Faces of HR

One Expert’s View on the Evolution of Strategic HR

When traveling abroad for work and sitting at a meal with your foreign colleagues, don’t order first. That’s the advice that David Binkley, Senior Adviser in Strategic Talent Management at Vantage Leadership Consulting in Chicago, has anyway. During his 30 years of HR experience, David has had to keep up with a host of changes in the world of HR, and he shared them with me in a recent interview.

Have you always been in HR?

“The bulk of my career has been in HR.”

What led you into that role?

“It actually came from a strong interest in business. If you go back to the employment market 3 plus decades ago, you were less focused on choosing what field you wanted to work in and much more focused on who was hiring and where were the jobs. A lot of people were choosing marketing, advertising. I knew I wanted to put my business skills to use. I had taken a couple of organizational psychology courses, and I found them to be rather fascinating. So, I decided to split off and specialize in that way.”

You have had a real opportunity to see what people thought HR would become and whether they lived up to those predictions.

“I have had a chance to see that, and I would say that it has been mostly true. If you go back a little more than 2 decades now when McKinsey coined the terms ‘war for talent,’ I would say there was a lot of good predictive work about how that impacted organizations and how it impacted the HR function and how companies needed to organize and connect a talent agenda to accelerate their business impact. All of that is true, and the most forward-looking organizations got it.

“Then I would qualify that and suggest that some organizations and HR functions got left behind along the way.”

My understanding is that HR has taken more of a strategic role over the last decade or two. It must be challenging to have stayed abreast of all of that.

“There is certainly much more than a change of name from the old HR function of personnel to human resources to what many today call people operations or some next gen name. The evolution is very clear, and I would suggest that it has happened in most organizations. Where I’ve seen it happen with the most velocity is where the organizations have leaders who understand the impact and the role that strong HR and strong HR leaders can play. In my experience, when organizations have those leaders, it’s actually hard to keep up because you don’t have to convince them that HR needs a seat at the table. Instead, it’s not only expected but it’s demanded that you are going to contribute and bring impact at certain levels. So, my experience has been that the best leaders expect it, they push it, they know what strategic HR looks like, and the expectation is that they are going to get it.”

What do you think is a major problem that HR faces today that they are going to solve in the next 10 years?

“If you would have put 3 years on that, or 5 years, I would probably still answer the same way. We already discussed the McKinsey war for talent—it was very important work. What’s going on now and how that will play out over the coming years are much more dramatic than 2 decades ago. The war for talent is not version 2.0 or 3.0 or 4.0. I think it’s actually more serious than that—it’s a bit of a perfect storm.

“What the best HR people and the best leaders are grappling with now relates to how work is going to get done: things like the impact of digitization, artificial intelligence, where is work getting done, increased globalization and urbanization, the flexibility that the next generation for talent requires regarding where they want to work, and all of the things that are impacting work getting done. Then there is another piece: Who is doing the work? Things like a massive change in the demographics of the workforce, accelerated diversity, multigeneration workers, contingent workers, and gig workers.

“The best HR functions in the world are already working on this, but I think there is going to be nothing but acceleration in all of those areas. And I think it’s really important that this is front and center on the agenda and that we ask the questions that we have to work out and solve. Let’s hope that it’s something we can solve for, I’m not sure if we can, but if you do your best to stay in front of it, ahead of it, and to not fall behind you will be ahead of many organizations.”

What would you say to HR professionals who don’t feel their leadership values them?

“Many years ago I would tell HR people in conferences that I would speak at that if you have leaders that don’t get it and you are still fighting to try and demonstrate your value at the table and why HR even needs a seat at the table, you should seriously consider taking your skills and tools elsewhere. My view has evolved much more than that because that’s kind of a flippant answer that’s not terribly helpful.

“I suggest HR people really step back and ask the real hard question: Why aren’t we getting the level of value and level of impact out of the HR function? I’d say the same thing if it was the legal function or a finance function. Why aren’t we getting the level of value out of it that we need and should expect? It’s likely that on both sides—leadership and HR—that the agenda that is being worked on is not front and center and may not be aligned with the strategic realities of the business. Or, it could be the leaders not understanding what good HR work looks like; or, it could be the HR function is overly bogged down in transactional work, and they have relegated themselves to that position. I would start off by asking the real tough question: Are we getting what forward-looking companies are getting and what we should expect from all of our functions, including the HR function?”

What’s your favorite thing about being in HR?

“It’s tough because I have many favorite things. I’ve always enjoyed and valued the work. On a long-term macro level, I really enjoy watching and being part of the impact that good people practices can have on a company culture and business performance. Some of these things take time to clearly see the impact they have.

“With my recent position, I have the luxury of being able to take the pieces of HR work that I’ve enjoyed the most and make them my focus. That includes strategic talent management, high-potential work teams, CEO succession, advising HR leaders that have a lot of passion, and working with their teams to help them elevate their agenda in the company. Those are the things that I have deliberately chosen to spend my time doing now, and they are quite honestly the things I enjoy doing the most.”

Do you have a funny anecdote you could share from your time?

“I traveled a lot over my few decades doing this work. I have had the opportunity to live in Europe and, on a couple of occasions, in Asia. Most of my stories come from crazy interesting travel adventures. Even though I did it for a long time, went to many markets around the world, lived in them, there were always things that surprised me and were funny.

“The story that I’ll tell you didn’t seem funny at the time. It was a trip to India. I had a great HR team there. I spent a lot of time there, watching that country grow and evolve over a few decades. I know it well, and I know the customs well. The HR team was doing an outside HR meeting to get to know each other, share experiences about what people were working on, and trends in the marketplace.

“I was mostly in New Delhi, and I was mostly acquainted with lunch and dinner menus, less so with local breakfast foods. And, I was mostly acquainted with northern Indian food. The breakfast was being held with top HR people from other big companies in India, and it was a wonderful time to spend with them. I was asked to order first; I thought, OK, that’s great. I looked at the menu, and I ordered a very traditional Southern Indian dish called a dosa. It’s served in a curry sauce and an elegant crepe like a pancake. And everyone else at the table ordered a fruit platter or an egg-white omelet. I ordered Indian food, and everyone else ordered something crazy light or western food. And this dish is not a simple thing to eat. It can be quite messy, and I’m supposed to be engaging the group. They are all just watching me. The HR leader from our company at that time is just staring at me, a little bit in disbelief that I ordered this dish. What I learned from that was a simple lesson: Don’t order first.”