HR Leadership: Harnessing The Wherewithal Within

By Anya Levykh

“HR professionals are uniquely well placed to help current leadership produce the next generation of leaders by establishing leadership brand, assessing the gaps in the present leadership against this brand and investing in future leaders.”
~ Dave Ulrich & Wayne Brockbank, The HR Value Proposition

Anyone who has caught an episode—or four—of Mad Men has revelled in the seeming simplicity of the corporate structure of the 1960s, where men wore the pants, women ran the typing pool, and a whiskey neat would be poured from the carafe on your desk at the drop of a hat. As for HR, that was just a glorified term for the people who pushed papers and dealt with firing Smith when the boss decided he was tired of looking at those darned whiskers.

Fast-forward to the late 80s. HR has become the feel-good, “warm-and-fuzzy” department, still responsible for the hiring and firing, but also responsible for making everyone a “team player” and creating a “culture” of happy workers and strong, charismatic leaders. Cut to clips of field trips, folk songs and marshmallows.

Today, HR has morphed into a powerful force for good, an awakened Jedi knight, if you will, ready to fight the forces of recession, competition, shifting global economies and a growing clamour among workers for things like “personal growth,” “work-life balance,” and “wellness.” Buzzwords like “strategic leadership,” “values” and “collaborative learning” abound. But, what does it all mean?

Leadership: Know thyself—and others

“Leadership is an overused and often-misunderstood word,” says Daniel Skarlicki, Edgar Kaiser chair of organizational behaviour at the UBC Sauder School of Business. “There used to be a school of thought that said leadership was something you were born with, but what we’ve discovered is that you wouldn’t have picked some of the most effective leaders out of a crowd. They’re not just simply standing there looking strong. While there are some between-person differences as to natural skills and ability, it’s not about a boss who leads from a position in the hierarchy. It’s much more personal than that. Leadership today is the capacity to create and shape your future, and encourage others to do the same. And this is a set of very specific skills that can be observed, studied and learned.”

So is leadership then just a task list, a series of checks to be made on an upwardly-mobile career path? “We want to believe this is a mindset, that people bring it to life, that it’s not a checklist, that it’s a part of what we do and how we do things,” says Stella Cooper, project manager, learning and recognition, at BCAA. “A leader should create relationships with people on a human level, not just on a business level. And you do that by being genuine, caring about people, and by caring about what you do.”

“Leadership is a verb, something you do, it’s not just a trait,” continues Skarlicki. “Anyone and everyone in an organization can lead and be a leader, but it can’t occur without an understanding of what that is. We tend to think that leadership is ‘out there,’ but, in fact, leadership development is about self-development. You need to know yourself, who you are, because no one will follow you if they don’t know who you are.”

This “know thyself” mantra is certainly a popular one, as evidenced by the time and money spent on individual mentorship programs by many large organizations. But is it enough? Definitely not, according to Mathé Grenier, principal and western region lead at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions.

“There currently exists a leadership gap in many organizations,” says Grenier. “In other words, the leadership that organizations have today is not sufficient. Part of the reason is that there has been a very strong focus on developing a leader at the behavioural level, i.e. what does this leader need to know, what training does he need, what skill does he need to develop, what experience does he have—without necessarily looking at the organizational practices and systems that enable the right leadership to occur. That focus on the individual leader is critical, but it is not sufficient.”

According to Grenier, coaching, for instance, is a very strong solution to developing those leaders’ capability and awareness. However, what you then have is a collection of individuals, each working with their own coach, progressing at their own pace and perhaps even making great personal strides.

And what’s wrong with that?

“Ask the senior HR leader, ‘What are the themes that have come out in terms of your leaders developing the capabilities that they need to move the organization forward collectively?’ suggests Grenier.“More often than not, the answer is ‘I have no idea.’ Each leader is having their own confidential conversations with their own coach; every coach has their own individual approach, and there is no way to collectively harness the development effort, and know whether or not you are closing the gap. Then back up one step further and ask, ‘What is the gap that you are trying to close?’ and often the answer is, ‘Well, we’re not quite sure. We know on an individual level, but on an organizational level, we’re not quite sure.’ So how is that helping your business in terms of building leadership capacity collectively?”

Collective consciousness

The key to building that collective leadership capacity, according to Grenier, is through creating a leadership culture that joins individuals as a cohesive whole. Skarlicki agrees and elaborates.

“What we do at Sauder when we work with companies is combine people from all areas of a business—which people often don’t like,engineers like to hang out with engineers, sales reps with other sales reps—but we get them to work together, to communicate and collaborate, and they begin to think more in terms of the bigger picture,“ says Skarlicki. “‘Hey, that poor guy in Marketing really does have a tough go of it. I have to figure out how to work with that person and help him.’ We change the conversation, we change what people are talking about. So rather than talking about HR in terms of selections and training, we talk about what is the vision of the company. And when you start changing that conversation to a more visionary focus, that’s when you move from management to leadership.”

And the difference between the two?

“By management, we mean doing things right, meeting deadlines,” explains Skarlicki. “By leadership, in contrast, we mean doing the right thing. What is the long-term picture? What are the consequences of each of my decisions on my company, my community and my family? If you give a ladder to a manager, a manager knows what to do with that ladder, but if you give a ladder to a leader, the leader will first ask, ‘What wall am I climbing up? Where is this ladder leaning? Where am I going, because I don’t want to start climbing until I know where I am going to end up.’ Of course, today we need both managers and leaders to run a company, but companies today are, by far, over-managed and under-led.”

