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12 Habits of Highly Successful HR Leaders

John Schierer Foresight, Guest Post, Human Resources, Management, Office Environment 2 Comments

What’s the difference between an HR practitioner and an HR leader? According to our human resources guru, it’s these 12 traits.

Editor’s Note:   Yesterday, human resources supported the business. It collected resumes, for instance, heard complaints, administered benefits and distributed praise. Simply put: It pushed paper and gave gold stars. Tomorrow, however, human resources won’t just support the business. It will drive it. In fact, a 2012 survey by human resources consultancy KPMG found that 59 percent of senior executives believe HR will grow in strategic importance. Unfortunately, just 17 percent say HR does a good job demonstrating its value. That doesn’t surprise John Schierer. Current Vice President of HR at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, he has more than 25 years of experience as a senior human resources executive for companies including Cobham Defense Systems, Kyocera America and Thomas & Betts Corp. During that time, he’s learned a few things about human capital. Those who manage it best, he says, have a dozen behaviors in common. In order to take their organization from yesterday to tomorrow, HR professionals must master all 12. Here, he tells Forefront how. ♦


By John F. Schierer

In selecting top talent, there is an exercise whereby those in the hiring process create two lists of characteristics. One list describes the minimum skills and behaviors required to be considered. The second outlines the outstanding characteristics of the very best in breed.

Essentially, the second list looks at the all-star. What do the very best in their field do and think that makes them stand out? How would you know it if you saw it? The process allows you to screen to the minimum standards and select in comparison to the outstanding dimension. The first list describes the table stakes. The second describes the jackpot.

This got me thinking about the very best human resources (HR) practitioners. What made them great and different? How did they bring value? How would I know them when I saw them? Why would I want them on my team?

What follows is my list of the best behaviors of today’s outstanding HR practitioner:

#1: Understand What Drives Success and Revenue in Your Business

If you do not know the last three years’ sales and profitability, how you make money and your top three customers, you cannot play. That is the ante at the table.

In my first HR leadership role, the CEO bemoaned the fact that as he visited customers, their HR Departments appeared to be more proactive and connected to the business; he asked that his HR Department be repositioned within the organization to contribute beyond an administrative role. He gave me free reign to make any changes in personnel to effect the transformation.

In my first days there, I quizzed the HR team. Who are our customers? How do we make money? What customers are growing or shrinking? Who are our best and worst suppliers? What has changed in our market over the last three years? How much money is spent on research and development (R&D), and how do we decide where to spend R&D money?

Not surprisingly, no one knew the answers to those questions. As a new employee, I did not know the answers myself, but I asked the team if they were curious about the answers. Fortunately, they were bright and eager and curious. They were dying to find out. Along the way, we learned that even the broader organization did not know all those answers. In time, we assigned different team members to investigate and give reports to the entire HR team. Everyone was asked to give their interpretation of the implications of what they found.

This was the key to repositioning HR within the broader organization. As the HR team fanned out and asked questions, they were now seen as interested in all facets of the business and their solutions were better informed and accepted. They went beyond the routine administration of forms to redesigning forms so that they could be more easily used and less prone to error. They were informed and could answer the “Why?” question when confronted about an HR policy.

To give one more illustration of this point, I once worked in a company with a large Customer Service Department. About one-third of their time was spent correcting invoice errors that could be as little as a few cents. As business expanded, there was a tremendous surge in hiring in the area. Plans were made to add desks, break down walls and even add capacity to the cafeteria for break times. HR could have just run ads and done the hiring. Instead, they worked with the managers in Customer Service to identify the most common billing errors and change the order input processes. By eliminating the errors and the work at the source, it made the department’s reps more efficient, increased customer satisfaction and reduced the labor costs. In addition, team members now were able to spend more time dealing with the customer in a positive fashion.

Transactional HR people do not function on this plane, but those who understand the business can make such an impact

#2: Thank Your Detractors

In an age of bitter partisanship, this attribute seems lost in a sea of acrimony. By thanking those who disagree, you reduce bitterness and create an environment where dissent makes everyone and everything stronger. It is a great example for others in the organization.

