years, RBL partners and principals have led hundreds of HRBP workshops with leading companies all over the world, helping HR leaders and professionals to reinvent their role, strategy and priorities for greater contribution to the business, and help them build the practical skills to perform as true business partners.

The common challenge? As in many other companies, the HR challenge is getting in front of decision-making and change planning. Too often, HR professionals find themselves chasing after a decision that has already been made by line managers without full consideration of the HR issues or implications. At such a point HR is stuck: either the function is seen as bureaucratic, holding up action, or it is viewed as a pair of hands without having the opportunity or courage to help shape the decision or execution requirements. Neither is a very good situation.

In these challenging times, for HR to be more relevant and increase its contribution, it must get in front of the change train. To do that, the best advice I know is from my mother, a retired NYC public school teacher: "The secret to teaching is to be two lesson plans ahead."

What does that mean for HR? We think it has a number of specific implications.

1. Know the business as a business ally. In the book HR Competencies, we talk about the importance of having a strong knowledge of the business context, customers and competitors, how the company operates and how it makes money. Having this knowledge enables HR professionals to know what's happening in the business and provides the background to recognize important business events that are likely to lead to change.

2. Think "outside in." As the CIO of AXA put it, "I need HR to help me think through the agenda for the business." Instead, too often we wait for direction from business leaders; or worse, we think the job of HR is to administer HR systems and processes. That doesn't put HR in front of the change train; we make ourselves a "pair of hands." The alternative is developing an "outside in" point of view. At RBL we say that the role of HR is to convert customer expectations into employee action. To do so, HR needs a deep knowledge of external trends and their impact on customers and competitors. HR actions can then help the company to compete and win.

3. Build relationships of trust. Are you building relationships of trust with business partners? Or are you transacting business, taking orders from line managers, administering processes and presenting results. Getting in front of the change train relies on strong partnering relationships between HR professionals and line managers, based on time together sharing ideas and information, working together to define needs and build plans and evaluating progress. Research on trust points out three factors: credibility, reliability and intimacy (allow yourself to be known a little as a person, not just a role).

4. Collaboration within HR. Some time ago, Dave Ulrich and I worked with the top 50 HR managers of a leading global airline. As one part of our workshop, we pulled together the functional leaders - staffing, leadership development, industrial relations, compensation, etc. While individually competent, the whole was less than the sum of its parts. They didn't plan or review progress together, and they hadn't even met as a group before the workshop. As a result, policies and practices were inconsistent and fragmented, leading naturally to a cynical experience of HR. The lesson: HR leaders can't get in front of the change train working alone in silos ... business partnership is a team sport.

5. Take the risk. The most important of the six HR professional competencies we found was credible activism. High performing HR professionals and teams consistently deliver on commitments with a willingness to take initiative. Like the giraffe, outstanding HR people are willing to stick their neck out a little. We call it "HR with attitude," but the real message is pride in what HR can and must accomplish. In other words, getting in front of the change train can be a little frightening ... but there is no reward without risk.

These five guidelines are useful to keep in mind as HR professionals strive to increase their relevance and contribution. What do you think? What would you add to the list? And, what's been your experience?

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area, teaches in many executive education programs and is a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.