5 Arenas – The Business of HR


a sphere or place of intense activity, performance, debate and conflict

5 Arenas for HR

Intense…is a word that characterizes our work in these times. There are constant challenges and shifts that call upon us to look for new ways of doing things and to exercise priorities differently.

For HR leaders and teams, this is a time to play multiple roles. In our conversations with business and HR leaders, and teams, over the last few months, we see the activity and results for HR increasingly focused (and needing to focus) on 5 arenas. These arenas span both problem solving and building for the future. They help to resolve risks and challenges but also provoke us to think about how the future could be built and led differently.

Our purpose in writing about this is to nudge HR to invest in converging their efforts into spheres of intense activity that can create an impact for people and businesses.

We call these arenas because multiple capabilities and results are directed and delivered in them. Arenas are marked by huge activity in a period of time; one witnesses superior skills and strategy in that space; debate, profound discussions and conflict envelop it. We believe HR will experience all of this and more in these 5 spheres.Our arenas are about what is and what ought to be…..

Helping Leaders


Helping Leaders Succeed

Leaders need more than an HR business partner.

They need an advisor, a cheerleader, a critic, a sparring mate (who will challenge them and make them better), a compassionate partner and more.

For those who work with businesses and teams, the time has come to erase the lines and boundaries we have drawn around our roles. These times call for HR to surface the problems they can solve and the opportunities they can address. We see the following as spheres that HR must support and contribute in proactively:

Assess and manage the quality of leadership

As leaders and team members work remotely/in shifts and other arrangements, it is tricky to get an idea of how individuals are faring on both sides. Are people feeling supported? Is work being planned, prioritized and reviewed effectively? How is equity being managed and perceived?

HR needs to bring this information back to leaders with solutions to address gaps. They also need to identify those who need more support and provide that, be it coaching, facilitating meetings, preparing for crucial conversations etc.

A data-led approach to do this is useful both from a qualitative and quantitative perspective.

Promote purpose and alignment

Helping leaders to define the purpose and align others is a key role that HR can play. Working with leaders to design and deliver team communication, address critical meetings and help them to land change and shifts is important. There are difficult messages around costs, rationalization, doing more with less, etc., that need to be conveyed in a positive and accurate manner. The experience of HR professionals can be invaluable here.

Evaluating risks and addressing them

Leaders will need to make bold moves and take risks in these times. HR can do many useful things here – holding up the mirror on how they think and take risks, their fears and apprehensions and how they can get past those. Using inquiry and systems thinking, they can help leaders to think through key organizational decisions and risk mitigation to make progress.

Redesign Organisations

Organisation Design is undertaken in an environment, in which the organisation, like a gyroscope, needs to be kept both stable and moving.

– Guide to Organisation Design. Naomi Stanford

Redesign in the current context could mean recasting the way the organizational elements need to be organized to enable non-incremental/disruptive shifts in the business strategy, model or goals OR reworking some aspects of how people and work are organized to achieve the goals due to changes in the operating context. We see 3 impelling forces that encourage organisation redesign in a holistic or in a modular way.

New ways of acquiring and selling to customers

Businesses are adopting new channels and methods to connect with, communicate and sell to their customers. The nature and role of channel partners and distributors could change in many industries. The organizational capability to manage this will need to change right across elements of strategy, processes, capability (technology and people) and even culture.

The shifting sands of business plans

For some industries and sectors, uncertainty looms large, be it hospitality, aviation, entertainment and others. For others, priorities (segments, products, go-to-market strategies) have changed significantly.
The essence and the core of how things work around here need a change in these organizations. Processes to keep their ear to the ground, being able to change workforce models to manage costs, changing the product mix or even tweaking their business models will all become par for the course. This will call for organisations to become more compact and nimble to change often – looking at how this can be done through the lens of organisation design could be very useful.

More local and market specific

The shift from global to regional and local has been underway for a while now. With the pandemic, the speed of recovery and health of economies are going to vary widely. This will call for more localized models of decision making, better talent and differences in processes, research and innovation. The overarching or common identity across entities may be more about an enduring purpose, mission, a set of values and organizational capability.
In all these contexts HR can take the lead to prompt and trigger changes in the organisation design. This will involve helping leaders understand why they need to approach and solve for this holistically. HR can influence leaders to don their organisation builder hats – so that the organizational system aligns and aids the achievement of business goals in an effective and sustainable manner. HR teams and leaders can be the subject matter experts and facilitators, enabling businesses to sponsor and execute on the mandate.

Manage Diverse


Manage Diverse Workforces

The gig economy has been around for a while. We now see more organizations talking about jobs that can work from home or remotely for the years to come. With the advent of these circumstances, HR can create myriad options for organisations to attract, manage and retain talent. In a crisis, everything is up for questioning. Past beliefs and dogmas are set aside.

The time has now come to recraft how we look at employment and jobs. HR must look at how it can manage the needs and channelize the talent of diverse workforces to creating an enriching experience for individuals and organisations. Some ideas we have:

Recast and call out the different workforces

Make folks who work part-time, on gigs, on contract, on projects, job sharing, etc. all as a part of the talent strategy and therefore the legit workforce in terms of attention and care. Be more deliberate and strategic about how to select, engage and even develop them.

Pay attention to each workforce

Create a business-partner like role or an account manager for the different workforces. Think about how the different needs and opportunities can be addressed creatively by talent acquisition and development teams. Internships can be made more multi-faceted.
Student loans can be a part of remuneration. Certifications can be the way to progress in one’s career and pay. Swaps with other companies and government roles are not unusual. The possibilities are endless.

