HR professionals as emergent leaders in organization: how to get there?

fotoLast Friday we organized group discussions for all master students about 5 different leadership books.  We noticed something peculiar in our groups: in one group the HR students stayed together when they had the opportunity to mingle with the others. In another group the HR students advocated in an assertive way the most complex leadership paradigm.  Combined they reinforced the idea: “HR doesn’t like to leave it’s comfort zone and is naively idealistic.” When you extrapolate this, it’s in many organizations the perception about the HR department.

This raises the question: how could HR take more leadership?

According to many studies based upon the social identity theory of leadership (Hogg, 2001) the person who best represents the norms, values, attitudes, behaviors of a group has the most influence over the others. Stated differently, if you want to become a leader of a group,  become prototypical for that group. If you want to lead line managers, than you should know who they are, want they want, how they behave, how they feel, how they think. So HR leaders start by listening and adapting to line managers, rather than offering relatively complex processes and models invented in isolation.

So how can we help HR become leaders?

Imagine if the HR students were integrated in other masters and had to practice HR for those groups, and got coached and challenged in that role. Imagine that they learned about strategy together with the students of global management, about efficiency and processes with students of supply chain management, or about innovation, and entrepreneurship  together with yet other masterclasses? Or that they would try to solve task and relation conflicts in teams of other masters, etc?

The chance that those students will emerge as organizational leaders in the future seems much higher. They will not only have learned the language of the line managers, but they will also share their values.  And this will help them to create a shared strategic vision together.

Any thoughts?

Reference

Hogg, M. A. (2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 184 – 200.

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About Jesse Segers

Academic Director of The Future Leadership Initiative
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4 Responses to HR professionals as emergent leaders in organization: how to get there?

  1. And is HR given a leading role? Was one of my thoughts …

    Thank you for sharing this great observation from an academic point of view on how to remodel HR to a more integrated strategic organizational development role.

    I agree with you.

    Most HR people could and should take on a more pro-active role in the fulfillment of their functions role. This would make a huge difference in what could/should/can be achieved.

    On the other side of the equation we have however the request. This is something, that is sometimes in all the HR bashing, overlooked.

    If we analyze some of the HR- HRM- & even SHRM- function descriptions, or ask a little bit further about the HR function tasks (what is this organization looking for?), or if we ask about the image of the function that they are looking for, or what we hear or even see (in HR functions already practiced in the organization), (most of) the requests (vacant posts) do not match this strategic leading HR- person. And sometimes this ‘heavy-weight’ is asked in theory but in practice the function does not match up.

    To lean on my own observations (as external advisor) of at least 12 organizations. In these 12 organisations, HR’s role and description is more the extension of a sort of management assistant. And in some even a with some legal issues extended ‘secretary’-role. In all of these 12: present at MT meetings and saddled up with the question: “Will you take care of that…” And “that” meaning the ugly employee issues, so the manager would not be the future bad guy. It was exclusively the HR department’s manager to take on the more strategic role.

    So we can academically form, and transform & remodel HR, but is there also (in organizations, a matching) request for this pro-active- strategic- multi-faceted- leading- SHRM- equivalent- business-partner?

    These function descriptions go more in the direction of industrial engineering, business administration, management science, (in Dutch Bedrijfskunde) replenished with HR. Not HR integrated with some business-management. Request for these positions seem the other way around.

    So, is HR given a leading role?

  2. Jesse Segers says:

    Dear Yvonne,

    thanks for this interesting comment. I think we’re on the same line here. Leadership is indeed a process of claiming and granting (watch our upcoming ‘Visie in HRSquare about developing a leadership identity’ for more on this). And as you rightfully point out: will a leadership claim of HR be granted by the line? It depends on the route the follow if you ask me.

    1) If one tries to implement the strategic role by a reorganization and a devolvement of tasks to the line over time, because one has been inspired by the books of Dave Ulrich, it will not work. (Ulrich’s book are very supply driven, and overlook the demand need).

    2) If HR first tries to become much more prototypical for the values and norms of the line, they will naturally be seen (and emerge) as leaders. So, the leadership position will be granted to them. This are indeed more function descriptions of “industrial engineering, business administration, management science, (in Dutch Bedrijfskunde) replenished with HR”.

    Obviously, once they’re seen as leaders it is their job the mobilize the line to take responsibility for the changes needed. Only as a leader (which is not the same as having a position of authority, i.e. a formal management position) they can start changing the existing values and norms in a group slowly. Stated differently, they can move the organization towards the value system HR wants the organization to stand for. For example, the line who prevents an ugly employee issue and is able to have courageous conversation when needed, etc.

    In a way the process I suggest based upon leadership research it is not much different that the principle of “pacing and leading” in coaching.

    Jesse

  3. Hello Jesse,

    Thank you Jesse, for your answer. Love the paralel between the coaching principle and the process in leadership. And will be quoting you on this: “If HR first tries to become much more prototypical for the values and norms of the line, they will naturally be seen (and emerge) as leaders.” & “Only as a leader they can start changing the existing values and norms in a group slowly.”

    Becoming more a HR leader (strategic partner & change agent) is also about earning an advice position. It requires to really understand the company’s strategy and the functional capabilities and to match these in multiple directions. To contribute in decision-making around strategy. To try out and advise on how to adjust the strategy if necessary. This also requires an high level of interpersonal skill: to work across the organization and across organization bounderies. It requires the ability to rise above organizations matters – to have an overview – with a solid depth of understanding & knowledge of the organisation. It’s a lot.

    And yes i can relate to “1) If one tries to implement the strategic role by a reorganization and a devolvement of tasks to the line over time… it will not work.”

    What also stands out is that Ulrich hardly speaks about the role of HRM professionals in decision-making around strategy. (Can not pinpoint this exactly to one quotation or book, read a few of his books which shaped this overall impression – so please reshape my impression if i’m wrong on this). Even in his later works the dicision-making of the HRM strategy (not strategic HRM) seems to be a matter of higher line-management.

    In relation to the implementing part under 1) I’m going to chew a little on the slowly-part in: “Only as a leader they can start changing the existing values and norms in a group slowly.” I fully understand and even experienced what you are saying. The ambiguity in the slowly-part is however the demand for quick results in this function.

    “We have to go slow, in order to go fast.”

    And i will be on the look out for the upcoming ‘Visie in HR-Square about developing a leadership identity’ for more on this.

    Thank you very much for sharing your insight & knowledge Jesse,

    Yvonne

  4. Jesse Segers says:

    Hi Yvonne,

    I thank you for your insights, and beautiful quote ‘we have to go slow, in order to go fast’. I’ve been doubting to add the word ‘slow’, because obviously it is all context specific. But in general helping people to change their values, habits, and behaviors is a slow and artful process in my experience. But as they say in French sometimes it is better to ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’.

    Jesse

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