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HR Manager to Organizational Leader--Making the Shift

Posted by Elaine Varelas  November 7, 2011 09:00 AM

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Securing a seat at the leadership table has been a goal of human resources professionals for over a decade. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to HR are constantly touting the importance of organizational talent and the need to fully utilize the work force’s potential to achieve business goals. Some organizations have embraced this truth, inviting HR executives into the C-suite to help drive business decisions. Leaders at other organizations, however, have yet to recognize HR’s role in company leadership.

Regardless of where your organization currently sits on this scale, now is an opportune time to make the shift from HR manager to organizational leader. The global marketplace and proliferation of technology is changing the way we work--particularly in HR. Our workforce is becoming a global 24-hour a day force, moving out of the cubicle to virtually any corner of the world, making it more complicated to manage talent. At the same time, transactional HR functions--benefits, vacation requests, time sheets--are being replaced by technology as employees go online instead of to an HR representative to conduct some of the traditional HR functions. The role of HR professionals must evolve to remain relevant.

Take a look at how you view yourself in your job. What are your perceptions of your role (knowing that your perceptions help shape those of others within the organization)? What does it mean to be a manager? Typically, managers are task-oriented and reactive. HR managers fill positions, respond to inquiries, and address individual conflicts or issues. In contrast, a leader is a visionary. Talent is not just a vacant position to fill--it is your product. Service organizations are ahead of the curve in recognizing that their people are their product, but this is also true for companies that produce a tangible product. How will your product (talent) drive business services? What is your vision? How will it impact the organization?

A visionary is someone who looks to the future and anticipates needs. Successful organizations will need to be agile, flexible, and forward-thinking to remain competitive. How does your talent strategy achieve these goals? What are your current and future skill gaps? What parts of the business will create the most value going forward? How can you invest in talent in these areas? Can you identify the obstacles to acquiring this talent? How will you overcome those obstacles? At every potential point of failure, how will you address it? Where are your future leaders coming from? How will you develop them? How will you hold onto talent? What is your succession plan? How will you retain knowledge?

Becoming an HR visionary makes sense in theory, but how does it work? It must be a systemic movement throughout the company. Of course, HR managers must view themselves as organizational leaders, but every senior manager in the organization must also be on the leadership track. In fact, at every level within the organization, HR professionals can work to identify, grow, and retain A-level leadership.

It is essential that leadership development opportunities become part of the culture and not just a one-time event. Sending select employees to training once a year isn’t enough--even with the nifty binder they bring back! Leaders need to be groomed throughout the year. Leadership competencies should be part of job descriptions and performance reviews. Leadership training can also be implemented through stretch and lateral assignments, as well as assignments designed to enhance specific skills. Some companies also have a leadership “university” for high-potential employees. Mentor programs can also help to develop leaders and share knowledge. Many organizations also partner with universities, business colleges, and law schools where employees can serve as faculty or board members. Internship and summer programs are a great way to grow and recruit new employees for the organization. Employees can also be encouraged to serve on boards at neighboring non-profits to increase goodwill in the community, raise visibility of the organization, and develop leadership skills.

In order to help the organization make the shift from one that accepts its leaders to one that creates and fosters them, it is vital there be a common language and goal within the organization. HR professionals must make sure there is a clear definition of what it means to be a leader, as well as commonality about how leadership development will happen. It can’t be haphazard or look different in each department. There should also be agreement from the executive team on leadership competencies, which should then be communicated throughout the organization so employees and leaders are clear on what is expected and rewarded.

It’s an exciting time to be an HR professional. The role of HR is evolving as companies go global and technology continues to alter how we work. Talent is emerging as the most important tool in a business’ drive to be competitive. Of course, as an HR professional, you know talent. By becoming a visionary, and anticipating and addressing the future needs of your company, you can make the shift from an HR manager to an organizational leader.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner of Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career management firm.

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.