Do you want to create an open, questioning environment? This behavior is the key to showing that dissent is not blood sport but rather the wellspring of the best ideas that have been honed through critical examination. You will be surprised at how disarmed your critics may be when they receive your thanks for their input. Make your thanks public and sincere so that others may see that different points of view are welcome.

Points of disagreement and points of conflict are actually two different things. Make sure that you are an example for the best outcomes of disagreement by eliminating the zero-sum outcomes of an environment that says “I must not only win, but ensure you lose.”

#3: Run to What Scares You

Years ago I was in a snowball fight with the woman who would later become my wife. As I took dead aim on her with the snowball, she did something totally unexpected: She ran directly at me. By running at me, she was actually harder to hit, and she had me off balance. She ended up tackling me and disarming me as I fell backward into the snow. I braced myself for a hard fall but fell softly backward into the snow behind me.

Anytime I sense fear in myself, I recall that situation and think: How do I run directly at my fear? How do I tackle it and disarm it? Do I realize that my fall will not be as hard as I imagine it will be? Many times, the object we fear most can be knocked over easily, but we need to take that first step directly toward it. As I face fear and take the initial step, I create momentum and confidence. What is the worst thing that can happen?

Many times, our pride magnifies the impact of failure, and rarely is a failure catastrophic. Once I had to confess a failure to my boss. I was miserable and felt awful. But he asked two questions: “Did anyone die?” and “Did you learn anything that will help you?” If the answers to those to questions are (in order) no and yes, then you have a successful outcome.

So, if you fear math, take on a project with math in it. If you don’t like to speak publicly, do something that forces you to use that skill. Your fears limit you and your effectiveness. Run toward those fears and topple them

#4: Listen and Do Not Interrupt

This is a particularly easy trap to fall into as you advance in your career. An employee comes in to see you and you have heard this problem (or one very similar) many times before. You have a phone call to return and a person waiting to see you. Your greatest temptation is to solve the problem and move on. The greatest HR practitioners understand that people come to HR to be heard.

You may indeed be able to solve the problem at hand, but the voice they need to hear is their own. If they solve their own problem, it is not only likely to be an enduring solution, but it builds their confidence and self-esteem. If you solve it for them, they now have a crutch—and an easy person to blame if the solution does not work. A good rule of thumb is to establish a mental gauge that informally measures the amount of time you spend talking. If the gauge gets past the point where you are talking more than a third of the time, just stop talking and let the other person speak.

Some in HR have a built a career out of fixing problems, but often these solutions are not enduring. If you really do not have the time, schedule time so the person has your undivided attention. Be straightforward and say, “Your situation deserves my full and undivided attention. Let’s pick a time when I can give you the time you need.” You will be surprised at the positive reaction you get from such a practice. It also gives the person additional time to reflect and think through what they want to say. But above all, when they do return, be sure you are listening. Don’t interrupt until they are done. Don’t answer the phone. Just listen. Good HR people solve problems; great ones enable the solution.

#5: Restate the Other Person’s Position

This is an extension of listening skills. If you are deeply interested in what the other person has to say and are practicing active listening, you should be able to clearly state the other person’s position with the preface “What you are saying is…”.

Too many times we mistake listening for the act of preparing our rebuttal. It is surprising how many good HR practitioners cannot accurately restate positions, especially ones with which they disagree. The ability to restate another person’s position with great clarity shows respect to the other party in the conversation.

In addition, this capability is important because as you are able to repeat the concept or opinion, you may be able to look for small areas of philosophical overlap. As you establish the tiniest beachhead of commonality, you can extend outward to look for ways to agree and reach a mutually satisfactory solution.

Finally, if there is a misunderstanding, this process allows the other person to actively clarify his or her point, so that misunderstandings do not get the opportunity to become deeply rooted.

