• Barbie Winterbottom

5 Imperatives for HR Leadership

Throughout my career and experience I have struggled with folks (in HR) who have somehow become passive, lack a sense of ownership and in general isolate themselves in what I call the "HR Bubble". This single thread thinking has created a perception that HR people are rigid, lack innovation and creativity and don't have the capacity to understand complex business problems and in general are relegated to a silo of transactional and administrative tasks vs being a fully integrated member of the business and trusted, sought after counsel. We are so much more than administrative and transactional and it was with that lens I started looking more critically to discover why and what we can do to change this perception.


It was in my last 5 years of working at the executive level that I began to notice patterns in behaviors and more so, the lack of certain attributes and behaviors within the HR community and I started taking note. It was through this exercise and reflecting on my 25 year career that I recognized what I believe to be 5 critical elements every HR practitioner and every leader should exhibit.


1. Be a Business Leader 1st & a functional or HR leader 2nd

2. Be Agile & Adaptable

3. Influence & Inform Business Decisions

4. Bring Forward Practical Solutions

5. Be Courageous in All You Do


It is in these 5 Imperatives that the ability to drive meaningful conversation, respect for the art and science of the work we do, creativity and innovation blossoms and change happens. For so many years we have heard HR folks begging and demanding a seat at the table, and I argue that for those exhibiting these 5 key Elements, you are invited and asked back to the table time and time again because you are adding value to the conversations happening around the table. Let's take a deeper look at these 5 key Elements and why I believe they are critical to success.


1. Be a Business Leader 1st & a functional or HR leader 2nd-Strong HR professionals understand the businesses they serve. It is no longer sufficient to be the people who merely, hire and fire, administer payroll and benefits, facilitate orientation and plan monthly birthday events. It is critical to speak and understand the language of your business. What are your EBITDA goals? Who are your competitors? Where does your company rank among the competition? What metrics are critical for measuring the success or failure of the business? What does the SWOT look like for your organization? What is the breakdown of attrition within your organization and what do those numbers tell you? What is the story the people data is telling? Are there industry specific acronyms you need to know? What's the company annual revenue? Are you publicly traded? Have you read the most recent letter to shareholders? What is your stock price? Who is on your Board of Directors? Are you owned by a PE firm? Who are they, what other holdings do they have? These are just a few examples of business questions every person within the HR team must be able to answer, and if you can't, you are falling short.


2. Be Agile & Adaptable- STOP being the HR POLICE. This one more than any others is one I would like to shout from the rooftops! HR folks, you must stop allowing your business leaders to relegate your value to policy enforcement and disciplinary action. When HR teams and employees are bound by rigid policy constructs and enforcement, it inhibits creativity, innovation and erodes trust. Leaders who want each and every aspect of the "what-if" scenario spelled out in a policy is NOT someone who should be leading people or a company. A desire for this level of black and white rigidity is fear based and creates huge chasms pitting HR against "everyone else" and provides the perfect opportunity for managers to place blame vs take ownership. Think about it, how many times have you seen or heard of a manager (notice I didn't use the term leader) saying to an employee something like, "Well, it's not me (or it's out of my control) , that's HR's policy, if you have an issue with it, go to HR"?

By falling into this trap, you are essentially binding your hands and boxing yourself into a corner, and when you need to make swift changes, or pivot, you can't because you are bound by a 400 page handbook of policies that you now have to take 6 months to review and re-write simply to make one, small change.

Policy overkill takes the responsibility and ownership of leading and decision making away from people leaders and lands it squarely on the shoulders of HR...and that is NOT how healthy cultures thrive. Healthy cultures and innovation thrive in organizations where people have the freedom and flexibility to be innovative and creative. Where they (watch what I do here...) TRUST that making mistakes is not the kiss of death and they have decision making power over their experience. Agility & Adaptability are underpinned by trust. Trust in your employer, trust in your co-workers, trust in your leaders and trust in yourself to make the best decisions possible with the information you have.


3. Influence & Inform Business Decisions- Anyone who has ever reported directly to me has heard me say...one fundamental function of HR is to help influence and inform decisions, if we aren't doing that, why are we here?


HR leaders we are crucial to keeping the delicate balance of Employee and Employer in tact. We must use Data, Experience and our gut Instinct to influence and inform business decisions, ensuring the human element is always taken into consideration before a decision is made or executed. Any one of these (data, experience, instinct) alone can leave you without the full picture and potentially making the wrong decision.


We all know data can be manipulated to tell just about any story we want it to tell, so it's important to incorporate the right data, ensure its accuracy and combine it with the narrative to illustrate the "why" behind wanting to make a change or to show why making a change might not be the right (or wrong) thing to do. When it comes to decisions in the people space, data alone is often simply not enough.


Over the years I have seen many HR professionals fail to ask for opinions or tap into their networks for what's working and not working in other organizations and merely rely on their own individual experience, placing unrealistic expectations on themselves to already "have all the answers", and we don't...no one does. By tapping into our own experiences AND the collective experiences of a larger community, we ALL get better and accelerate our ability to move initiatives ahead, make fewer mistakes all while building relationships and credibility.


