A COO for HR?

April 5, 2011 by Wally Bock

A recent Deloitte Debate takes on the question: “Do you need a Chief Operating Officer for HR?” Here’s how the firm framed the debate.

“Despite the demonstrated benefits of HR Transformation (HRT), business executives and HR leaders continue to voice frustration with HR’s ability to deliver value. With no shortage of talented people doing great work, all signs point to the need to continue to rethink HR organizations themselves. One new idea is the emergence of an HR COO role designed to drive performance improvements across the entire HR organization. Should you make the leap? Here’s the debate.”

I encourage you to read the whole debate which offers several points in favor of a new COO for HR position and a counterpoint for each. To my jaundiced eye, though, the arguments for such a position boil down to a new version of an old standard.

The old standard argument goes like this: “The problem is coordination and the solution is a coordinator position.” The reason that all the competent HR people on our payroll can’t deliver the results we want is that their efforts are uncoordinated. The head of HR is too busy with other things to pay attention to this detail, so we need to add another position that’s solely responsible for coordination.

Hiring another person to concentrate on coordination is one of those tactics that usually wind up “seeming like a good idea at the time.”  There are two reasons for this. The first one is that creating a coordinator position adds one more stop on the reporting trail. That’s one more person to filter things through his or her own self-interest and, consciously or not, add some noise to the signal.

The second reason is not so obvious. Adding another position in the hierarchy increases the number of relationships and therefore increases the complexity. Fair enough, you say, but you’re only adding one person. That’s true, but while the number of people may increase arithmetically, complexity increases geometrically.

My study and experience cry out that if you have a bunch of competent people who aren’t delivering the results you want, the problem is more likely to lie in work design or reasonableness of expectations. Adding one more position to the mix rarely makes things better.

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

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