In their zeal to be seen as business partners and valued consultants, HR leaders can't afford to overlook the importance of soft skills.
By Andrew R. McIlvaine
As the HR leader at a large Silicon Valley technology company, Susan Lovegren fully comprehends the importance of data -- understanding it, mastering it -- for today's HR function. However, when she was helping her organization undergo a big change several years ago, it was a so-called "soft skill" that proved to be invaluable.
"Having empathy is extremely important," says Lovegren, senior vice president of human resources at Juniper Networks in Sunnyvale, Calif. "It cuts across any functional area."
Lovegren's time at Juniper coincided with a major culture shift starting in 2009 at the 9,000-employee company (as detailed in the July/August issue of Harvard Business Review in an article titled "Bright Shiny Objects and the Future of HR," co-authored by former Juniper CHRO Steven Rice and University of Southern California Professor John Boudreau). Part of that shift involved doing away with Juniper's forced-ranking performance-management process and replacing it with one based on "conversation days" between managers and their employees.
"With the old system, we were giving our managers a task that was not consistent with the values of the company, was not meaningful to employees, [and] was taking every component of that process and making it negative," says Lovegren. "We pushed ourselves to think differently about what's possible, and that was the beginning of Juniper's efforts to challenge the status quo."
Although empathy may not seem vital in a business context, failing to demonstrate it may actually hinder you from delivering on your goals, says Lovegren, who spent seven years in HR-leadership positions at Juniper before leaving in 2013 to lead HR at Plantronics Corp. for two years. She rejoined Juniper this summer to head its HR department.
Empathy helps put you in other peoples' shoes and gain a better understanding of what's important to them, she says. "As an innovation company, we have to get everyone's brainpower in the game, so by being empathetic -- really understanding what makes people succeed, or not, in your environment -- you're tuning in to those needs," says Lovegren.
Today's HR leaders want -- need, in many cases -- to be seen as vital business partners. But ironically, getting there often requires the skills and personal qualities -- influencing, collaboration, networking, effective communication -- that are commonly labeled as "soft" and frequently seen as less important than the prized "hard" skills such as an alacrity with numbers and a familiarity with data.
"You can be the most competent person in the world from a technical standpoint, but if you're not connecting with people effectively and establishing a network, then your value is greatly diminished," says Cindy McLaughlin, a personal coach with 15 years of leadership experience in the aerospace industry and a faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.
Understanding the business is important, of course, says McLaughlin. But getting to that point -- while also knowing what's going on within the business -- requires good networking and communication skills.
Elissa Tucker's company, Houston-based American Productivity and Quality Council, maintains an open-standards-benchmarking database that includes all HR processes, from recruiting to career development. Part of maintaining that database includes determining the top competencies needed by HR practitioners who wish to be business partners.
"The first is organizational-change skills, along with general business acumen," says Tucker, APQC's research program manager for human capital management. "Influencing is also considered important."
Other important soft skills include critical thinking, problem solving and coaching, says Tucker.
"HR [leaders] need to understand the business from the perspective of the employees, so they can communicate the need for change from that perspective and help them understand how it will help the business better meet its goals," she says.
The Key to Influencing
In order to be a good influencer, you need to know the business first, says McLaughlin, who teaches the CCL's Leadership Development for HR Professionals course and is co-author of the book The Truth About Sucking Up: How Authentic Self-Promotion Benefits You and Your Organization. "Influencing is the ability to have an impact on the organization," she says.
But you also need to understand how to connect with people, she says.
Many of McLaughlin's students -- HR practitioners who pride themselves on their dependability and competence -- receive an unpleasant shock upon seeing the results of their 360-degree reviews (administered as part of the course) and finding out they're not actually perceived to be as valuable as they thought they were.
Routinely, about a third of her students express disappointment in their 360 results, she says.
"They'll say, 'I don't get it, I work really hard; why don't people acknowledge that?' " says McLaughlin. "The truth is that they often fail to create visibility into what they're doing. A lot of that comes from failing to communicate effectively, not creating networks, not really pushing their work out there."
