We Don’t Need To Disrupt HR—We Need To Operationalize It. Here’s How

Published on
Oct 5, 2022
Written by
Nathan Tanner
Read time
5 mins

Build a strong HR function by focusing on the foundation first. 

There’s a lot of talk about “disrupting HR.” 

Why? Because HR “disruptions” usually come in the form of new perks along the lines of Google’s free lunches. They’re initiatives designed to be sexy—buzzworthy, but unrelated to HR fundamentals. It’s especially common among startups, whose products and services tend to fall into the “disruptive” category, and who think every dimension of their business should follow suit.

The hard truth: An HR function built on perks will crumble as you scale. 

Rather than “disrupting” HR, we should focus on operationalizing HR.

Sound less sexy? That’s exactly the point. HR “disruptions” may make sense once you’ve achieved steady state, but achieving steady state comes from sound fundamentals. It’s just like any discipline—before you start breaking the rules, you first have to understand them, practice them, and identify where you can make modifications. 

Before you “disrupt” HR, here’s what you should do:

  • Look for HR leaders who are systems thinkers. Where a lot of companies go wrong is hiring HR leaders who are super-creative culture leaders, but who don’t have operational experience. They’re brimming with ideas about how to show employee appreciation, but they’ve never built an HR function from the ground up.

    Above all, when hiring your first HR leaders, look for people who are builders. A lot of companies, especially startups, don’t have the budget to hire people who have been there and done that. So, go for builders—people with a demonstrated ability to build new things. Ideally, these are people who understand how to develop solid recruiting systems, deliver people data to executives, clarify HR policies, train managers, and set career-leveling criteria (e.g.: compensation bands/ranges). 

    Solid systems create clear paths and milestones within an organization. This—not free lunches—is how you set up long-term employee success.
  • Leaders: Don’t come in with an agenda. New leaders often come into companies with their own agendas—solutions that have worked in the past. They come in and immediately want to change things before they’ve assessed the lay of the land. This often does more harm than good. 

    HR leaders: You should develop solutions after data-gathering, not before. The data-gathering process should include meeting with the executive team, meeting with employees, diagnosing challenges, and tailoring solutions. 

    You should never build solutions before building relationships. Find out what the organization needs, and then create solutions.

Impact of a fundamentals-first approach to HR:

  • Better hiring. Establishing clear leveling systems and career paths will give you a better understanding of your existing employees, and by extension, show you what gaps you need to fill. Hiring based on well-understood needs and how to assess those needs will yield better results than hiring based on how exciting a candidate seems.
  • Better retention. Employee experience has everything to do with accurate expectations. Employees want to know what it takes to do a good job, how they’ll be rewarded, and how their career timeline will unfold. The clearer your underlying systems, the more easily you’ll be able to give employees accurate expectations. 
  • More effective leadership development. A major piece of HR is people management training. Many companies assume smart people will simply “figure it out.” But this false assumption hurts an organization’s ability to scale. People management is one of the most fluid skills in business—especially for leaders to whom it doesn’t come naturally. Over time, an HR leader who establishes solid training procedures early will create many other strong leaders.  

HR “disruptions” are like trick plays in football. You can’t run an offense exclusively on trick plays—you need to set up a foundation of fundamentals so that, when the time is right, you can catch your opponent off-guard. 

Don’t be seduced by HR trick plays. Take a fundamentals-first approach, driven by tried-and-true systems and operations. It may not score high on the sexiness scale, but it will lay the groundwork for long-term success.