This idea of cross-training is something Cooper is very familiar with. “One of the things we try to work on [at BCAA] is creating cross-training opportunities and opportunities to make cross-silo decisions.” Each year, both managers and employees are chosen from every division in the organization to come together and to look at the bigger picture and learn. Cooper calls this focus essential. “From a business perspective, it’s making sure everyone understands where the company is going and what their role in the company is, and how they contribute to that goal.”

That understanding is what Grenier refers to as a strong, holistic leadership culture; an area she says is often overlooked. “By focusing on building a holistic leadership culture, what you’re doing is creating a community of leaders that are all aligned and engaged, pointing in the same direction, and engaged to support each other to achieve the common objectives.”

Defining strategy and vision

The problem, unfortunately, is that those objectives are often buried in murky visions and undefined strategies. When it comes to defining strategic leadership within the realm of HR, “the word ‘strategic’ is really the key,” says Grenier.

“It’s about having a very clear understanding of the strategies of the organization, where the organization is heading, and why. Also, understanding the business metrics and fundamentals that are going to be required to execute that strategy, and from there being able to provide insight and guidance on the human capitol implications and needs that are going to be essential levers and factors in implementing the strategy,” explains Grenier before summarizing. “In essence, it’s about having a clear understanding of the business that you’re in, the environment that you’re in and how that’s evolving:what the strategic response has been in the past, the strategy that the organization is moving towards, and the kind of leadership that is required to execute on that strategy from an HR perspective.”

Skarlicki adds, “Strategic leadership means also understanding the vision of the CEO or the organization, and how we are going to contribute to that vision? It’s much less about a checklist and more about a set of values. What do we really care about, what are the many ways that are innovative and creative that can contribute and add value to the organization’s strategy?”

“It’s about being able to formulate and communicate what the strategy really means to every person in an organization, including someone who may be at the bottom of the organization,” says Cooper. “So, if we have a strategic plan, what does that mean for me, for instance, working in HR in the training field? How does that make sense in terms of what I do, and how does what I do matter at the end of the day?”

Innovation and Pain

Once the strategy and vision are clear, the question then becomes how to communicate and instil that effectively into your workforce to inspire company-wide change and innovation. “One of the problems when a company starts trying to change is that we are used to looking at things from an operational perspective, so we focus on restructuring and re-organization,” says Skarlicki. “What we really need, however, is something much simpler and more dramatic, something that catches your attention. New rules and policies on their own aren’t going to cut it.”

What’s required, says Grenier, is a group of people who can think innovatively, step outside of their boxes and brainstorm in new ways. However, getting people to do that takes more than a command. It requires an entirely different system. “You could introduce a mass training effort, – let’s say a two-day training course on how to think innovatively,” offers Grenier. “Great, everyone comes out of there pumped, and yet your performance management system is still rewarding consistent, standard, play-by-the-rules behaviour, so it doesn’t matter how wonderful the training was, you just invested a whole of money on something that’s not going to have any significant change.”

Creating a new system that rewards innovation and change rather than consistency, can cause a certain amount of upheaval and stress—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Skarlicki. “One of the jobs of a leader is actually to create tension; in other words, to create pain,” he explains. “What leaders do is create tension between the truth about where we are today and where we want to go. What you are trying to do is create a tension where people see that they have to change and do and be something different. Innovation is not likely to happen unless you see a real need for it. We can talk about it as much as we want, but if there’s no tension, then nothing happens.”

What about the bottom line?

“Today, HR must be in the business of innovation, of shaping a new future rather than perpetuating the old,” continues Skarlicki, “because if you’re not changing, and every other company out there is, you’re going to get left in the dust, so we have no choice.”

However, despite the fact that innovation does not always translate directly into financial measurement, it would be naïve, says Grenier, to ignore why we are in business in the first place. It’s just that money is not the only consideration.

For instance, “the relationship between training and financial performance is not direct,” states Skarlicki. “Training might improve service quality, which then might improve customer satisfaction, which then might improve repeat business and loyalty, which then improves the financials. So the relationship between the metrics is not a direct one, but you must understand the business model and how it gets there, and then you can start measuring the intermediary steps. One of the most powerful tools we have to work with is the Balanced Scorecard (BSC). And the BSC says there is more to an effective business than just the financials. If we are successful, how will our customers see us differently? How will our processes run differently? How will our people view our company differently? The beauty of the BSC is that it has broadened our ideas of what it means to be effective.”

An example is the internal official engagement survey conducted at BCAA, which “tells us how well our company is being led by the executives and management,” says Cooper. “In the past four years, we have been named one of the top 50 employers in Canada, and that tells us that the climate that we are creating at BCAA is a one where employees want to stay and do their best in.”

And that’s what it boils down to in the end. By paying attention to the “leadership triangle” of individual capacity, collective leadership culture, and matching systems and processes, says Grenier, you realize your strategy and provide alignment “from the top down” – and leadership throughout the entire team.

(PeopleTalk: Winter 2010)

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