People are hungry for leadership. Emerson said, “Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” Sad but true; good and effective leadership is a scarce commodity that takes an uncommon and gifted soul to act as its provider. From where within the organization will the next group of organizational leaders emerge? Don’t let the simplicity of the question mislead you. We all know the rules, but they are brittle at best and dysfunctional at worst. Presidents and CEOs are the leaders, but for the love of all that is decent, look at where they have lead us. If I were a CEO today, I would seriously consider hiding under a rock until some of the odious events of the past two years are forgotten. Regrettably, but perhaps well earned, the respect for the CEO has been replaced with contempt, disrespect and suspicion, as we wonder what really goes on behind closed-door meetings. (Doubt me? I can assure you they are, in one way or another, planning the organization’s future, and not coincidently, your future as well. How good does that make you feel?) Power is, to a great degree, the result of position. This is a painful and lopsided paradigm, because position does not guarantee the ethical utilization of power. With this in mind, stretch a bit and imagine the following: the emergence of a new type of leader, one who has managed through influence and is now graduating to a position of leadership utilizing influence once again as the tool of success (not an easy thing to do, but the best always rise to the occasion). Followed to a plausible and sound conclusion, perhaps tomorrow’s great leaders will be those good people who are involved in the recruiting and HR function. Looking at the organization from 5,000 feet, I have always viewed senior management as the ego of the organization and seen the HR function as its super-ego ó the conscience, if you will, emerging as the seat of ethical behavior and providing a strong and influencing sense of right and wrong while steering leadership towards doing what is ethically and morally correct. (For the record, I am not a Freudian. I am a Skinnerian but will always adopt another position for the sake of metaphor.) Now for the problem. Senior HR still does not often have a seat at the executive table, and the reason is elementary. The perception of its value is simply not great enough. You and I might not agree with this precept, but that does not matter. The price of admission is value. Consumers pay for value with dollars. Organizations pay for it with respect, status, and pecking order. Now for the solution. How do we demonstrate the value necessary to get a seat at that all-important executive table? Let’s, as an example, look at how finance has managed to do it, as their perception changed from that of bean counter to organizational partner. Finance has achieved this admirable position by adding value. In this case, by partnering with senior management and developing monetary roads to support organizational objectives. This is a grand and measurable value. As a result or it, they have earned their seat. Is there any reason why we cannot do the same thing? Picture my vision: an organization where recruiting provides the acquisition of human capital and HR coaches senior management on developing an infrastructure/culture that supports organizational greatness (I love the concept of “organizational greatness.” I’d also love an email on your vision of what it means for an upcoming article). I believe we can create value equal to that of finance by helping the leaders actually lead. Imagine recruiters and HR professionals as the ultimate internal consultants supporting leadership in the decision and implementation process! Doing well by doing right. Does it get any better than that? This is, of course, easier said than done. But if you consider the following six guidelines as a roadmap to a seat at the executive table, you may become a part of the team that never realized how badly they needed you.
- Fine tune your radar and ESP, and be aware of what the rank and file is thinking. This knowledge is very important and counts far more than what senior management is thinking. If the rank and file decides not to show up at work for a week (sometimes called a strike), senior management would not be able to do their jobs if their lives depended on it. (Doubt me? What do you think would be more damaging: if the senior executive team at General Motors all resigned, or if the entire workforce resigned?)
- Question authority. Recruiters and HR professionals working together can provide enormous insight into the needs of an organization. Furthermore, the group can identify and coach the internal clients on every issue, from effective interviewing to organizational development to the importance of a diverse workforce. Decisions are made at the uppermost levels of management each day without a thought given to the effect it will have on the organization’s workforce. The next time senior management comes up with a new dictate, be it a change of benefits or adding fifty programmers, be sure that you understand its purpose and see that a business case has been made to support this decision. More importantly, be sure they fully understand the long- and short-term implications of their new decision, because if the operation is a success and the patient dies, you can hardly call it a win.
- Speak the language of business. You know your job. You probably know it far better than senior management. However, if you want more input into the decision process and ultimately a greater leadership role within the organization, you must understand the business aspects of your role, not just the HR and recruiting part. The very best recruiters and HR people are businesspeople first. In order to survive, business must always come first, as going down with the ship is a fool’s death. Do you read the Wall Street Journal everyday? You should. It is the very language of business. (I scan it for thirty minutes each day, and consider that enough.) Can you read a profit and loss statement? Do you know what to look for in an annual report? If your answers to these questions are “no,” it is going to be difficult for you to advise businesspeople, especially if they feel you do not really understand the nature and language of business in the first place.
- Push training within the most critical areas of your organization. This, of course, varies from company to company. But it is needed most where the rubber meets the road (customer care, technology utilization, sales and management education are some examples). Training budgets have been slashed in the last decade. If ever there was an example of selling your future to fund your present, this is a great way to do just that, and a clear example of the shortest of short-term thinking. Even if business is, as they say, half war and half sport, both endeavors require training in order to secure victory. Support and encourage training; you will be guiding leaders to invest in their people, in their own futures, and the well being of the company.
- Stay current. Once the economy rebounds, human capital acquisition will become a strategic imperative. The best recruiters, with solid training on the latest tools and techniques, will lead the charge to build the great companies of tomorrow. This is leadership at its best: the ability to understand the role and its objectives and the ability to carry it out successfully. Emphasize training for the organization, and by all means include yourself. You must be ready for the talent wars, and you can’t fight a new war with old weapons.
- Look the part. Cut your hair, be well-groomed, wear the uniform of business on a daily basis, and look like the leader you were born to be (anyone out there still remember how to make a Windsor knot?). Sorry, I didn’t mean to shock you, but the time for coming to work looking like you just rolled out of bed, wearing the same khakis and polo shirt, is so ’90s. If you want to be part of leading the charge, you have to look the part. Like it or not, we are all, to some extent, judged by our appearance. (Doubt this? If you were meeting with VCs in an attempt to close on $10 million in funding, would you wear a jacket and tie? I certainly would.) A jacket and tie is the uniform of the professional, ready, willing, and able to do business at the highest levels that their skills and commitment command.
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The change in leadership is coming, and it is available for those willing to take matters into their own hands, make things happen, and achieve results. JFK said, “I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it.” Do you welcome it? I hope so. If that is the case, I will do all that I can to lead those with whom I am associated and hope that you will do the same.