A simple definition for “Stratetgic HR” (!?!)

Over the course of my career in HR, the buzzword ‘strategic’ has always been present.  Admonition like “be more strategic” or “we’re not strategic enough” becomes common as we HR professionals find our way into valuable business contribution and the proverbial ‘seat at the table’…

However, no one could ever really define what it means to be ‘strategic’ in HR.  Can’t describe how many seminars, conferences, and other meetings I was in where that simple charge was shared:  “Be more strategic”… yet, I couldn’t really find anyone who could give a really good explanation of what that looked like.

So, in an attempt to share what I’ve learned, and give others something to build on for themselves, I share my ‘work-in-progress’ definition of Strategic HR:

Strategic HR is the alignment of culture, talent and leadership with the company’s overall strategy.

Seems simple enough, right?  Three key ingredients that HR professionals can own and/or influence, that will prove your ‘strategic’ worth.  Talent.  Culture.  Leadership.  Align them with each other, always focus on the company’s strategy, and you’ll be on your way!


First and foremost, company strategy.

Do you understand what your company actually does, and how it gets done?  Do you understand the processes and people that make it all happen?  Do you know your company’s competitors?  How about competitive advantages over those competitors?

Do you know your company’s goals (both annual and quarterly)?  Do you know your company’s mission or vision?  (not just the words on a page, but what it actually means)

Do you understand the direction of your company?  Plans to grow?  Plans to reduce spending?  Plans to acquire or be acquired?

These pieces are a bedrock of knowledge that will give HR professionals the credibility necessary to connect with business leaders, and contribute in strategic ways.  #relationshipsmatter  #credibilitybuildsrelationships

Now, the three pillars that should align to it (understanding, of course, that this is merely scratching the surface of each one):

  • Talent.

One of the most commonly known tasks of HR workers is to “hire and fire”.  Yes, there are tasks to perform and administrative details to tend to in processing both those actions.  But it is also possible to manage talent in the organization in a strategic way.

What kind of people are you hiring?  How are you attracting talent?  Are you attracting the right kind of talent?  Do their values and priorities match the company’s? How do you integrate (‘onboard’) a new person to the company?

Once employees are on board, how do you manage their performance?  Do you ensure they are trained properly in the early going, and receive the guidance and help to become an independent contributor?  Do you reward strong performers, and address poor performers fairly and promptly?

Are there training and development opportunities?  Do you build on the strengths of employees?  Are they in a position where they can do what they are good at, and will succeed as a strong performer for the company?

Do you understand the importance of ‘talent pipelines’ and how to create and utilize a succession plan?

  • Culture.

So many things impact a company’s culture – and it can be up to HR to help influence and guide it (note: I firmly believe that everyone owns culture).  It is not HR’s job to “fix the culture,” but understanding what impacts culture, as HR professionals should, allows a company to pull the right levers to improve.

Elements of culture that should be examined, and tweaked to ensure alignment might include the following:  benefits and perks, workplace/office space, activities & employee interaction, policies & procedures, and communication practices (especially in times of change and transition).

Most importantly:  values.  The main driver of culture.  Are they written down, and widely known?  Are they demonstrated?  Do people understand what is acceptable?  (hint, if you aren’t sure, just watch – people will do what they know is acceptable)  Behaviors over a period of time will shape culture… whether you like it or not.

  • Leadership.

By ‘leadership’ I mean the alignment of leaders at all levels in the organization.  The work of getting everyone “rowing in the same direction”.  This piece of strategic HR is much more difficult to achieve.  It takes time, effort, and deliberate work over time to build relationships of trust.

Ultimately, a company will succeed or fail based on the capabilities and performance of its leaders.

Even the strongest of executives can only carry a company so far.  Building the capabilities of leaders (and future leaders) at all levels is the best way to ensure sustained success.

A few other questions to consider:  are leaders properly trained (not just in technical aspects, but in leadership aspects?)?  Are leaders demonstrating excellent leadership behaviors, especially in times of change and transition?

Do leaders demonstrate the company’s values on a daily basis?  Without exception?  Would you consider leaders ‘ambassadors’ of your desired culture?

Do leaders understand the company’s priorities?  Are they fully engaged, fully “on the bus”?

What does communication look like with leaders of all levels?  Is it consistent, reliable, and informative?  Do they consider themselves “in the know” and “on the inside”?  Or do they consider themselves an ‘outsider’ in what is going on?

These pieces all have unique, complicated elements to work on. Focus on the alignment of these three pieces with the company’s strategy will ensure that your work, as an HR professional, is indeed strategic.

What do you think, HR professionals?  What would you add from your own personal definition of “Strategic HR”?  Please comment below!




10 thoughts on “A simple definition for “Stratetgic HR” (!?!)

  1. I like how you broke things out into 4 common components. I would tend to think that the order would be Culture, Leadership, Talent, Strategy though. It’s just a matter of approach because they are all critical to HR being strategic.


    • Interesting! I like it.
      I placed Talent first because it encompasses much of what HR pros already do (hiring/selection, performance management, discipline, etc) so it can serve as a good building block to start. But I like the way you think – why would you put Culture first? (I have my own suspicions why, but I’d love to hear your take…)


  2. Excerpt from @BlackbookHR on Twitter
    “Strategic HR is understanding what & why things work or not…”
    Couldn’t agree more! Great addition to the definition of #StrategicHR


  3. Yes, yes and yes. I have had numerous conversations with HR people (at all levels) that don’t fully understand the business they are in. How does the company make money? What drives revenue? What differentiates them from the competitors? Seems like fairly simple questions but the answer is never that easy. Without knowing the business line(s) how are we going to attract, hire, promote or retain the right candidates? Without knowing where the revenue comes from how can we be strategic in our methods? Do we know that not having X hire in place is costing us Y amount of revenue per day? If we don’t understand the business needs we aren’t aligning our priorities with the business priorities, we are just shooting in the dark. That doesn’t sound very strategic to me.


  4. Great article, Scott! These three areas have been on my mind a lot lately. I love how you mention that culture is everyone’s responsibility. I have found that by have a cross-functional team assigned to the enhancing and “fixing” of culture has helped in our efforts. I enjoyed your questions and they have me pondering more as to what I can do to be more “strategic”. Thanks for the insight!


  5. Scott, I really enjoyed reading your article. As a fellow HR professional, I’ve attended many HR seminars and classes where I’ve heard that we need to become more strategic and yet, these sessions are all focused on legislative risk prevention or streamlining tasks. You can’t change a company’s culture by trying to change the culture. It’s about identifying specific behaviors and actions that help align teams with the organization’s goals. Great article, thanks for posting!


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