Build new and flexible career opportunities

Build paths and options that traverse the nature of employment and work easily – and make this a BIG part of your employee value proposition. Learn more about what people will value and offer it to them. Look at how different workforces can learn from each other and work together in a more democratic way with no boundaries or hierarchy – providing the impetus to everyone to bring their best into work every day.

Make development and leadership more democratic

Look at how people can work in communities with leaders and not in homogenous workforces. Offer development as a benefit and incentive to work in an organisation. Allow for different forms of leadership to find expression from the different workforces.

Much of what we have said here is underway – it requires perhaps a certain kind of boldness and value system to bring it all together in a more integrated way for organisations.

Champion ESG

(Environment |

Social | Governance)

Champion ESG (Environment | Social | Governance)

We write this section not to draw attention to what ESG is or why it is critical for all organisations, but to ask HR to adopt, contribute and deliver to these life (and therefore business) changing agendas in a bigger way. We include governance here because for great organisations to be built, the understanding (why) and practice of good governance needs to start early.

Businesses have the power and influence to shape the mindsets and choices of employees and stakeholders. A strong ESG focus can help create a lasting impact on society and the planet. Here are four ways that HR can make a difference to ESG:

ESG as a part of the Organisational Identity, Business and Operational Model

HR can play a role in bringing ESG into the core organizational identity, be it the purpose, vision/ambition or the beliefs of the organisation. This will help to influence how business is done. Unless it becomes a part of the business and operational model, ESG will receive scant attention in how plans, decisions and choices are made or executed. This will also include creating an ESG roadmap that is in sync with the medium or long-term business strategy and plans of the organization.

Build Accountability for ESG

ESG needs specialists but it also needs to be embedded into a multitude of roles as key accountability across the business. This will ensure a domino effect – to set goals, assess and reward performance and build skills. In many CEO and CXO searches, we have witnessed, understanding and experience in ESG have not been assessed or even called out in the profile. This needs to change and at every level. A good start is also to determine how this needs to be built in HR jobs and profiles.

Develop Knowledge and Abilities

Make ESG related skills and behaviours a part of the talent frameworks and processes in the organisations. Some ideas:
  • Run certifications internally alongside promotion and mobility processes.
  • Make ESG a part of induction, new manager orientation and a gate to apply for key roles.
  • Offer an ESG stint/project in MT programs, in high potential programs, leadership journeys, etc. Make it part of the Board induction and development program.
  • Find and develop ESG coaches (just like advisors and coaches for TPM, AGILE, etc.)
  • Build HR’s knowledge about ESG and how other organisations are setting standards and doing work in this area. Help HR to understand how to set goals, assess performance and abilities in ESG, so that they can advise businesses on the same.
  • Bring experts and champions from other institutions and businesses to talk about what good looks like.

Make it Visible

Work to bring ESG into business planning and reviews, R&R, Employer Branding, Organisational certifications, etc. Facilitate working sessions on ESG as part of the medium-term business planning process.

Unbox Talent


Unbox Talent Development

If the exoskeleton of an organisation is its structure, then talent is the DNA and everything that breathes life to it.

In many organisations, the focus on people in key roles and at the higher levels of the pyramid has been disproportionate. This we believe is not so effective for 2 reasons –

a) Those who deliver performance and are closer to the employees and the customers are at the mid and lower levels of the structure.

b) Development takes months and years – starting early pays huge dividends. In this environment of social distancing, WFH, and fewer people at the workplace, we can really think about talent development differently:

Opening New Doors to Learning:

Most of us learn by watching and doing. The opportunities to have more people watch leaders, business processes unfold such as planning + reviews, negotiations, customer calls and interactions, etc. are huge now. People can watch quietly, observe and make notes in a most non-intrusive manner. We can also go anywhere today – retail outlets, factories, markets, etc. to watch, observe, interact and learn and in any part of the world.


Learning in small groups and even alone is effective and engaging. If reflection and observation are great ways to learn, perhaps walkabouts may come second only to learning on the job. Toolkits and workbooks to do market, community and customer visits could be the way to create rich and self-driven learning experiences.

Build knowledge in teams and not only individuals

The CXO-2 and -3 levels are critical as they represent the capability of the organisation to deliver performance and are also the powerhouse of critical skills and expertise. Look at how to equip teams (small clusters of intact groups) with knowledge and skills. It is easy to get such teams together virtually – they will find opportunities to apply these newly learned skills together and sharpen them as they do so. Some examples – compensation management skills for all HRBPs; risk management for all unit heads; talent assessment and selection for managers in an intact workgroup; sustainability for a whole branch. Note – that we have not said training! The avenues to do this could be many and unconventional.

Step away from the commercial frame around L&D

Unfortunately, in many instances, we see training and development as push initiatives and not a pull. Participants get nominated and sometimes persuaded to attend – trainers and coaches are evaluated – but nobody looks in great detail at whether the individual made good use of the opportunity either for themselves or the organisation. This needs change. Individual initiative guides admission to college, completion of online courses and additional qualifications. Why should it be different at the workplace? We need to

a) Make learning an imperative to work-life – a bit like staying fit to lead a good life, and there are many ways to do this

b)  Shift ownership to the individual and not HR or the manager.

In the process of unboxing, we may find new and reimagined roles for HR. Maybe we will have talent counsellors (like career counsellors after school) for different career stages and streams who can guide you to the path and choices one can make to learn and develop. The rest is really a choice.

This presentation does not have a copyright.
Do acknowledge Cocoon, should you wish to reproduce or use any part of this presentation.
Thank You!