#6: Be Able to Defend Your Opponent’s Argument as Well as Your Own

This shows great mental agility and confidence, and it will ensure you synthesize the best parts of the argument into a greater solution. One of my bosses long ago took two combatants and made them switch sides of the argument. By doing so, he did not necessarily determine who was right, but he clearly understood which person had done the most diligent thinking.

The inability to defend your opponent’s position shows a closed mind and an inability to analyze the issue. Think about a group of art students sitting in a still life art class painting a bowl of fruit. Some see apples, others oranges, and some see grapes. All see shadows on different sides of the drawing. Is anyone lying about what they see? Certainly not. And who is the most talented artist? The one who can paint what is immediately before them, or one who can imagine what is seen on the other side of the room and capture it with great fidelity? Which artist do you want on your team?

#7: Enjoy Others in the Spotlight

HR is a support department. If you do not enjoy others’ success and the reflected glory of their growth, you may be in the wrong profession. Everyone has a role to play in organizational greatness. The center of the stage is finite, and the spotlight is defined.

The truly great HR practitioner is content to identify the very best performers to play the parts and make them better for each performance. HR practitioners must be the most self-assured people in the organizational structure and draw satisfaction when they create a chemistry of skills and behaviors that draws a standing ovation—even as they are not on stage.

#8: Have Fierce Conversations With Great Respect

Many times HR staff members find themselves in a position in which they must deliver messages that others cannot or will not. These messages need to be delivered unwaveringly and intensely.

If you have a underperforming teammate or see bad behaviors, call them out privately and describe the desired behavior. When people know someone is watching and cares, they often respond. Alternately, if poor behavior goes unchecked, at minimum it allows the excuse “No one told me not to do it.” The litmus test is pretty simple: Would I recommend my workplace to my friends and neighbors? If the answer is no, what are the behaviors that need to be confronted and changed?

In many ways, HR is better equipped and situated to address such issues. People in a particular department may be hesitant to have these conversations because they have to see their co-workers daily. They may fear reprisals from their supervisor. HR must be unflinching in their willingness to define desired behaviors and willing to describe situations inconsistent with the ideal state. By stressing the behaviors, you are not setting up a personal confrontation (i.e., “you were bad”) but rather a positive alternative (i.e., “there are better choices in that circumstance”).

#9: Give People a Place to Fall

People who are wrong or behave badly or are not performing need a place to preserve their dignity. In some cases, it is not enough to win an argument or a situation—the other person must submit and admit defeat. This merely sets the stage for rounds of revenge and sets off a downward spiral of activity in the organization. Resolution to a better state of affairs must be sufficient. The best HR people understand this and accomplish their objective while allowing others dignity.

In a very stark example, I once was involved in a union negotiation in which the union badly miscalculated and went out on strike. They stood outside the gates for 13 days in a pouring rain while the plant hummed along without them. On the thirteenth day, we created a minor technical language concession and the contract was settled later that day. Could we have let the situation linger for weeks more and forced a humiliating capitulation? Likely. But at what cost to the long-term good?

The variations on this are infinite, but if you allow people to exit a job, an argument or a situation with dignity it ends up in a much better resolution and you have won an ally for life.

#10: Do Not be the Abominable No-Man (or Woman)

The least successful HR people are policy cops trying to catch people in a violation and blindly enforcing administrivia. Keep your head up. Why does the policy exist, and what purpose does it serve? What is the intent, and did those who framed it anticipate the circumstances you face?

I once got a call from a respected HR colleague. He described a situation of an employee who turned in tuition reimbursement form two days after a procedural 30-day deadline. The employee was going to school at night and had a new baby in the house. My colleague argued that rules were rules and that to allow an exception invited chaos. I just wondered aloud, “Who made up the rule? Why was it 30 days? Why was there a tuition reimbursement policy to begin with? What was the goal? Did the rule serve the purpose? Would changing or reinterpreting the rule break any law? Would a different interpretation more likely invite chaos or admiration for supporting the intention of tuition reimbursement?”

