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Lead through, not in front of

Many years ago, when I was first starting out in HR, I received some great advice from a former boss of mine that has resonated throughout my entire career. She said to me, “in order to truly be effective, HR should be seen as being an understated function in its approach.” It took several years after getting that advice for the message to really sink in. Hey, I was only 25 at the time – I thought I knew everything!

As my career evolved, I not only tried to apply that advice to my HR practice (functionally) but also in my role as a (HR) leader. In fact, I try (notice I say, ‘try’) to not be “the guy” out in front of things all the time. The younger me liked the spotlight and always wanted it to be known that it was “my idea” or that I was “in charge” – whatever the hell that meant. As I matured (grew up) I learned that I could have greater success as a leader by leading through people as opposed to standing in front of them. In fact, I would probably say I became more comfortable and effective as a leader by learning to lead through others.

Leading through others

As an HR Pro and HR Leader, I try to be the person/department that helps enables key organizational activity and results through our people and managers. I firmly believe that by focusing my HR practice on being an enabling function, it truly places HR in its proper organizational role. Ultimately, any people solutions that we come up with will only be successful if understood and accepted as truly being a solution to a problem by our operations clients. This way, they become the ones that “own” the solution and are the ones in front of their people discussing why the latest, trendy HR initiative is a good thing for the company. I am being a bit facetious here but you get my point.

This entire concept really came full circle for me the other day as I was trying to dispense this very advice to a colleague (non-HR). As part of a cross functional team that is responsible for leading/driving an organizational change initiative, we came to a bit of a loggerhead as to how things should be executed at a front line operational level. I felt strongly that the team should help “enable” the change and our role would be to lead the change through others (i.e. Operations Directors/Managers). She felt the change was best led and driven by our change team, that is, we should be the ones at the podium (so to speak) discussing the change, speaking to the employees, being an ear for them and helping them understand the change.

My feeling was that we would hinder our success if we were positioned or seen as the group “in charge” of this. There was no need for us to be in front of this – we needed to lead through others. In this case, the “others” were our other organizational leaders whom, without their support, could cause this change initiative to not be successful. There was no doubt in my mind that if something was imposed on them without their involvement and without given them an opportunity to be leaders (and have us perceived as managing their people) this simply would not work.

As leaders, we have to check our ego at the door. Leading through others is NOT some sort of passive admission that we are poor leaders. As a leader, you have to be confident enough in your own abilities and know that you can effect change (and lead) without being “front and centre” on something. Leadership is NOT about your own personal pride, agenda, ego or self-recognition. It is about empowering others to take action because they want to and not because you “told” them to.

So, while my advice here applies to leaders in general, my hope is that my HR audience truly takes this to heart in their own HR practice(s) and that they focus on leading through others. I feel confident that if you take this approach, you will realize even greater success as an HR Pro and as an organizational leader. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of sheelamohan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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