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Tips for Fixing Broken HR Systems and Building Momentum with Small Wins

Nicole Klemp

What can HR leaders do to drive real organizational change when working within a broken system? What do you do when you see a problem and have ideas about how to fix it, but your executive team isn’t giving you the necessary support or resources?

These are the questions Adam Weber, host of the HR Superstars podcast, discussed on a recent episode with guest Kara Kirby, CEO of Insights Leadership Group and host of the Pop! On Leadership podcast

Kara shared how HR professionals can borrow skills from sales to influence their organizations for the better. She offered practical tips for advocating for your rightful seat at the executive table and shared how stacking up small wins can put you on a path to long-term systemic change.

Most HR systems aren’t broken—they’re just incomplete

According to Kara, HR systems aren’t usually broken; most of the time, they’re simply “incomplete.” Think of people and culture as a puzzle made up of hundreds of interconnected pieces. When pieces are missing, it’s hard to see the full picture. People leaders must do the work to identify where the holes are and fill in those missing pieces. 

Some of the biggest HR challenges, like employee turnover, performance issues, or low engagement, can be repaired by looking for where processes are breaking down. 

Kara used performance management to show an example of how one flawed process can do more harm than good. Like when a company ranks employees against their peers, team members can feel like they’re competing with one another rather than working together on shared goals. In this case, people leaders must look for better ways to motivate individual performance while prioritizing team trust and collaboration.

Another example of an “incomplete” HR system is a half-baked employee engagement plan. Say you send out a survey to find out what’s working to keep employees engaged and identify where problems exist. But, after the survey, no tangible steps are taken to address the feedback (at least none that employees are made aware of).

“If you’re not going to do anything with engagement survey results, which actually does happen very often—engagement surveys go out, all the results come back, and then nothing changes,” said Kara. “That is more harmful than not doing one altogether. That’s the illusion of inclusion, and once people know that they’re being lied to inside an organization, all trust goes out the window.” 

To truly address the biggest challenges in human resources, HR teams must start taking action to address strategic gaps and fill in those missing puzzle pieces. And to get the critical executive buy-in you need to make lasting organizational change, you must be able to show how those efforts impact not only people and culture but the business’s bottom line.

Advocate for your seat at the table

As Kara shared, executive support is critical to fixing broken or incomplete systems, but it’s not typically a given for most HR leaders. “So many people get into HR, they go to school, and you hear all these stories about being able to transform organizations through empowering people,” she said. “So then you get all these bright-eyed, inspired HR professionals that think a situation is going to work. They’re like, ‘I see a problem; here is the absolute solution that’s going to fix it,’ and then they go in and try to present it, and they get laughed out of the room. Then they get to understand the harsh reality that HR doesn’t have a seat at the table a lot of times.”

CEOs, CFOs, and other top executives focus on accelerating revenue and profit growth, reducing costs and risk, and realizing their vision, mission, and values. So, to get their buy-in on HR initiatives, you must connect your people strategy and proposed investments back to the business’s goals and mission. 

Kara also recommends taking credit for the work you and your team have already done to positively impact the business. You can’t assume other executives will automatically see the connections between your HR strategy and top business objectives. So, use data insights to tie that work back to business outcomes and gain credibility.

Build momentum with small wins

“What a lot of HR is trying to do is fix a broken system while they’re inside of it. And while that might be a gloomy outlook, I think that what HR can do is realize that this system is so complicated, and there’s going to be things that are going to be broken,” said Kara. 

When you think about “fixing” a broken system, you probably have a long-term goal or major breakthrough in mind. But real systemic change doesn’t typically happen with giant leaps forward—it usually happens with small wins and baby steps. 

There may be times when sweeping changes are needed in an organization. But in most cases, you’ll see the greatest success by improving HR programs and employee experience incrementally. Gaining small wins over time can help you build momentum while reducing the risk of unintended consequences or blowback. 

“Go figure out where the wins are that you can have inside of the organization and start small. Don’t try to boil the ocean because it’s probably going to overwhelm the executive leadership team. [First, do] the work of really understanding what matters to the business so you can speak in their language,” Kara added.

Get the full conversation on the HR Superstars podcast

Tune into 15Five’s HR Superstars podcast to hear from other strategic people leaders (like Kara) who are making meaningful impacts in their organizations and shaping the future of work. 

Be inspired and learn how HR professionals like you attract talent, tackle training and development strategies, champion DEI and mental health, improve employee retention and engagement, and more.

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