HR shouldn’t shrink from its vital role in building successful leadership, says HR director Jennifer White CPHR
Courage. It’s a big word, usually used in reference to soldiers. Or, in a less life-and-death sense, to footballers. But it does apply to anyone who takes on a task involving formidable opposition. But when it comes to the question of successful leadership, it makes all the difference.
Courage is certainly a quality relevant to HR, in a number of ways. It takes courage to accept a job that involves bringing about major organisational and cultural change. It takes courage to confront and work through the resistance to such change. It takes courage to face up to the fact that you have done all you can and it’s time to move on.
Jennifer White is an HR practitioner who has experienced this chain of events in recent years. She doesn’t directly refer to herself as courageous, but it’s inherent in her story.
Where she does mention courage is in the context of stressing that effective HR leadership includes encouraging it in others.
“In many cases in the past I have worked with business leaders who needed to be braver,” says White, HR director, Australia and New Zealand at Avnet Technology Solutions, a global IT solutions distribution leader.
“There’s a lot of data about how people view leadership in Australia. Business leaders are considered untrustworthy and too concerned with their own self-interest. Really good, constructive, healthy corporate leadership is rare.
“With that as a backdrop, we have to do something. But having the courage to step in and do it… it’s tough. A lot of HR practitioners feel their hands are tied and they don’t have a voice. It diminishes the role of strategic HR people. We have a voice that matters.”
White is drawing from a 2015 report by the Swinburne University of Technology’s Leadership Institute, The Swinburne Leadership Survey: Index of Leadership for the Greater Good. A cross-section of 800 people across Australia were surveyed for the study, which looked at attitudes to leadership in politics, business, trade unions, religion and the community. As you might expect, politicians fared the worst.
What shocked White were the poor results for business leaders. They scored 80 per cent approval for competency, but only 54 per cent for trustworthiness and a meagre 18 per cent for caring more about the public interest than self-interest. Whether they cared more about short-term results or the future was almost a 50-50 split.
“We’re working in a changing landscape,” says White, “and yet I witness the business world often becoming more short-term and short-sighted; month to month, quarter to quarter. HR has a strong role to play in stepping up and calling for the need to be more strategic and to think for the long term.
“And if HR practitioners are to do that, they need the necessary professionalism and the confidence professionalism brings.”
That’s why White supports the introduction of AHRI’s certification program. She applied for certification this year, gaining it through the Senior Leaders Pathway.
“If we don’t invest in ourselves first and foremost, we can’t be the profession we need to be. We have to invest in our own development and the development of leaders. We have to coach them, show them the blind spots and hold their hands through it. That’s our job.”
Blueprint for change
The personal case study White presented for certification described her recent three years working for a not-for-profit organisation.
“They were going through rapid growth when I joined, with 250 staff and they didn’t know how many volunteers. When I left, they had 500 staff and just over 300 volunteers.
“I was employed to design, develop and implement a blueprint that shifted their culture from having up to 65 per cent annual staff turnover and feeling pretty average. I was able to deliver quantifiable results including a couple of million dollars in savings, stable staff turnover and people wanting to work there.”
Two main aspects of her approach were a successful leadership development program and work she did to clarify the organisation’s values and purpose, and what being true to its values required.
“Over a six-month period, I ran a series of focus groups across all divisions and levels, including volunteers. That culminated in a day where we pulled together 400 staff and launched them back into the organisation. It was full-on – and I was nearly nine months pregnant at the time – but it was a real measure of success. There was enough trust by that stage and people felt like they had been part of the process and they bought into it.”
But sometimes there’s only so much you can do.
“Without a doubt, people assumed there was no need for business-style organisation and practice because it’s a not-for-profit. But it is a business in many respects and I was very commercial in my approach.
“Organisational environments are often set up for people to be rewarded or be successful based on certain behaviours and leadership styles, and when you try to change that, it can be really threatening. There was room to improve after that, but they didn’t want to go to the next level of transformation. I decided to move on because I wasn’t interested in doing a maintenance role.”
In her current role at Avnet she is also witnessing a lot of growth and change in the business and says that this is now the new normal for HR professionals.
White says that a paradigm shift is needed for successful leadership, as well as culture, diversity and inclusion, and that HR has to shift with it.
“As HR leaders we simply can’t bring an old framework into play – especially since many business environments are increasingly driving harder and faster hyperactivity. The future of HR is about being more curious and inquisitive as to the ‘why’, asking questions and listening deeply. It is about finding the balance between being technically strong, pragmatic in our solutions and shifting towards real human engagement.”
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