Building an HR Strategy That Works — 3 HR Strategies Every Human Resources Director Should Know

The key to success in any industry is strategy — and HR is no different. Building an HR strategy that’s effective can be a significant struggle, especially given the way many other departments and employees still view HR.

For decades, non-HR folk (and this includes our own colleagues) often got the feeling that what we do isn’t always guided by strategy or data because the results they see come off as “warm and fuzzy” distractions from work, especially when the only time they seemed to see the HR staff was when it was time to do a team-building exercise they weren’t interested in or fill out a massive survey right before they left for the holiday break.

Of course, that perception of HR depends on the personality style of each person, but regardless, it’s a well-known stereotype: HR is all about making us feel better and not about real results, with the clear implication that there could be no strategy behind such a touchy-feely department.

Now you and I both know that couldn’t be further from the truth — strategy is at the root of all successful HR work, and HR is likely the most important department in any organization. After all (and as you know all too well):

“A company is people … employees want to know… am I being listened to or am I a cog in the wheel?” — Richard Branson


Solid HR Strategy Puts Your People First

Sir Richard hits on something profound in the quote above — if a company is people, then the department most closely associated with keeping those people happy and healthy seems to be the most important department in a business.

If people want to be respected (and to be listened to is to be respected), then the department that does the listening, that shows employees they are respected, that invests in their happiness and satisfaction at work, that department (HR) needs to have a clear, effective, powerful strategy to make that happen.

I don’t need to tell you that a company hemorrhaging its best people is a company that will fail. I don’t need to tell you that a company failing to invest in people is a company that will flounder in the long haul, that will fail to compete, that will, eventually, find itself competing against some of the very same people who used to work for it.

So how do we keep those people around? In a word: Strategy.

A strategy is a high-level plan that guides your department — tactics are the specifics of how you make that happen. This article isn’t designed to teach you specific tactics — it’s designed to help you put the high-level priorities in place that guide the specific methods you choose to turn goals into reality.

What strategies do we use to ensure our people are happy, feel respected, feel engaged, and have bought into the mission and vision of the organization? Here are three strategies every HR person should have in place to ensure the best chance of success.

Top HR Strategies — #1 People Over Everything

In modern HR, there’s a tendency to focus on numbers. For decades, we didn’t have access to real data, at least, not in the way that other departments like finance or marketing did. It looked more like we were the “soft skills” people, but tools like EverythingDiSC® and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ changed all that.

Now, we have access to unprecedented information about critical measurements like, turnover and retention rates, but all of that data, while useful and important and critical to the modern human resources manager, can’t compare to investigating how your people feel about their work.

Focusing on your people and your culture over everything is how the savvy firm of the 21st century thrives. It’s easier than ever for your best employees to hide how they’re feeling, to skate through assessments and lie on surveys, and to generally keep their dissatisfaction hidden (for a variety of reasons). Losing that employee costs your organization — in some cases, depending on the employee and what they do, it can cost heavily.

Remember, you don’t employ a business of robots — you employee a business of humans. Data helps, but people need you to relate to them as what they are: Human beings with real needs, real feelings, real emotions. Policies and programs have to grow out of those real human needs.

You need to use “people over everything” as a guiding principle, a strategy that dictates the specific HR tactics you’ll choose to make that happen.

If you’re looking for tactics, check out our suite of products.

DiSC frequently asked questions

Top HR Strategies — #2 More Surveys, Shorter Surveys

Now I did mention that data is invaluable — and yes, people can skip surveys or fake their way through them or lie, but the reality is, many employees at many organizations are willing to tell you the ugly truth (or the beautiful truth!) if you make it easy for them to do so.

Are your employees secretly unhappy? Are they more engaged and excited than you thought possible? Is there an underlying issue you had no idea existed? Is there something they’d love to make happen, if only they had the resources and support? Surveys help bring all of this to light.

The problem, of course, lies in the survey itself — as you know all too well, most people don’t want to take the time to complete a survey. The unwillingness to take a survey gets worse the longer the survey is.

To compound the problem, most firms only administer surveys at the end of the year, and they are long. Many firms insist on giving these surveys around the December holiday period when many employees are already mentally checked out, a practice that encourages even fewer from-the-heart responses. People fake their way through these things, and you end up with a bunch of data that looks fine to the average person, but that you know is just about worthless.