Tapping into members of your network and asking the most influential within it to advocate on your behalf is important. "It's what other people say about you that gives you that credibility or influence," says McLaughlin. "It's the power of the peers: It means a lot more to a CEO when [he or she hears] good things about you from other people in the organization."
However, your network needs to be an open one, she says. A closed network -- one consisting primarily of other HR people, with just a few outside connections thrown in -- will cut you off from the vital flow of information that runs through most organizations.
An open network will, by contrast, cross critical boundaries: age groups, functions and job levels. Its strength is measured by the quality of the relationships within it, says McLaughlin: "Can you go to that person or group and really get resources and help? Do you talk to them frequently? Do they come to you? Is there reciprocity?"
"We found out, through a study, that many HR people have networks that tend to be more closed and to consist mostly of operational people -- engineers, compensation experts, etc.," she says. "It's good to have those connections, but you also need a strategic element."
Such an element includes the "key stakeholders" within the organization who may not necessarily hold leadership positions but who nevertheless exert a strong influence over its business, says McLaughlin. These are people who have connections throughout the entire company and who tend to quickly find out what's going on within it.
"You want to find out who that person is and connect to him or her so you'll know, for example, what's really happening out on the factory floor," says McLaughlin.
HR often has visibility into how decisions within a company are made, and is therefore in a good position to spot who those stakeholders are, she says. Unfortunately, many HR people are so focused on being seen as dependable that they miss out on forging these important connections, she adds.
Being a good influencer, meanwhile, means not merely alerting leaders to problems or waiting for them to come to you -- instead, it means coming armed with several well-thought-out possible solutions, based on good data and a solid understanding of the business and the people within it, she says.
Debbie Johnson, CHRO at Indianapolis-based Medxcel, a fast-growing company of 2,500 employees that provides facilities-management and equipment-maintenance services to hospitals around the world, says McLaughlin's course helped her hone her influencing skills.
Johnson found those skills to be very valuable as she helped a new leader of one of Medxcel's business units.
"We were talking about an organizational redesign, and I was using my influencing skills to share insights I have about people or areas he was looking at possibly reorganizing or restructuring," she says. "As in, 'Here are some of the strengths of the individuals you're considering, here are some areas that need further development, here are some examples of what we've done in the past and what other organizations have done that proved to be successful.' "
Being a good influencer is about being proactive. "I can go to the leaders here and say, 'Here's how I can partner with you, I can brainstorm with you, run ideas past you,' " she says. "This is a true business partnership, not the typical reactionary HR of the past."
"I never go in and dump a problem; it's always helpful to have several possibilities to talk about," she says.
With key leaders, "take things off their plates or bring them ideas so they can focus on the part of the business they need to be focusing on," says Johnson.
The Art of Consulting
Leslie Knowlton, managing partner for U.S. talent development at New York-based Deloitte, says the most important soft skill for HR professionals at her company is "having a business-adviser mind-set."
"That means bringing a point of view, influencing, as well as having empathy," she says.
This requires not only doing your research and being prepared, but thinking about how to bring useful insights "so you're not just taking direction or asking people what they want you to do," says Knowlton. "Instead, it's, 'Here's what I've seen, here's what I recommend, here's how we might approach this.'
"Having confidence is a big part of it," she says. "It's not being afraid to have a perspective and to share it in a collaborative way. And the more prepared you are, the more confident you'll feel."
Influencing is all about "knowing when and how to flex your communication style to the other person's preferred approach," says Knowlton.
"We talk about it here in the sense of doing your homework, finding out how [certain people like] information presented to them," says Knowlton. Some people prefer lots of data while others simply want the big picture.
And, in some cases, you might get it wrong initially -- in which case, you need to be adaptable, she says.
Being good at collaboration is another must-have soft skill, says Harry Osle, managing director of The Hackett Group in Miami.
"Coming out of college, I was blessed to work with Larry Kelleher, one of the premier HR leaders, and his approach was to be very collaborative and to immerse ourselves within teams," he says.
