Are you tough enough? Has your mettle been tested in the heat of the fire? Have you been on the front lines of change when it was just you (and your points of view) attempting to take the hill?
I ask this because I believe it’s important to be tested as a leader who is aspiring to new levels. Without this testing you’ll never know if you have what it takes to enter that hallowed territory reserved for the few who can claim leadership in the trenches. It’s this kind of leadership that I believe more HR professionals should be willing to step into.
HR generally relies on the folks in the ‘business line’ to make the tough decisions: innovative product line launch, new revenue idea, final decision to retrench and reduce the workforce, etc. Those bottom-line decisions are for the folks with titles outside of HR, right? Sure, HR is the strategic business partner who frames the case, provides the thought leadership and necessary tools from the toolkit – enabling and partnering with the business to make decisions. However, the strategic HR leader who has truly ‘arrived’ is quite intentionally placing herself in the position of owning those tough business decisions – as much as the other business leaders would.
Unfortunately, it’s completely conceivable that HR can get, well….soft. Meaning, we may easily (or even happily) find ourselves in a position of luxury where the difficult decisions are left to our colleagues in other functions. If that’s true, we almost assuredly never really grow as professionals. We will never lay claim to that crucible experience where we attain the victorious outcomes, stretching ourselves to new leadership levels.
The big question is, ‘are we willing to take the heat?’
As those HR leaders who have been in the field for several years and made progressively responsible moves will attest to, leadership is tough work. It requires the need to have the courage of your convictions. In 2010, HR Executive Online published an article containing similar points – an article that I believe still holds true today. One section noted that “many HR executives second-guess themselves. Unsure of their own beliefs, they wait for signals or orders from the CEO and senior management team.” If HR leaders have truly assumed their ‘seats at the table’ (an expression I’ve grown weary of!), then we must, by default, operate with courageous leadership. We must be willing to take the heat.
Sometimes, that heat may come internally where you deem a certain organizational decision to have negative ripple effects on morale, sustainability, talent capacity, etc. If this happens, it is incumbent upon you as an HR leader to speak up – regardless of how unpopular it is. One of my leadership credos is ‘to have the courage to make decisions even when unpopular or unsolicited.’
Sitting in the top seats – or even near them – means unpopularity. It means that many folks will not like your views – they may even confuse those views with their feelings about you as a person. I fear that too many HR leaders are entirely too concerned with staff happiness which can easily translate into passive leadership – and, in turn, an unwillingness to take the heat.
Being willing to take the heat must also come with having your facts. Data, data, data. You need proof points. You need to have, at the ready, statistics – statistics whose sources have been clearly vetted and widely used. And, be certain that you aren’t carrying innate biases on the subject at hand and therefore simply looking for data that backs you up.
Finally, as a business leader (remember, business leader first, HR leader second) who may eventually come under fire, you will need to be able to speak another language. As an HR leader, your ‘native’ language is change management, strategic sourcing, total rewards, talent management, OD…etc. But, you’ll need other languages rooted in the nuances and business of your company. You should be just as well versed on the vulnerabilities of you company’s revenue model as you are about the compliance issues in benefits. With this understanding and approach, your challenges and courageous convictions will truly mean something.
Stepping into these terrain is not for the faint of heart. But since when is anything worth attaining billed as ‘easy’?