August 9, 2018

People Strategy v. Human Resources - What's the Difference?

Trying to explain what I do for a living to people outside the companies I have worked for typically goes somewhat like this:

YOU: “You do what? Oh, so, like, Human Resources?”

ME: “Umm, sort of.”

My first job after college was at a hyper-growth management consulting firm. I had the good fortune of working in a rather non-traditional HR team. Of course, it had the standard focuses of recruiting, compensations, and benefits, but none of the people who led the team had any traditional HR experience. Instead, they were a handful of women who had been consultants in the firm previously but opted for a life off the road.  They were smart, savvy, and stellar at tackling our people through a business lens first. And even without serious content knowledge, they were respected for their understanding of the business goals with a humanity that helped that firm achieve a phenomenal culture - long before culture was recognized as one of the most critical elements of a successful company. Not only did I watch this profitable company scale from 100 to 900 people during my five years there, but I also found my career.

During my time there, I was able to learn the fundamentals of traditional HR but was also encouraged to ask questions, take risks, and create solutions that didn’t yet exist for our evolving business needs. So foundational was this experience, almost thirty years later, I still struggle when HR people ask me about “being strategic” or ask for advice on “getting a seat at the table.”  Why? Whether you are in the people field seeking to evolve into a genuine people strategist, or you are a business leader trying to scale your company, and you desire to ensure your people strategy is as innovative as you are, let’s explore the differences between old-school human resources vs. people strategy.

Human Resources People Strategy

Your work is primarily tactical and doesn’t always tie to the overall business objectives.


Ex:  You issue everyone a cost of living compensation adjustment to prevent costly attrition for failure to pay competitively.


There is clear synergy between the business goals and the people operations. It’s not just about executing activities; there is a well thought through system of people practices that ensure this alignment maps to the overall organizational strategy.

Ex: Rather than peanut butter raises across your entire employee population, you elect to design a compensation strategy that rewards your most

You see/are told there is a need, and you develop a program to address that business need.  


Ex: You’ve promoted a slew of new managers, and they clearly need training.  You find a great outside trainer, and everyone attends this two-day workshop in hopes of bettering their management capabilities.


You start with the business goals first, then design your solutions, ensuring they align.  


Ex: Regardless of which activities you choose to support the business need, you’ve determined there is a balance between both.


Leadership and employees come to you because, hey, someone has to manage the messy people stuff.  


Ex: People come to you when there is a mess to clean up, and you react thoughtfully and in the most compliant way possible.


Leadership and employees come to you because you have a trusted mindset and voice.  You carefully balance what is in the best interest of the employee with what is in the best interest of the business.  


Ex:  You are out in front.  Because you understand what’s occurring in the business, you are forward thinking about your plans to address rather than always being in a position of having to react.  As a result, you can artfully partner with both leadership and employees on creating outcomes that benefit all.


Metrics are what it’s all about!  I’m adding value because our metrics say I am.

Ex: According to the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), there is a slew of different HR metrics used to measure the people elements of a business, and allow us to measure how efficient our HR team is. Whether it’s time to fill, productivity, or employee engagement metrics, we’ve got a formula that can highlight where our company stands.   


Data and metrics are indeed valuable, but what’s most important is that our people strategy function is adding to our bottom line.

Ex:  We’ve designed a people strategy that focuses on attracting, developing, and retaining our best talent.  We aim to build programs and processes that optimize this performance. If our people strategy team was a business, we could confidently put a stake in the ground and claim we can improve the org performance by X%. And we’d have the operational support and trust to do so because our strategy is based on a goal of improving both employee and company performance. Metrics are a key input, but we select the ones that provide the most insight into our business; and thoughtfully design programs to make progress on them.


I know I’m adding value because I ensure our people are happy and our business stays out of trouble.

Ex: Leadership and employees come to me when there is a tactical problem to solve. I’ve got functional competence and can execute well. 

I know I’m adding value because I have a clear point of view, drive a people strategy that aligns with our business strategy, and I’m not afraid to get ahead of a tough problem when I see one.  

Ex:  Leadership and employees don’t just come to me when there is an issue; we partner every day.  My point of view is valued as a key input to their business decisions. I balance my people skills and knowledge with solid business acumen and a balance of creating a workplace where everyone thrives.  I coach, motivate, and hold the mirror up to challenge us to do the right thing.

Just as personnel departments evolved into human resources in the 1980s, the lion’s share of CEOs today expect their people teams to be far more strategic in nature. When your people function - regardless of what you call it - balances the business objectives and performance goals with ensuring your employees are optimizing their best possible career, it becomes a mutually positive experience for all, and you’ll know that seat at the table has been well earned.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator