In many organizations, the role of Human Resources leaders has been to advise and counsel other business leaders. Relationships of deep trust and open communication are built over years of working together, where the HR person and the business person both benefit. The business leader benefits from having a safe place in which to wrestle with leadership challenges and decisions, and the HR person benefits from being a valued confidante, mentor and coach. It’s often mutually fulfilling. The relationship deepens. Both parties may grow significantly in the process. Some of my most treasured professional and personal relationships have been born of this dynamic, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
It can also be a very limiting model for the business and for HR professionals. Being in service is comfortable, and gratifying. You feel good at the end of the day for having helped your partner work through a difficult situation or decision. Yet the decision is ultimately someone else’s. The HR leader is absolved of accountability. In what other leadership roles is this the norm or acceptable?
For many HR leaders, achieving a seat at the table is the primary goal. From this seat, we can be heard, or offer an opinion. Too often however, that opinion is on what other leaders should do, rather than a point of view on what’s right for the business – one that we can own and be accountable for the outcome. We must shift our thinking from having earned the right to be at the table, to having earned the right, and the responsibility, to lead.
In order to step into this leadership role, we must first examine the some limiting beliefs that are common in our profession, and bust a few myths.
- Leaders are business people in revenue-generating roles, with big titles.
Hogwash. Leaders are people who set a strategic course for the company, create value for customers and stakeholders, develop, inspire and enable others to achieve results, and serve as role models for the company’s vision and values. These traits can be embodied by anyone, at any level, in any functional area. They are not the purview of sales, product and operations folks. There is leadership talent in every corner of our organizations and we miss out on innovative solutions by selectively listening only to those in sanctioned leadership roles.
- Our customer is the employee, our client is the line organization.
Nope. The customer is the customer. When employees are highly satisfied and engaged, they are much more likely to deliver an outstanding customer experience. And that’s a great place to start. But where can we add value directly to the customer experience versus indirectly through employees? For example, one of HR’s core capabilities is training and education. That capability could be used to improve the customer experience. Similarly, rather than treating line business partners as clients, where can we get our hands dirty and directly improve business operations? Our analytical skills could be put to good use here. We can add value. We’ll only know by becoming intimately familiar with the needs of our customers (the real ones who pay for our products and services). For me, taking leadership roles outside of the HR career path has been immensely helpful in this process. Look for opportunities to lead a product launch, open a new market or tear apart and rebuild a core business process. You’ll learn more than you expect and begin to see your customer in new ways.
- Focusing on compliance helps keep our organization safe.
Sure. But safe doesn’t grow. Many HR folks have been taught that it’s their job to be keepers of the rules, and to ensure that the company stays out of hot water. Just like the advisor role, this is a distanced role, an “I told you so” position. It’s our job to help define the boundaries for strategies and practices in alignment with the company’s core purpose and vision. Boundaries imply freedom within a framework, adaptability and fluidity. Rules set limits on action. They are very different. In a business climate that is increasingly more complex, with a high degree of change, to be a “rule keeper” is to inherently freeze your organization in one particular context and block change. A boundary keeper, on the other hand, makes space for messiness and risk, creativity and innovation. A boundary keeper makes it safe for the organization to explore the edges of its strategic options, and helps guide the right choices at the right time, reducing the need to let the rules make choices for us.So if we free ourselves from these myths, what does our role become? What does a leader do?
Leaders Set strategy
It starts with a deep understanding of the competitive landscape, and how your organization differentiates itself. Shop the competition, get feedback from people outside your industry and outside your functional expertise as input to the strategy-setting soup. Pull a diverse team together to stimulate the best thinking. Strategy development is a highly collaborative process that undulates between exploring a wide range of possibilities and making surgical decisions. It requires us to look at the business as a whole system within the context of competitive, regulatory, technological and social trends. Staying in your functional lane prevents the best thinking from emerging.
At the same time, as an HR leader you have a unique role to play in developing your organization’s strategic focus. The culture and vision of your organization serve as the decision making, go/no go criteria, that act as guardrails on your growth strategy. Be willing to challenge your peers when strategic choices bump up against those guardrails. Be willing to test assumptions. Be willing to highlight the impact on people and culture that your strategic choices will have.
Leaders Drive Value Creation
Your company’s people practices are core business processes, just as essential as product development, go-to-market pathways, operations or distribution channels. Who you hire defines your capabilities. How quickly you develop them meters the pace of your growth. How you do business defines who will do business with you. All of these choices and processes are building blocks to your business model and determine whether people will be a core differentiator or a constraint.
