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Why HR needs to take the lead on leadership

Leadership is a vital skill in HR. But just what makes a great HR leader?

Last October a major report in Australia (HR Innovation Report, October 2018 ) looked into the challenges and opportunities facing the HR profession. Drawn from interviews with more than 100 HR and IT professionals at 84 organisations in both Australia and New Zealand, one of the interesting conclusions was the importance of leadership – particularly when it came to developing a more strategic approach to HR’s role in the long-term future of any business. HR was split 50/50 between those who had a strategic plan or roadmap and those who had none. It would have to be a hunch, as I have no figures to support this, but I’d imagine the situation isn’t much different in Europe.

For a long time now commentators both inside and outside of the world of HR have been urging HR professionals to shake off their more prosaic day-to-day functions and seize the strategic higher ground. That means leading from the front and talking the same language other business leaders talk. Some clearly are. But just as many appear to be stalled and, for whatever reason or reasons, unable to take on this new leadership role. Some may be uncertain about their own skills; others might simply be unconfident about matching their experiences to the future needs of the wider business. But if HR is really to develop – and there is every indication that it can – then learning the skills needed to overcome those objections and rise to the leadership challenge will, sooner or later, have to be faced.

But just what makes a good HR leader? The following list of skills and experiences is by no means exhaustive. But I think it’s a good starting point to assessing the critical elements which go in to making up an exceptional HR business leader. So where do we start?

Know yourself

A good leader has to have self-awareness. They have to know and develop their own strengths, and be willing to identify and work on the gaps they may have. So understanding your starting place is essential: take a good look in the mirror, and be open and honest about what you see, and how others see you. That means growing professionally as well as personally, and tackling any gaps in your own business knowledge. You need to walk the talk and demonstrate that you have the professional expertise and competence to lead from the front.

Desire and inspire

A leader has to be able to take the team with them. That means having the skills to create and communicate a vision of where HR is going. What does your team require to achieve those goals? A leader needs to bring people onside, and build a team capable of exceeding those goals. Yet at the same time, you need to be realistic enough to ensure that the team also has the skills they need to succeed. You may have what it takes to inspire them to great things, but what do they need from you to meet those objectives?

Show you care

You need to drop the ego. Leadership doesn't have to be a lonely place. The best leaders do it by setting an example. That means being open and honest about recognising your own weaknesses and addressing those. As the line in the film Some Like it Hot has it, nobody is perfect. But trying to pretend you are is a recipe for disaster. You need to encourage your team, to laugh with them and even cry with them, but above all be part of them – both approachable and compassionate.

As I have said, these are just three potential skills of a good leader. There are many others. But the good news is that these skills can be learnt. And good leaders will recognise that they need to go on learning throughout their careers. After all, HR and the wider business world are constantly changing. Data analysis and artificial intelligence are just two emerging tools which HR urgently needs to get to grips with, and who knows what's around the corner? So a commitment to continual learning is essential, as is being open and honest with your team to ensure you continually adapt to their feedback - and give good feedback in return.

Nobody ever said being a leader was easy. It’s one of the toughest roles there is. But with a commitment to constant improvement, you can not only be the best leader you can be, but also develop the skills and techniques to take HR onto the next level: that of a key strategic player, not just guiding the top team, but up there where we all know HR should be, taking its rightful place at the very top table.

Jack Roberts is content marketer