Unless the rule was written by Moses or breaks a law, think hard. HR can be a cop on the beat or a keeper of integrity of the spirit and intent of policy. All rules were written by our predecessors given the facts and circumstances in play at that time. At minimum, we need to examine the situation today and ensure that our current circumstances require an identical response. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that these are corporate policies, not the Torah for example, we are dealing with.

#11: Be a Bottom Feeder

Take on the things in the organization that others do not want to do—the tough, unpopular tasks. The departments that are underperforming. The broken systems. This extends beyond just HR tasks.

If you can approach these tasks, you learn, you grow and you and HR become more valued. This is risky and requires you to go far beyond the traditional boundaries of HR. It requires you to identify the weakness no one else is willing to address.

Is your Customer service Department lacking? Volunteer to be the voice of the customer and describe how the customer interface might be improved. Are competitors eating your lunch when it comes to creativity and new products? Take on the task of understanding the creative environment and facilitate sessions to foster creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Weaknesses within organizations are opportunities to make a meaningful impact. If you hope to reposition HR so that the function is seen as a business partner, you are going to have to stick your neck out and show that this is not your same old HR Department anymore. Know where the pain is in your company, and go there.

#12: Be Courageous

Anybody can tell where the wind is blowing and turn with it. The majority is not always right and standing your ground can be painful, but at least you sleep well at night. Winston Churchill said it well: “… It is said that leaders should keep their ears to the ground. [People] find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture.”

I am not advocating career suicide: Your expulsion from the organization will not further any just cause. I am saying that there are cases in which the momentum of opinion begins to grow within an organization, and it is important to understand the difference between rising popularity and what is best in a situation.

There was a company that was planning a huge layoff—about a quarter of their workforce. It was a typical company in that their manufacturing was at a central point, with sales offices scattered about the country. The overall size of the action would overwhelm the local HR team, so HR suggested that the nationwide sales force be brought in to assist in the actions of the day (e.g., escorting laid-off employees through various outplacement stations and activities). The extra hands would have helped to execute the layoff and provided dignity and respect. A sales meeting could be held to plan steps to recovery, and it would bring the impact of a layoff from the realm of an abstraction to a very real event in the eyes of the salespeople.

The majority revolted against the idea as holding sales up as a scapegoat and an additional and unnecessary expense. HR stood firm in the face of fierce opposition, maintaining that this was not assessing blame but creating a shared sense of a negative organizational event. Sales should not be held apart from it but become a part of the event in a very meaningful sense.

The view of HR won the day. Record sales years followed. Whether or not some or any of the recovery could be attributed to the shared organizational sense of accountability is open to wide debate, but in hindsight the participation of the sales team was seen as a positive. It was just unpopular at the time. Do not confuse unpopular with wrong. ♦


In conclusion, I do not claim that these 12 attributes are all inclusive or all correct—or even that the list numbers 12. Nor do I claim that I embody these attributes myself; but I do aspire to them. I also know that I have never seen one HR professional who has them all. I will say, however, that every one of the HR leaders I admire has had most of them to one degree or another.

As I warned that no organizational rules that I know of came from Moses on stone tablets, I would not advise taking this list as sacred. Time, opinion, circumstance and the evolution of the role will alter this list in important ways over time. But for now, if I were hiring the next great HR leader I would look for someone who had as many of these qualities and values as possible.

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Alliance for Organizational Excellence (Employer of Choice) | Pettit Kohn Ingrassia & Lutz PC (Employment Law) | Amerit Consulting, Inc. (Staffing and Workforce Solutions) | Glasberg, Heidel and Grayson Associates (Coaching & Management Consulting) | Management Recruiters of Mercer Island (Executive Search)
John Schierer

John Schierer

John Schierer is a senior Human Resources Consultant with over 25 years’ experience with such companies as Thomas and Betts, Kyocera America, Cobham Sensor Systems, and Cubic. His HR teams create strong cultures of employee engagement resulting in record-setting financial performance.His teams were awarded the Workplace Excellence Award by the San Diego Society of Human Resources (SDSHRM) in 2008 and 2010 and the National Business Research Award in 2009 for wholesale gains in employee engagement results.
John Schierer

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