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Testing in the Fire

Are you tough enough? Has your mettle been tested in the heat of the fire? Have you been on the front lines of change when it was just you (and your points of view) attempting to take the hill?

I ask this because I believe it’s essential to be tested as a leader aspiring to new levels. Without this testing, you’ll never know if you have what it takes to enter that hallowed territory reserved for the few who can claim leadership in the trenches. It’s this kind of leadership that I believe more HR professionals have been asked to step into, especially over the course of the past two years.


As you enter this new year, the only thing predictable is unpredictability. We all have to be tougher.


HR has historically relied on the folks in the ‘business line’ to make the tough decisions: innovative product line launches, new revenue ideas, the final decision to retrench and reduce the workforce, etc. Those bottom-line decisions are for those with titles outside of HR. Right? Sure, HR is the strategic business partner who frames the case and provides the thought leadership and necessary tools from the toolkit, enabling and partnering with the business to make decisions.


However, the strategic HR leader who has truly ‘arrived’ is quite intentionally placing herself in the position of owning those tough business decisions as much as the other business leaders would. They will have risen to the occasion wonderfully through a global pandemic, social unrest, and economic mayhem.


Unfortunately, it’s still completely conceivable that HR can get, well….soft. Meaning they may easily (or even happily) find themselves in a position of luxury where the difficult decisions are left to their colleagues in other functions. If that’s true, they almost assuredly never really grow as professionals. They will never lay claim to that crucible experience where they attain victorious outcomes, stretching themselves to new leadership levels.


The big question is, ‘are you willing to take the heat?’


As those HR leaders who have been in the field for several years and made progressively responsible moves will attest, leadership is tough work. It requires the need to have the courage of your convictions. In 2010, HR Executive Online published an article containing similar points – a piece I believe still holds true today over a decade later. One section noted that “many HR executives second-guess themselves. Unsure of their beliefs, they wait for signals or orders from the CEO and senior management team.” If HR leaders have truly assumed their ‘seats at the table’ (an expression we've all grown weary of!), then they must, by default, operate with courageous leadership. They must be willing to take the heat.

Sometimes, that heat may come internally when you deem a certain organizational decision to impact morale, sustainability, talent capacity, etc., negatively. If this happens, it is incumbent upon you as an HR leader to speak up, regardless of how unpopular it is. One of my leadership credos is "to have the courage to make decisions even when unpopular or unsolicited."


Sitting in the top seats – or even near them – means unpopularity. It means that many folks will not like your views. They may even confuse those views with their feelings about you. I fear that too many HR leaders are entirely too concerned with staff happiness which can easily translate into passive leadership and, in turn, an unwillingness to take the heat.


Being willing to take the heat must also come with having your facts. Data, data, data. You need proof points. You need to have statistics at the ready – statistics whose sources have been widely used and vetted. And, be sure that you aren’t carrying innate biases on the subject and, therefore, simply looking for data that backs you up.


Finally, as a business leader (remember, business leader first, HR leader second) who may eventually come under fire, you will need to be able to speak another language. As an HR leader, your 'native' language is change management, strategic sourcing, total rewards, talent management, OD…etc. But you’ll need other languages rooted in the nuances and business of your company. You should be just as well versed on the vulnerabilities of your company’s revenue model as you are about the compliance issues in benefits. With this understanding and approach, your challenges and courageous convictions will truly mean something.


Stepping into this terrain is not for the faint of heart. But since when is anything worth attaining billed as ‘easy’?


Happy New Year! Now, toughen up!


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