Changing your survey strategy can dramatically improve how effective these surveys are for you and your team. Shorter surveys are more likely to be completed, but to get the data you need, you’re going to have to send out more. Consider breaking your end-of-the-year survey into manageable chunks, chunks you send out once a quarter.

Not only are the shorter surveys more likely to be completed, not only are your people more likely to give honest answers when they’re not distracted by the holidays or annoyed at how long the survey is, but you’ll have multiple data points throughout the year to refer to instead of just one.

These “pulse surveys” are simply more effective — you can take the pulse of your organization throughout the year, heading off potential problems when they’re still in a nascent stage, and your employees won’t feel too overburdened by a massive survey at the worst time of the year.

In fact, we know that surveys like the Gallup Q12 are phenomenal for doing just this. The simpler the survey, the shorter the survey, the higher its chance for success, and the more valuable information you get to help guide the organization where it needs to go.

Add in a reward system for employees who regularly complete the surveys and show how these surveys directly lead to the desired change in the organization, and you have a recipe for success.

It’s all about managing the growth and evolution of your company’s culture — and speaking of culture…

Top HR Strategies — #3 Pay Close Attention to Culture

What is your company’s culture? Can you define it? More importantly, what would your people say about their organization’s culture?

Culture is critical. When an organization has a toxic culture, it shows, and everyone suffers (including the bottom line). By the same token, when KPIs like employee engagement are boosted, we see a demonstrable change in the culture, just as we saw when we worked with the fine folks of King County.

Remember, every employee is an ambassador for their organization — the happier and more satisfied they are, the easier it is for your organization to grow. Paying close attention to the culture helps you to identify and attempt to fix serious issues, like a particularly toxic culture siloed in a single department or a proliferation of micro-managers in another, that you might not otherwise even learn about from a simple reliance on data like retention and turnover rates.

However, this goes a little beyond simple surveys. You’re going to have to employ some old-school methods if you want to truly get an accurate picture of the culture of your company.

In many ways, this is a difficult proposition — HR is not viewed generously by either popular culture or by most organizations, and this can lead to an “us vs. them” mentality amongst employees if you’re not careful. Taking the time to get to know people on an individual basis, to learn about what’s going on with them, what they need, what they’re struggling with, what change they envision in the organization, can be a hard thing to implement when employees are reluctant to open up to you.

Surveys help, but spending the time necessary to develop relationships with employees, to show them that you’re on their side, that you’re their advocate (and not the firm’s police force), can gradually help to widen the doors of communication.

Once you’ve really developed and broadened those relationships, getting an accurate sense of the culture will become easier and easier as time passes. At some organizations, this is not difficult at all, and HR is viewed very positively. But even in these situations, maintaining those relationships is critical if you want to keep from sliding into a less-than-optimal culture situation.

Developing HR Strategy Is Hard — But It Can Have Profound Benefits

At the end of the day, developing HR strategies to dive into the specifics of the three general strategies we’ve presented here for you is hard — but the benefits of developing such HR strategies to custom fit your business can bring nothing but long-term success.

The ripple effects of increasing key measures of HR success, like employee engagement, can turn into waves of momentum that propel a business to levels it once only dreamed of. Your people are your organization, and when you show them that, when you invest in them, you make a difference not just in their happiness or their day-to-day lives, but in the success of the organization as a whole.

That’s exactly what we saw in our work at King County.

Click here to learn how we leveraged our industry-leading products to initiate a wave of change that this organization never dreamed was possible.


Brett Cooper

Brett is the visionary President of Integris Performance Advisors, a professional development firm he co-founded to expand the existence of healthy organizations and great places to work. By creatively bringing together concepts from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (by Patrick Lencioni), The Leadership Challenge (by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner), and Lean Six Sigma, Brett and his team have influenced thousands of people in government, non-profits and corporate America to work together in more productive, more effective and more human ways. Outside of his role at Integris, Brett dedicates time to serving others in need. He is a volunteer coordinator for the East Bay Stand Down and Stand Down on the Delta, two non-profits serving the needs of San Francisco’s homeless Veteran population. He is also board member and financial sponsor for Partners in Sustainable Learning, whose mission is to bring early childhood education to marginalized communities in the developing world (current projects are underway in Nepal).