Business Leaders First, HR Leaders Second

The inaugural podcast interview for Who’s Got Next in HR was with Darren Kimball, CEO of The Five O’Clock Club in New York. During that interview, Darren spoke compellingly about the need for HR leaders to learn new languages. His main point was, that while HR leaders are quite adept at our own terminology and concepts, many are woefully unfamiliar with those across other fields of business. This struck a chord with me then which still resonates. I believe it is one of the most accurate observations about the field of HR.

Learning new languages is no easy task. HR thought leaders and professionals generally understand the vast ecosystem in which they work. They certainly understand everything from the financial analyses required to forecast the health of the business, to the need to position the company brand in a way that not only creates awareness but also garners action on behalf of the customer. Most HR folks get that.

However, what many HR professionals may not fully ‘get’, is the lexicon of terminology and application of related concepts which allow them to do more than just know how to read a balance sheet. Beyond knowing, the ability to apply business acumen to the bigger picture is crucial for any organizational leader. Understanding the core functions and key levers of your company’s business enable leaders to bring tremendous value to any table. Just ask Kevin Cope, founder of Acumen Learning and author of Seeing the Big Picture: Business Acumen to Build Your Credibility, Career and Company.

The time for HR leaders to step up to the plate, go deep and become steeped in new languages – is overdue. I shared this perspective last month through a brainteasing activity, at the July 28th NYC WGNinHR Meetup, with a group of high energy business leaders – many of whom happened to work in HR.

The Meetup activity focused on the VUCA framework, a concept which describes the new context in which leaders must work in today’s business world. I took these highly engaged leaders through the foundational concepts, then we really dug in! Four scenarios – for each of the four aspects of VUCA – were introduced as they broke up into four groups to problem solve. Each group was asked to peel apart the aspects of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity using concocted scenarios as their backdrop. I wanted each of them to think, act, talk and show up as business leaders first, HR leaders second.

All four groups were fantastic thinkers and creative problem-solvers. Two groups in particular, decided that night that they would knock the ball out of the park as they sought answers to these scenarios. Those two groups are spotlighted here as wonderful exemplars of business leaders. Below, I’ve shared both the concocted scenarios with brief summaries of how these groups attacked the problems.

I tip my hat to them. They showed us how leaders within any functional area should operate when faced with the thorniest of challenges.

Uncertainty (Participants, from left: D’Arquoia Connor, Patricia Wortham, Varun Mehta, Charmaine Green-Forde, Roxanne Miller and Genevieve Ofosu)


  • You're part of a small but growing company which has repositioned its strategic focus ~8 months ago to challenge an established incumbent business

  • The company’s strategy is to disrupt the rest of the market by targeting overlooked segments, gain a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality—and at a lower price

  • The company will also maintain its focus on improving services for its most demanding customers

  • 80% of the company’s 23 person team are comprised of Millennials with no proven professional track records

The CEO of this company has contacted you as a former colleague and is looking for advice on how to succeed through this phase of the business. What would you share?

Group Approach

This group set out to organize the road ahead - the true mark of business thinkers and leaders. They established clear goals (i.e. lower costs by X dollars, gain market share by X % and enhance the employees’ experience). They then established plans to accomplish those goals. A few of the more creative plans included: co-leadership roles among the more experienced talent in this fictitious business; and creating a business model that would effectively operate as a ‘start-up within a start-up’ allowing for healthy competition as the company entered niche markets. Finally, I loved the fact that this group laid out the challenges and devised proactive strategies to mitigate against them, which included ‘buying’ the needed expertise to ramp up quickly.

Grade: A+

Complexity (Participants, from left: Dima Syrotkin, Beth Heitner, Marlene Kaminsky, Antoinette Logan, Dawn Miller Nedd, Angela Matheny)


  • Your company has decided to take an innovative idea and launch into a new market based on initial feedback from market assessments

  • Almost immediately following the launch date the new product has quickly become one of the company’s top-selling products – faster than even the most generous projections

  • The company is now looking to expand its low-volume Rhode Island facility to a mass-production plant in China

What advice would you have provided your CEO and Board before, during and after product launch to ensure success?

Group Approach

This group decided to begin by laying out the toughest questions at the core of the business challenge. They were deeply thoughtful about those questions, which included: the need to understand the original data from the market assessment; and the service and delivery channel as well as its related impact on logistics, materials, and product quality. They also focused on metrics to determine success, from a pre and post expansion outlook. The group realized the importance of financial analyses in terms of Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) and applicable taxes given the new plant location. And, very importantly, they asked the question often at the core of whether expansions will succeed – could the company accomplish product expansion while maintaining customer satisfaction. Finally, the group also knew that they needed to understand the political implications and customer demographics tied to the expansion of a plant in China. They were savvy about the nuances of building a global business.

Grade: A+

Congratulations to these business leaders who more than embraced new languages, they served as role models for the rest of us!

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