Too often, the HR person is the one who says, "No, we can't do that," says Osle. While it's important to raise objections if something potentially illegal or harmful to employees is being considered, HR must try and find ways to be collaborative in other instances.
Being effective at collaboration, Osle says, means working as part of a team to find answers -- rather than raising objections or being inflexible -- when the company wants to, say, start a new service offering within a brand-new territory and must find a way to quickly staff the project.
"Instead of saying, 'It takes us X days to bring on a candidate, we need to create a new-hire process -- oh, and we have to use the ATS,' it's, 'How do I play a role alongside the finance, procurement and IT team to make this happen?' " he says.
"It's not about what we've done in the past; it's about how we solve the problem today -- that's the difference between yesterday's HR and working collaboratively in a team."
Of course, good consultative skills also include the willingness to raise objections when your own experience suggests that a proposal is a bad idea. David Swanson, the former CHRO of SAP North America who now oversees the German software company's SAP HR unit, says it's the ability to "ask the powerful question in the moment."
"HR people often think, 'Why would the CEO listen to me?,' but HR has a very unique view of the business -- we get to see it horizontally, how the operations work, how it's seen in the marketplace -- yet, all too often, HR people don't speak up and say, for example, 'This is not going to have a happy ending,' " says Swanson, whose HR career spans 26 years.
HR professionals also need opportunities to hone these skills elsewhere, says APQC's Tucker. Her research shows that best-practice companies have job rotations that place HR managers in other functions within the company. This can help them build credibility, she says.
"I would say take some courses in negotiating and influencing skills, but there needs to be opportunities to practice that on the job," says Tucker. "Courses aren't bad, but understanding the specifics of the company and getting to know your colleagues outside of HR is so important."
Being a Connector
At Juniper Networks, empathy not only helped Lovegren understand the negative impact of the old performance-management process on employees, but also helped her explain the need for change to leaders at the company who thought the old process worked just fine.
"Empathy allows you to ask yourself questions a little bit differently, and it helps you communicate to the executive team in a different way, to help them understand what a process is doing to the spirit of the people in your company," she says.
Now that she's back at Juniper, Lovegren anticipates using empathy to help the company figure out how to recruit and retain more women and millennials.
"You really need to look at everything in your processes a little bit differently and ask yourself, 'What is going to be important to this particular segment?' " she says.
Empathy has also helped Lovegren as she's taken on new roles over the course of her career, she says.
"We tend to want to come in and hit the ground running, but by not paying attention to those other things, you can end up having a really slow start," she says.
Stepping into a new role requires listening carefully, she adds.
"When you're going into a new role and you don't do a good job of listening or being empathetic, boy, you can take some pretty big missteps," says Lovegren. "Missing some of the traditions, the social and cultural norms -- if you're not paying attention to those things, you can damage a relationship and lose a lot of time trying to recover."
Being a good listener has helped Amy Casciotti, HR director for TechSmith Corp., a 300-employee technology company in Lansing, Mich., in her role as a "connector," which she defines as "connecting the various parts of the company that may be working on the same thing without realizing it, or helping the technical staff realize that the customer-facing side of the business has valid concerns that need to be addressed."
Being a good connector also requires the willingness to look at things from the other person's perspective, says Casciotti.
"You need to shift your communication style on the fly to adjust to the person you're dealing with," she says.
Not long ago, an older employee complained to Casciotti that a younger worker was being disrespectful by not listening to him and claimed it was due to ageism on the younger person's part.
"The younger person, meanwhile, was completely dumbfounded as to why the older employee felt this way," she says.
After listening carefully to both sides, Casciotti helped the younger employee understand the importance of validating the older employee's experience and knowledge. She suggested framing his advice in the context of, "Based on new information, this is the approach you might want to take."
Meanwhile, she asked the older employee to keep in mind that his years of experience shouldn't preclude him from being open to new ideas.
"The older employee realized it had nothing to do with age," she says. "It's about listening carefully to each person, figuring out what's important to them and helping them realize that they really weren't that far off base from each other."
"In many cases, HR is the glue that holds the company together," says Casciotti.