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The best HR is invisible

More and more companies are discovering the strategic benefits of a less centralized human resources function.

The best HR is invisible
[Images: neyro2008/iStock; Meireles Neto/Unsplash]

There was a time not long ago when “getting HR involved” generally meant diffusing an employee relations issue. Twentieth-century HR was all about control, enforcing compliance around hiring, training, development, performance, talent management, culture, holiday parties, facilities, and more. The HR function was generally reactive rather than strategic.


Times have changed. The rise of 21st-century HR has given birth to a new breed of HR executive, with a much broader skill set, who is leading the transformation of what’s possible in the field and reinventing HR as a data-driven strategic function critical to an organization’s success.

This shift removes some of the us versus them friction that framed HR as an outlier to the business functions and embraces a new approach based on partnership, accountability, and shared outcomes.

You can trace the tipping point of this shift back to the creation of one particular position: the HR business partner role. Rather than keeping HR isolated as a centralized team, this model embedded HR practitioners inside the business functions they support, allowing them to integrate more deeply into business units.

These embedded relationships allowed HR executives to have a much clearer view on an organization’s health, turnover risks, and culture shifts–enabling them to be more proactive in addressing challenges and developing people strategies more closely aligned with the organization’s mission and goals.

Contemporary HR is more focused on providing strategic value to drive business outcomes. The focus is less on control and ownership, and more on understanding and aligning the people strategy to business goals, supporting and empowering the employees to do their best work.


Here is a look at several organizations with HR practices that reflect this shift in approach.


In ultra-competitive Silicon Valley, the battle for talent is legendary. If hiring, talent development, and retention aren’t priorities for the executive team, you have little chance of success.

Few know this better than Bryan Power, a veteran HR executive who led global people teams at Google, Square, and Yahoo. Early in his career, Power worked for a product executive at Google who assigned strategic HR outcomes to each of his direct reports–hiring to one person, talent management to another, employee communications to a third, etc. This created a structure that made each leader accountable for the development of the global organization.

Later, at Square, Power implemented a similar ownership mentality as the company designed programs and built processes to scale out of the startup phase. Like most fast-growing tech companies, Square had many new managers who were quickly expanding into leadership roles for the first time.

Power understood that their success would be largely driven by his team’s ability to get them trained as managers as quickly as possible. He also understood that for these new managers to take this development challenge seriously and invest the right amount of time and commitment, it had to be driven by the top.


So Power and his team enlisted the company’s top executives including Square’s CEO and key members of the executive team to teach manager training modules. “When managers think of these people challenges as their own issues to resolve, rather than issues for HR to solve,” Power says, “that ownership and accountability transforms the organization.”


What can an iconic 73-year-old toy manufacturer show us about progressive HR? Quite a lot.

Last year Mattel brought in a new chief people officer to transform its organization and modernize capabilities. Amy Thompson, an HR veteran with leadership roles at Starbucks and Ticketmaster, was lured from her position as Toms’s chief people officer to lead an HR transformation effort within the organization.

She brought with her a new leader-led model of HR, where managers are given the tools and support to evaluate the talent and capability health of their organizations and then develop the people strategy alongside their HR business partners.

This shift toward collaborative talent mapping put the planning focus on leaders as opposed to HR. The human resource team provided a general framework, then let the business design the organizational structure that best served that unit’s goals and deliverables. They also translated their values into behaviors needed at each level of the organization.


Managers are then empowered to weave these behaviors throughout the employee experience life cycle. This shift put the onus on managers to own their employee’s experience end to end and allowed HR to focus on more strategic initiatives to support the business.

“Especially in a creative industry like ours, talent core and inseparable from our corporate and brand strategies, so we need our leaders to own both,” Thompson says. “This allows the HR role to become a more consultative function with a much higher business impact than in the past.”


How does a human resources team at a high-growth company ensure employees in the field are supported? That’s the daily challenge faced by Equinox SVP of People Services, Kelly Rew-Porter.

As Equinox continues to grow (currently at 95 clubs across the U.S., Canada, and London), HR had to find a way to partner with field operations. The People Services teams create the frameworks for HR services spanning compliance, recruiting, training, and development and then work directly with their general managers and field leaders to implement them locally.

One of the core advantages driving this adoption is that all of their GMs are hired from within, so their familiarity with the operational standards, culture, HR practices, and programs allows for autonomy and continuity.


“The perception of the role of HR is changing,” Rew-Porter says. “It used to be ‘why is HR in the room,’ now it’s ‘why isn’t HR in the room.'”

As more organizations shift toward a 21st-century model of HR, the very nature of the function will begin to blend and integrate more into the business itself. Relinquishing control may feel counterproductive to legacy HR, but ceding it may actually be the key to unleashing the people team’s full potential–and impact.

About the author

Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify, an HR executive search and consulting firm that helps companies like Hootsuite, NPR, and SpaceX navigate the future of work. He is also the cofounder of the HR Open Source initiative.