HR must be the model of good leadership or risk being irrelevant

By David Crisp
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/11/2003

Leadership is arguably the most important business issue of the 21st century. For HR it’s a challenge on two levels. The HR team will be expected to help the organization identify, attract and develop the people who can lead the organization. But to create maximum credibility HR should strive to become the best led department in the organization.

HR departments must grow their own leadership skills at a time when the function itself and the expectations it faces are changing rapidly. HR is being expected to step up to a much more demanding strategic role in organizations.

HR people are the best suited to guide the unprecedented changes facing many organizations today, but it won’t be easy. HR departments will be called upon and must be ready to play previously unthinkable leadership roles to manage change.

It is imperative that HR be represented at the senior executive table and in all strategy sessions, that members of the HR department serve on most task-forces and cross-functional teams and that every member of the department understand the evolving role that HR needs to take in integrating the work of many departments to arrive at a satisfactory result in all projects.

This will be a test for statesmanship and leadership skills of HR professionals at every level. Increasingly at the Hudson’s Bay Company, for example, senior HR staff are loaned to other functional areas to facilitate strategy development sessions so that HR’s point of view and good advice are automatically included.

Working this way, HR fundamentals are certain to be integrated more fully into the fabric of changes. Encouraging senior HR managers to learn the necessary facilitation skills is a role for the senior HR leader.

These responsibilities for human resources professionals mean each HR department must examine and continually add to its levels of leadership expertise. It is an opportunity to pilot the entire organization into uncharted waters.

There is no quick fix, but delay in laying the groundwork — hiring the right HR people, developing the right skills and taking on leadership roles — risks letting the HR department become increasingly irrelevant.

New world, new leadership demands

Changes to the workplace and employee attitudes have produced a leadership crisis.

Employee engagement is at distressingly low levels and could remain there for some time. Recent international Gallup surveys show world-wide commitment and engagement of employees is at a peak when first hired, but tails off dramatically in most companies so that ultimately all but 20 per cent become keen on quitting.

A good compensation package is no longer enough to hold onto employees; they want opportunities to make a difference to the organization, to be part of a team, to grow, learn and contribute. All this means leaders must have more advanced skills than in the past.

On top of this, the wide spread adaptation of new technologies is further transforming business and therefore the demands of leadership.

For HR, there is an opportunity to move on from the old, paper-processing days by designing and implementing self-serve systems of all sorts, often via Internet and intranet technology. By giving front-line managers self-service capabilities, HR will have more time to work on organization consulting and change efforts to develop cultures that keep employees engaged and performing at maximum level.

The introduction of new technology also means implementing enormously costly systems that cut across the organization. But it will be up to HR to ensure the focus with any new system is on creating new processes, not automating what already exists.

HR ought to be in the best position to drive these efforts and offer support to the rest of the organization, but HR often lacks the organization engineering expertise that is required. Unfortunately it is a chicken-and-the-egg problem — HR needs systems to make time to learn to develop the right leadership skills in the organization, but it also needs leadership skills immediately to effectively design the systems.

The ability to solve these problems is a defining characteristic of great leadership.

Get on board early

In the past, HR has been accused of dropping the ball by letting IT or even finance groups take the lead in people-intensive developments such as knowledge management, business process re-engineering and even the design of effective HR intranets.

To ensure that doesn’t happen again, HR needs at least two new types of people — those who specialize in consulting internally to improve business performance and others who do financial and detailed analyses of business processes to assist with costing and pay-back of new structures, policies, programs or systems where HR should be helping lead the design. Success at these strategic tasks will prove the value of HR’s role in the leading these changes.

As silos disappear, HR will need people with financial and budget analyst skills to work with finance and IT in cost justifying substantial spending on new systems that are inevitable.

Already there is a decline in the number of HR clerical staff and a greater emphasis on a wider range of these professional skills not typically found previously in HR.

HR leaders must also learn to work effectively with peer groups across the organization.

Fortunately with HR receiving new emphasis in university and college programs, a pool of individuals with a wider range of skills and the confidence of new graduates is developing. Senior HR managers will need to guide their integration and learn to utilize their skills efficiently.

Throughout the change-over process, HR’s own leadership will be tested and will come under intense scrutiny. More and more, line management looks to HR to provide more effective practices and processes for retention of talent, succession planning and ensuring bench strength at lower ranks.

Meanwhile, back at HR HQ

Aside from the transformations that are both a requirement for and a product of the introduction of new technologies, a number of traditional HR roles will also become increasingly complex. This will be the case for, collective bargaining, health and safety, compensation design, day-to-day manager support for employee problems, discipline, human rights, harassment prevention, employment equity. Some challenges will require strategies tailored to allow for individual choices by an increasingly diverse workforce. With more attention to the needs of child and elder care, part-time work, job sharing and related adaptations of what used to be “normal” work arrangements. Normal is disappearing in favour of individualization.

To successfully meet the double-barrelled leadership challenges facing HR, it’s important to stay focused on the on the larger vision, on the horizon and prepare the skills of HR people before the rest of the organization needs them. The task of keeping all department members focused on the big picture falls squarely on the senior HR leader and represents a true test of personal leadership skills.

The fundamentals of how these newer challenges change HR have been clear for some time and most HR departments are somewhere in the middle of this evolution whether they wish to be or not. It is essential for HR to develop the skills to play a leading part.

Dave Crisp recently began speaking and consulting on practical leadership skills after 14 years as the senior vice-president, human resources for Hudson’s Bay Company’s 70,000 staff. He has also practised HR in hospitals, education and union organizations. He can be reached at dcrisp@rogers.com.

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