How HR helps managers be better leaders - a Workday view

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 30, 2015
Workday's product chief on decentralizing HR and how using the product has changed her own relationship with business partners in HR and finance

Leighanne Levensaler
Leighanne Levensaler, Workday (via the author)

Better connected, digital automation is bringing flatter organizational structures into the enterprise. These changes are having a strong impact on the HR function in particular, because many of the transactional and reporting tasks that have been centralized in recent decades can now flow back out to be fulfilled on the spot by managers and employees.

Forward-looking HR departments can harness these changes to reduce the overhead of day-to-day administration and give more of their focus to strategic questions. They can start to identify where HR can add value to the business, as Leighanne Levensaler, senior VP of products at cloud-based HR and financials vendor Workday, told me this week:

What jobs are the most important, which ones matter, which ones create the most value and what are we doing to differentiate support for those jobs, to be able to really move the company forward?

There's a demand from business leaders for this kind of contribution from the HR function, she added, which means that efficient administration is no longer sufficient as a goal.

If you're complacent and if you're [thinking] that it's fine just making sure you comply, you pay, you support, you service — you are not, by definition, on your way to supporting the value creation of the business. You're not doing what your CEO expects of you and what the business actually needs.

In this new, flatter structure, HR systems like Workday are able to give managers direct, automated access to information and actions that they previously had to ask the HR function to deliver. This brings many previously centralized aspects of HR back into the manager's ambit, with the HR function providing back-up support rather than direct fulfilment. HR becomes "the architect, the enabler," said Levensaler.

HR and the manager

She explained how this new relationship with HR is working in her own role at Workday.

I have seven layers underneath me. I have lots of wonderful people, lots of activity, lots of promotions in my organizations. We're growing rapidly.

My job every day when I get up is leading the people, creating vision and purpose. But goals and measuring results, this is all "HR", but it's me being a people leader and doing my job. If I didn't have the right tool set to do that, I would be ineffective.

I meet with my HR business partner every single week. We talk about very strategic things when we're together. I don't need her to count for me, I don't need for her to send me reports, I don't need to tell her if I'm meeting my plans, I don't need any of that. I don't need her to transact for me. But I do need her to help me with great leadership development.

One of Workday's product differentiations is its ability to provide financials alongside HR, and this is also implemented within the company. Levensaler recounted how this had impacted her routine.

Because we use Workday, I'm empowered. When we added on the financial capability, my job got even better. I wouldn't say easier, but I became much more confident and a great steward of the resources the company entrusts to me.

I have a decent sized budget, I have a lot of headcount, and a lot of expense. My people travel. Now I have full visibility into that and we can manage that appropriately. I know when I'm at a variance, before the quarter ends.

I don't wait for my finance business partner to tell me what happened this quarter and then retrospectively have to say, 'Well it won't happen next quarter.' I can actually [act on it] in the quarter.

Empowerment and fulfilment

This kind of hands-on feedback and control in the hands of managers is becoming more essential as businesses seek out new growth opportunities, she added. It also impacts job satisfaction, she noted.

Every company I know has high growth expectations. I haven't met one that [says] 'Oh, we're fine where we are.' That requires a lot of agility, a lot of speed, opportunistic management.

If you don't have everybody in your organization empowered, if you've only empowered a few people and then a support infrastructure, you're slow. I think a lot of this has to do with speed, sound decisions, empowerment — quite frankly, job fulfillment. I don't know how fulfilled I would be being beholden or waiting for all of this — because the internet teaches us we can get anything whenever we want it.

Thus giving people the information they need to do their jobs well becomes integral to keeping them engaged.

People are trying to spur growth by new products, new services, new market entry, divesting, acquiring, merging. They're trying to do all these things to spur growth, but meanwhile if you're losing your people, your people aren't engaged, you're not getting the productivity you need out of them, if you're creating an unattractive work experience, that's detrimental to the objectives of your business.

My take

An interesting insight into how Workday is 'eating its own dogfood.'

Image credit: Courtesy of Workday.

Disclosure: Workday is a diginomica premier partner.

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