We must also trust our instincts or our "gut". Those little twinges we feel when something just isn't quite right are natures way of indicating we are going down the wrong path and we must pay attention. Too often we override our instinct to save time, just get it done, to avoid confrontation or because we doubt ourselves. Have you ever gone against your gut instinct and had a good outcome? I have not, nor has anyone I have ever asked. Your instinct is cultivated over time, based on your experiences and your values. Tap into it, use it to help guide you. Your instinct will never fail you. When you combine the power of data, experience and instinct you are able to illustrate, influence and inform decisions in big ways, adding to your credibility and better outcomes for your business.


4. Bring Forward Practical Solutions-I have jokingly said many times, if you want to take a simple concept and make it incredibly complex and difficult, give it to an HR person. You know what I'm talking about about...we want to solve for all the "what-ifs" and potential issues that could arise, and so we overcomplicate even the simplest things. It's important to realize when working in HR that we are not making widgets, or dealing in absolutes. Each person is different with their own experiences, perspectives and beliefs. There is simply no way to account for all the variables that "could" happen in any given scenario. We must create programs, policies and guidance for the 90% of the situations we deal with on a regular basis and the 10% of variables we handle as they happen. We cannot solve for all situations and by trying, we lack standard work, operational efficiency and create chaos.


How many times have you gone back and solved for the same issue time and time again because your team lacked enough standard work to understand what has been addressed and what is a variable? Standard work exists outside of Operations, and we must all understand the value in simplifying our work, which frees up brain space for creativity and innovation.


We also need to bring forward practical solutions. If a solution takes more than 5 minutes or an interpretive dance to explain, it's likely overly complicated and needs to be re-tooled. The tech side of HR has exploded over the past 5 years and there are tech solutions sold every minute to "solve" each and every aspect of HR and people challenges. However, if you don't know what you're solving for, if you don't understand the drivers and behavioral or systemic changes needed, you will spend a lot of time, money, energy and credibility on a technology "solution" only to still have the problem.


Great technology, implemented properly with realistic expectations of outcomes can be amazing. Technology in the HR space can help speed process, automate tactical functions and connect formerly disparate systems. What it will never do, however, is solve your "people problems". PEOPLE solve People problems and great technology can be extremely helpful in the people space, but not as a stand alone solution. There are incredible practical solutions available to solve very complex people problems, and they are often the most basic in nature and involve little to no technology...they involve people and hard work. They involve digging into the hard stuff and getting underneath the superficial facade or symptom. Be sure you are fully aware of what is causing your issues, what you're solving for and exhaust simple solutions before resorting to that silver bullet software that we all know simply does not exist.


Approach any big technology changes with a People-Process-Systems methodology and you will save yourself a lot of time and frustration.


Without practical solutions and standard work, everything is a variable and you become the mouse on the wheel chasing every situation each time it happens with little to no progress.


5. Courage-At the risk of using a word I fear will quickly become overused, it takes a lot of courage to do HR work and to do it well. Each and every day, we bring ourselves to work knowing we are going to have difficult conversations, provide unwelcomed feedback, challenge a senior leader, call out something unethical, or simply uncalled for.


Many times, HR practitioners are called on when all else has failed, and it takes courage to do the jobs we do. We are not licensed therapists, yet we listen to deeply personal issues, fears, concerns, family matters, relationship matters and more. We are not the CEO, yet we are looked to as the face of the business and often we are the "emotional compass" for the organization.


We have to find ways to allow enough vulnerability in, without being perceived as weak or too emotional. I share with you, showing vulnerability is the OPPOSITE of weakness, it is strength in its finest form. Hr folks are scrappy and resilient and we have grit. We have to challenge more, speak up louder and be the voice for what we believe is right. We have to respectfully and consistently challenge, which, I know, can be exhausting, but that's the job we have. We must also have the courage to OWN our mistakes, acknowledge when we are out of our depth and ask for help and and always learn and be curious.


As I was growing my career, I was often perplexed watching HR leaders far more senior than me who were invited to the table and they chose to sit quietly and "not make waves". Soon after, they were no longer invited to the illustrious "table", or if they were, it was in ceremony only and certainly not for actual participation. You may ask yourself why this happens, you may have experienced this in your own career. I believe it happens to some who are insecure, fail to show courage and challenge, more concerned about keeping their job than they are about adding value and meaningful contribution and discourse to the conversation. That's right...discourse. It is our job as HR professionals to bring forward the hard issues, to open the dialogue around uncomfortable conversations and to be true stewards of the trust our employees have in us by being the voice for those who do not have the opportunity to be heard.


Now more than ever before, HR leaders must go far beyond compliance, terminations and event planning. We MUST be business drivers and speak up and speak out as an advocate for change when needed, for living the company values and for shining a light in the dark places so every corner becomes a bright and welcoming space within your organization.

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