Qualities of Courageous HR Executives

This excerpt from "The Trouble with HR: An Insider's Guide to Finding and Keeping the Best People" offers eight attributes that HR leaders should have.

This article accompanies Ford's Turn.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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So what exactly do I mean by a courageous HR executive? What are some of the qualities and attributes that need to be demonstrated to show courage from an HR leader?

1. Act as a leader. Most HR executives follow. They follow trends, other HR people who've always done it a particular way, and other business leaders who tell them what to do. Trends are good as a data point, but not to be followed. Other HR leaders may be doing it right and probably aren't, so following them doesn't generally make sense. And if you are simply taking orders from other business leaders (e.g., the CFO, CMO), you are not the HR expert -- they are. Let me be clear here: If your HR leader is following, your organization is not getting the best HR advice and counsel.

2. Create a culture that works. Every company creates its own corporate culture. Southwest Airlines differs from American Airlines. Microsoft is distinctive from Yahoo and Google. IBM and Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) have different cultures. The courageous HR leader takes ownership in culture -- working closely with the CEO -- and plays a major role building a climate that can make the difference between winning and falling behind the curve.

The HR executive at Apple, for example, contributed to creating a culture where people could innovate, take risks, and be rewarded. The HR executive at Research In Motion (RIM) hired designers who invented the BlackBerry and created a technological culture all its own. The HR leaders at Goldman Sachs have always hired not just bean counters but financial innovators. Part of the success of those companies stems from HR executives who had an eye for talent and a strategy to snare people.

3. Consider future goals. Most HR executives just try to get through the day unscathed. If the CEO hasn't attacked them and senior managers belittled them, it's been a decent day. But the courageous HR executive isn't just focused on today; this HR leader considers long-term goals, connects with future strategies, and builds revenue for the future, not just the next quarterly earnings report.

The courageous HR leader knows HR decisions today could well impact the organization for years to come. As such, many HR initiatives have long-term payoff and should be openly described to the senior management team. It takes a lot of courage to ask people to spend $10 today and not get a return for five years, but HR leaders do this in business every day.

4. Possess the courage of your convictions. Many HR executives second-guess themselves. Unsure of their own beliefs, they wait for signals or orders from the CEO and senior management team. Courageous HR executives have a strategy and game plan in place of how to lead human resources, what kind of people they want to hire, and how to gain their organization's competitive edge through hiring. And, like Nike put it best, courageous HR leaders "Just do it!"

5. Adapt to a changing business environment. Some HR executives are stuck in the past. This is the way it was done yesterday, and we'll continue to do it this way. That kind of intransigence won't work in a changing business environment. HR executives who act courageously consider new strategies based on global conditions, new competitors, introducing new product, and rising or declining market share.

The best leaders I know have accepted two truisms. First, there's no such thing as staying in the same spot in business; you're either advancing or falling behind. And second, it's sheer lunacy to continue doing the same thing and expect different results. The business world is changing so quickly that HR executives who do not fully embrace change will fail themselves and the organizations they serve.

6. Hold HR staff accountable. Despite popular belief, courageous HR executives don't always act as Mr. Nice Guy or Ms. Friendly. The HR function is mission-critical and therefore requires the absolute best HR staff to pull off the work. Gone are the days when the guy who failed in finance or the woman who didn't quite cut it in marketing could find a home in HR.

Courageous HR leaders go to the best colleges and universities to recruit their stars, and they recruit seasoned professionals from the list of 100 Best Companies to Work For in America. In short, even the most well-prepared and well-intentioned HR executive can't lead a team of subpar HR professionals to success. Holding people accountable is part of the job.

7. Operate with minimal fears. Old-style HR executives were riddled with fears. Anxious about losing their job, uncertain about their role in the organization, and often viewed as outsiders, these HR managers operated from a defensive posture. But courageous HR executives lead with a clear direction, set strategy, work with others, believe in their own skills, and can face disagreement. Fear is not the motivating force, but doing what's best for the organization and creating a strong strategy to deal with change are.

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8. Balance two needs simultaneously. One of the toughest parts of the HR job is to balance expectations from the senior management team that you will do what is best for the company and the equally strongly held belief of the employees that HR is supposed to watch out for their interests and serve as their advocate. Having personally been in this position often, I can assure you it's no easy task to master.

But I believe what the effective HR leader does is put the employees first and still manages to balance the company's interests. If, for example, it becomes necessary for the business to lay off employees, the HR executive must manage the process in as thoughtful and humane a way as possible, always understanding that people (the people who were there for the organization in good times) must be taken care of as much as reasonably and fiscally possible.

Excerpted from The Trouble with HR: An Insider's Guide to Finding and Keeping the Best People by Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. and Gary M. Stern. Copyright ©2010 Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. and Gary M. Stern. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Read also:

Ford's Turn

All in the Ford Family

Leveraging Informal Networks

Turning Around HR

Transforming HR

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