6 things that really matter in your HR career

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What does it take to succeed in HR these days? This is the question I asked myself when I was asked back to my old alma mater, Monash Business School, to share some practical insights from my career with students studying strategic human resources management.

I thought back over the highs and the lows of my career, and these are the things that stood out for me.

1. Give them what they need, not what they want

Lorraine Murphy. Photo: Supplied

Many years ago at another company my then Managing Director had a great idea for a leadership program and its content. I delivered it. But the program got terrible feedback and I nearly got fired.

My lesson from this was if you do things only to please people, you are unlikely to help them – or their organisation – to succeed.

2. HR is not about HR

I enjoy working with HR thought leader and academic Dave Ulrich. I’ve found from practical experience his writing about the purpose of HR is spot on: HR is not about HR, the scorecard of HR is the scorecard of the business, and the real customer of HR is the customer of the business.

3. Eat your vegetables before dessert – get the basics right first

I have done a number of HR transformations in my career. Before I get started I always ask four critical questions:

  1. What do we keep?
  2. What needs to change?
  3. What can we do that will make the biggest difference?
  4. How can we build it quickly, cleanly, and simply – and get it to stick?

By answering these questions from the customer perspective, we can build the internal mechanisms to deliver great customer experiences.

I joined NAB in March 2016, and again we are focussed on a handful of key priorities to delight customers and make NAB an even better place to work.

We still have work to do, but we are on our way to executing on a simple (not simplistic), focussed strategy that drives better people and business outcomes.

We know that when people are capable and talented and have good leaders, they will perform. Wrapped around this we must have the right values-based culture to inspire and engage people, and to ensure that the customer is at the heart of everything we do.

There is no cookie cutter approach to this. The things that really matter for success in each organisation will depend on their individual context.

4. HR is the chef, not the waiter

HR is there to help and coach the rest of the business, not to do the important work of line managers.

Line managers with the right skills and aptitude remain absolutely critical in any organisation. Research & experience shows the most important thing for employee engagement and performance is the quality of their immediate leader. HR’s role is support leaders to be their best through tools and frameworks.

5. Be ambitious – for yourself and others

In my 20s I was working in HR for a mining explosives company when I was put forward for an accelerated program. By backing me, before I backed myself, my company changed what I thought I’d be capable of.

To have a high performing organisation, we need to ignite ambition, encouraging people to reach their potential and to have a learning mindset. That’s why we have evolved how we manage performance at NAB to encourage managers to act as performance coaches for their direct reports. We also have a strong focus on developing our high potential talent.

6. Know your stuff and keep learning

I‘ve done three degrees and all of them have helped me in my career. My MBA helped me to speak the language of business, which is very important in HR.

It’s not just about academic learning. Be curious. Meet people in your profession, outside your company, dealing with the same issues. Go for a breadth of career experience. Apply your learning to find better solutions and continue to evolve.

When we get HR right, people benefit, from customers, to employees to shareholders.

I’ll keep learning and stretching myself as an HR leader. As author and cook Julia Child has said “You’ll never know everything about anything – especially something that you love”.

Lorraine Murphy is Chief People Officer at National Australia Bank. She is responsible for HR solutions for NAB’s workforce; some 34,000 people serving nearly 10 million customers at 800 locations in Australia, New Zealand and around the world.

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