Getting HR Projects out of HR


David Creelman



It is natural for HR to be in charge of processes like recruiting and performance management. It’s also natural for HR to want to take charge in launching new projects such as a mentoring program or onboarding process. However, it may not be in anyone’s best interest for HR to feel it ‘owns’ a program. If HR can create the sense that even though they are the ones running a program, it is management who owns it, then things can run a lot more smoothly.


By owning a program I mean that someone feels they have a responsibility for its success and some control over how it is run. For these purposes I’m not interested in formal issues such as who has the authority to make final decisions about a program.  I’m interested in mindset.

Which mindset do you think best captures HR’s relationship with line managers in your organization?

·         HR ownership.  HR owns HR programs and if they are no good it’s HR’s fault. Managers may complain about the shortcomings of the recruiting process without making any attempt to understand what is involved.  HR simply says “We know what we are doing and we are doing our best.”  This sets up managers as the helpless victims of a bureaucracy.  This is what you might expect to find in a large organization with strong functions.

·         HR is a Servant. Another mindset is that top management owns all programs and HR employees are mere servants. Top management says “do this, do that” and HR is expected to conform—at times plaintively trying to explain why what management is asking for is a bad idea. This is what you might expect in a small organization led by a powerful leadership team where HR is seen as a clerical function.


·         Managers are HR Customers. A third mindset has HR seeing line managers as their customers. This is the common view in well-run organizations and serves the purpose of having an expert department (HR) clearly in charge, but responsive to the needs of their customers (the other managers). The customer model puts the onus on HR to solve any problems.  Also the programs are seen as HR doing ‘HR things’ not the business solving business programs.


·         Management Owns, HR Leads. A final kind of relationship is one where management feels they own HR programs while at the same time they rely on HR to lead the programs. HR brings both expertise and an enterprise-wide view to bear on decisions.

It should be no surprise that I favour the “Management Owns, HR Leads” mindset, so let’s explore this a bit more deeply.

Management Owns, HR Leads
The advantage of management feeling they own HR programs is that they will drive the success of those programs. Furthermore, if management takes ownership it is because they feel it serves a business need. This can lead to more successful and relevant programs while at the same time making life easier for HR.

Consider the example of a business unit head upset because young managers make seemingly stupid mistakes. She thinks that mentoring might be a way to improve their performance. If HR owns the mentoring program they have to fight the battles to get funding, get buy-in and overcome obstacles. They risk having the business unit head blaming them if the program doesn’t work to her satisfaction.  On the other hand if the business unit head feels she owns the program, she will get the budget and people onside to partner with HR and develop something that really works to solve the problem.  If it turns out that the mentoring program needs significantly more investment than initially planned, HR doesn’t want to be the one trying to argue for the ROI; you want the business unit head talking about the cost of mistakes the young managers make and how important this mentoring is gong to be.

A complication is that HR programs typically cut across several departments and that means that you will end up with a number of managers all feeling they own the same program. There will be times when HR needs to step forward and say “We’ve got to make the decision about what’s best for the whole enterprise”. Managers understand that. They know that they won’t have the final say. However, if HR encourages managers to feel they own the programs and the programs exist to solve business problems, then HR will be more effective.

This calls for a subtle kind of HR leadership; a kind of leading which make mangers feel they have control while in fact HR has final authority. It means HR has to modestly stay out of the spotlight even when it has been their quiet guiding hand (and hard behind the scenes work) that led to success.

The ‘Management Owns, HR Leads’ mindset embraces some ambiguity about who is really in charge of HR programs. We often feel ambiguity is a bad thing; but when you have strong relationships, ambiguity can be just the thing to find the best way of working.




About the Author: 

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research providing writing, research and commentary on human capital management.   He is investing much of his time in helping organizations report on human capital. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in the US, Japan, Canada and China. Learn more at

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