My path to HR leadership was not traditional. I had been working in the HR department of my current employer for two years as Director of OD and Communications. This role was consistent with my educational background and the bulk of my professional experience. In this role, I partnered with the Director HR to provide a wide range of services to the North American division of our organization. In early November 2019, my colleague retired and after playing the role in interim, I assumed the role in February 2020, just in time for the global pandemic.

Nothing like a global shake up to accelerate an already sharp learning curve.

My newness in the job and to the function meant I had to listen and trust my new team that guided me through the complexities of different initiatives that we needed to undertake to support the business and make sure we got through the challenge.  I am sure most reading this can relate to the intensity, professionally and personally, of that first year (and the second).

During this outsized effort there was the matter of establishing strategic priorities for the department. It was during this exercise that I noticed that HR has three clients with very different, and most of the time, contradictory needs. A successful HR department knows and serves all three clients, while retaining its capacity to act with independence and sound judgment.

Three Clients

These three clients are the employees, managers, and the company / institution, usually represented by the executives and the board.

It is rare that these clients are equally interested or supportive of an HR initiative. Stabilizing head count is a company-only concern that employees rarely hear about, and managers do their best to subvert if it means delivering on their objectives (including, at times, this manager). Vacation policies rarely see these three clients aligned on what is important. Same thing with cultural change, performance management, company road shows, and perhaps the most significant of the current moment, work from home (where both the wants and the needs are currently unclear for all groups, in my experience). These issues must be dealt with while taking into account these differing clients, who most likely will not agree on much of what the HR department proposes.

Within HR, I have also noticed that different roles tend to bias towards one of the three clients. HRBPs tend to align with (or are at least the most concerned about the reactions of) managers, as these are their partners. HR leadership tends to look at issues with a company first mindset, with a blind spot for local concerns. OD and learning practitioners, talent acquisition and employee experience types tend to argue that employees are the primary, most important client. All good flows from this focus, according to them. So, when managing different clients’ needs, discussions also involve these favourite-client-based perspectives. Of course, each can see the need to manage all three clients, but it’s been my experience that if the favourite client will be at all discomfited by the solution, it is difficult to find internal alignment for an HR solution.

The Fourth (unspoken) Client

If this was not enough, there is a fourth client in the room during these discussions, HR itself. A layer of consideration must be given to these questions (explicitly or not)— How will this decision reflect on us in the HR team, and on HR as a profession, as we wish to see ourselves as a strategic function? There is a natural tendency in all groups to consider the implications of a decision on one’s own interests, and I am not immune to this kind of calculation. However, I am always sensitive to the general desire amongst HR practitioners to be recognized as strategic partners in an organization. We ourselves would like to be seen as essential as the clients we serve. Fortunately, using the three-client approach serves the fourth client well.

“A successful HR department knows and serves all three clients, while retaining its capacity to act with independence and sound judgment.”

Strategic through interdependence

The three-client approach is helpful in framing and addressing issues because of assumptions that underlie it, including interdependence, dialogue, and yes, holistic strategy. But how does it help in the day to day?

1. It helps us in discussions in HR- we keep fluid in our (at times) heated internal discussions about what to do, and where to land on an issue, by asking the following questions. What would the three clients say about this? Are we serving ourselves to their detriment?

2. It helps us in discussions with our clients- The approach provides a frame where we as facilitators can remain grounded and build partnerships. When we can draw out a client— employee, manager, or company— to consider the needs of the others, it can have the effect of converting them to partners from potential antagonists and allows us come up with a solution that will serve all (and be supported by a wide range of champions). Some are willing to consider the frame (hint- those are your leaders) and some refuse (another hint).

3. It helps when we are choosing departmental priorities- in our HR strategic plan, we have three pillars, built around hubs of different initiatives. Stepping back, we realized we had build one hub that each addressed one clients’ primary needs. When communicating with our clients, we know that at least some of the work we are committing to will resonate with them.

4. The approach has also served the fourth client by reaffirming that HR can become a strategic partner through the service of our three main clients. There is nothing more than needs to be done. There is nothing else HR needs to be. We maintain our strategic independence by calling forth our collective interdependence. As we take care of your clients in this interdependent way, we naturally find ourselves at the table.

Try It Out

My hope is that you might use this approach the next time you find yourself in a jam between competing interests within a complex situation. Whether during a team or client conversation, or in a presentation at a leadership meeting, I would be interested to learn of you have applied the approach.