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What HR can learn from political leaders

Politicians can offer business leaders very public examples of how – or how not – to bring other people on the journey with them

Politicians can offer business leaders very public examples of how – or how not – to bring other people on the journey with them. In light of April's general election and with the Labour leadership hustings now in full swing, what can HR directors take from modern politicians in order to help guide leaders in their own organisations?

1. Be relevant

In 1992 John Major won a higher percentage of votes than any other party leader before or since. He achieved this by painting a clear picture of what he believed the opposition's tax plans would mean for the average voter.

In a similar vein, business leaders need to connect the wider goals and aspirations of the organisation with employees’ day-to-day work. Stories can play a powerful role in making this connection, and sharing real life examples of employees who have gone above and beyond in their work for customers or clients can truly inspire. HR directors can create a culture of storytelling as a mechanism to connect the role of all employees – from senior executives to frontline staff – to the organisation’s purpose.

2. Be succinct

Regardless of whether one agrees with its point of view, UKIP’s rise is based on the simplicity of its message. Every voter has a view on what the party stands for and the leader’s message is in line with this perception.

In business, the HR director must work with leaders to distil their vision down so that it is succinct and accessible. It need not be about words and phrases, or business plans and strategy maps, but could be a simple narrative supported by creative messaging. However it is delivered it needs to resonate and be memorable for employees at all levels.

3. Be authentic

Much is said of ‘authentic leadership’, but what we often hear from modern politicians are reactive and rehearsed sound bites. (Ed Miliband’s 2011 ‘these strikes are wrong’ interview on the BBC was a painful example of this, which resurfaced in time for the general election).

Similarly employees are often fed messages using well-crafted terminology and corporate jargon that can appear inauthentic. If leaders want people to embrace their direction, they need to find a human way to communicate. HR directors can support executives to clarify what they believe in by helping them tap into their intrinsic motivation as leaders and articulate their beliefs in an authentic way. This enables employees to contextualise decisions, understand the rationale behind them, and support change.

4. Be aligned

Successful politicians have an aligned team that believes in a consistent philosophy. However, if a leader leaves their party too far behind in a bid for wider electoral appeal, they will soon cease to be the party leader. Their challenge is to provide authentic and consistent leadership while aligning their party to a vote-winning strategy.

HR directors need to be able to help an executive team create a clear philosophy and pick up the subtleties of any misalignment around the board table, even when they remain unspoken. Noticing body language and verbal cues can help identify people who appear to be toeing the party line but don’t really believe in the decisions being made. HR directors should also ensure that the CEO and their executive board understand how the functional strategies, actions and behaviours interlink, and see that the CEO holds the team accountable for executing their strategies in an aligned way.

5. Be challenging

In the 2010 to 2015 coalition Nick Clegg claims he challenged the Conservatives in a way that someone within the party could not have done. When deployed effectively, a culture of challenge can act to curb extreme decision-making and behaviour.

HR directors should also be experts at challenging leaders, and have the confidence and skills to do it in an incisive but non-confrontational way. They are in a unique position to understand both the rational and emotional hurdles facing companies. Successful HR directors see the bigger picture, think strategically, ask the right questions and challenge behaviours and assumptions to help change happen.

Piers Robinson is head of consultancy at change consultancy The Storytellers, and a former global HR director