Having a clear assessment of your people and practices then gives you a platform from which to innovate. Where can you take low-value work out of the system and focus people on what matters most to customers? How can cost savings be turned into growth-generating investments? One of my favorite tools for this is the Business Model Canvas developed by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur and found in their book Business Model Generation. It enables you to work with the variables that create customer value, play up your differentiators and reframe the competitive context. With a clear and engaging strategy, and a business model that aligns the organization to deliver, our next step is to develop and enable people to act.
Leaders Develop and Inspire People
This should be our sweet spot. We know how to hire people, onboard, train, manage performance and develop careers. Others come to us for those services. Unfortunately the flipside of our service orientation is that we often put the HR team at the back of the line and focus on other parts of the organization first. Is the HR team getting the best of what we have to offer? Are we hiring innovators or administrators? Are we developing the next generation of versatile business leaders? Where does an HR career go?
Make your department a magnet for talent from other parts of the business, a fun place to work, and great team to be a part of. Be the best boss your folks have ever worked with. That means being present and patient. Teach, coach, mentor. When you focus your attention on the executive team, the board, or other business units, your team feels it. One simple step is to pilot career development programs on your own team first so that they know you are investing in their growth, and so that they can be advocates for the process in other parts of the company. Go first, and set the pace.
Leaders Model the Way
If you don’t wholeheartedly believe in the vision, mission and values of your organization, work somewhere else. As HR leaders, people in our companies watch our actions and decisions closely and expect that we will embody what the company stands for. Yes, that’s a high bar. It’s a role with symbolic weight. And it’s really fun to show people that it can be real. It’s fun to watch the skepticism dissolve when people see that the company really does make decisions based on its values.
While the CEO is often the one to make the inspiring speech or kick off the big company event, your personal leadership style says volumes about what the company rewards and tolerates. There are certain messages that can only come from you. There are times when the organization needs to hear your voice, when they need to see your face, when your leadership presence (or absence) sends a clear signal about what the company really holds dear. Step out from the behind-closed-doors advisor role, and lead.
Where do I start?
Shifting one’s thinking is a major step forward. Shifting the focus of our time, resources and energy, now that’s the harder part. Here are a few ways you might reflect on your leadership role.
Where do you spend your time, and to whom do you give your attention? Make a pie chart that shows how much time you are spending with each of the following groups:
- Executive team and Board
- Other business partners or “client groups”
- Your HR team
- Total company or general employee population
- Customers and community
Today’s business environment is fast-moving, ever-changing and increasingly complex. The HR function has evolved from being primarily transactional (administering practices and policies), to more consultative (advising leaders on talent strategy, building adaptive organizations and enhancing culture). A positive step forward indeed, but we cannot stop there. The consultative role leaves us distanced from the heartbeat of the company. Do you want to be known for having done something to move the company forward, or for having told an executive what to do? The next phase is for HR leaders to shape strategy, build businesses and truly lead alongside our peers in other parts of the business.
Yes, there is a stack of work on your desk. Yes, the day-to-day fires will pop up and require your attention. And yes, it is certainly easier to administer and advise than to take risks and be bold. But there is deep wisdom in our community. There is insight, there is innovation, and there is rock star talent.
Stop advising, start leading.
About Kristi McFarland
Kristi McFarland joined New Seasons Market in March 2014 as chief people officer, responsible for all aspects of the company’s human resources practices in support of more than 3,000 staff and for continuing to strengthen New Seasons Market’s position as a progressive employer. She has also led the new store opening team and plays an integral role in shaping the company’s growth strategy. With 20 years of experience in retail and consumer products, McFarland understands that great customer experiences are created by great employee experiences and deeply rooted in the company’s vision, mission, and values. Previously, she served as vice president of people and culture at Peet’s Coffee and Tea, where she led the human resources function; led global leadership development for Gap Inc.; and held HR and organizational development roles for Banana Republic and Williams-Sonoma. McFarland believes in creating a culture where people can grow and foster their full potential in support of the company’s mission. She has spoken at conferences about her passion for employee engagement, company culture, and innovation. She’s committed to building the capabilities that a company needs to grow while enabling the unique culture and customer experience to flourish.
 Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Business Model Generation (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2010), 18-19.