If not now, then when?

People will have a range of views on the HR profession, I’m ok with that. It may not surprise you to know that I don’t come to work to either fulfil or disprove a myriad of perceptions of my worth or usefulness. ┬áIt may surprise people to know that the reason I do come to work is to steer the organisation that employs me at the time to do the right thing for the people it employs.

Obviously if you take this to the macro level, profitable organisations can invest back in the workforce, successful organisations ensure they have capital investment, commercial organisations ensure they can see and instigate the opportunities that lead to success and profitability – and so the cycle continues.

But that’s not the reason I get out of bed in the morning, the reason I do is to try to create the place to work that my colleagues want to be in. Even if that will inevitably involve some bitching and moaning along the way – you can’t please all the people all of the time…

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a rise in calls for “HR to step forward”, or how strong HR is needed more than ever. The clarion call of a crisis, once again being used to throw the profession into the light. Remember 2007?

Whilst it starts with obvious decisions about furloughing, protection of wages, short term working, redundancies, protection of health, safety and wellbeing, managing remote workers and resource and contingency planning. It extends to issues such as executive reward, dividends, culture, engagement and productivity and post crisis recovery. There is no doubt that there is a lot for us to navigate.

The cynic in me wants to ask why it requires a global pandemic for the profession to find some backbone and step into the role that it should be playing every day? Why it requires something of such magnitude to bring a focus on the contribution that we make? But I guess beggars can’t be choosers, and as a collective we have been beggars for far too long.

We have seen and will continue to see some shocking examples of bad HR practice through this event, we need to hold these organisations and decision makers to account. But if we genuinely want to learn and grow from this, we also need to celebrate those organisations that are doing the right thing, protecting their employees and stepping up and into the right leadership space.

Because frankly, if not now then when?

When leadership calls

Throughout our careers, there will occasions when we are asked, more than ever, to demonstrate our worth as leaders. Whether through a change, a significant challenge, or indeed a crisis. Any of us that manage people will be asked to step up, to step into the light and to do the thing that we talk and theorise about so often. To lead.

In these circumstances, great leaders put their own concerns aside. They may be worried, concerned or unhappy, but they understand that their role requires them to put this aside. They are there in the service of their people.

They understand that they need to be calm and reassure, that it is only normal that in uncertain times people worry and they look to those in positions of authority to tell them it will be ok. They don’t rush around creating drama, no matter what they may feel inside.

Great leaders understand the importance of simple, clear communications and the need to repeat it more than ever. When we are worried, stressed or concerned we can find it hard to take in multiple complex measures, simple and clear messages make it easier for us to digest and process.

They also know that it is important to play by the rules that they set. That it doesn’t matter how clear and simple the messages are, by contradicting them with behaviours we send out complex messages that confuse. Actions need to match and reinforce messages.

And they recognise the human at the heart of each decision, seeing the impact that each and every choice we make has on people, thinking about how it feels for them and being clear of the why as well as the what. Which means sometimes we can do the right thing and be unpopular.

Finally, great leaders know sometimes they get things wrong in the heat of battle and they are humble and recognise fault. People will forgive you for getting things wrong, they rarely do for denying it or apportioning blame.

When leadership calls, we need to show up as the best version of ourselves. Remain mindful of how we are feeling, what we are thinking and ultimately why we are there. Every day is a chance to practice, sometimes you’re called on to perform.

You’re not here to make friends

The role of leader is not to seek to be popular, it is to serve in the best interest of stakeholders.  At different stages of your career, those stakeholders will change and evolve, but broadly that means your employees, customers, employers and society. It goes without saying that at times the interests of these different groups will present a tension. But frankly, that’s your job.

When I say this, the immediate reaction is to infer that I believe that the job of leaders is to be unpopular, that in some way I’m suggesting a nasty, brutal model of leadership. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Simply in order to lead well, you need to be prepared for people to not like you or your decisions. If you’re not, you will always shy away from a percentage of choices that could be helpful.

Backing yourself to make unpopular decisions and to lead through them to the other side is the very essence of leadership. In the most simple form, that’s why soldiers climbed out of the trenches, it is why explorers travelled the world, it is why star players are dropped before finals. The ability to make clear, decisive and difficult decisions.

The success of a leader isn’t how many people like them, it is how well they’re respected. I was reminiscing the other evening about a leader that I’d sadly had to remove from an organisation in the past. He was deeply liked and hugely popular, but from an impartial perspective massively ineffective. When he left the organisation there was a lot of emotion. A couple of years later team members voluntarily told me how angry they had been and how wrong they thought the decision was, but how much better things were now that he had gone.

Being a leader means sometimes we have to be unpopular, it means speaking out when it is inconvenient and acting when inaction would be easier. We must never conflate personal popularity with effectiveness or respect, we must be prepared to cause upset, not for the sake of it, but for the greater good.

We’re not here to make friends, we’re here to do the right thing.

Toxic cultures and ticking time bombs

The strange thing about toxic cultures, is the inability of those within to see how bad things have really got. It normally takes an inflection point or disruptive external event to raise levels of awareness to the point of consciousness. Looking at the recent tribulations of the UK Labour party and the Australian cricket team, we can see perfect examples (in different ways) of the way that toxic cultures become all-encompassing in a blinding fog of self-delusion. We’ve seen similar situations play out in the banking sector and other industries, which I’ve written about before.

It raises the question whether there is anything that can be done to prevent the slow slip towards implosion, or if a turbulent outcome is inevitable. What can leaders do to intervene?

Recognise it starts small – recognising small behavioural changes and calling them out is crucial to preventing the situation getting worse. Tolerance to bad cultural epithets increases over time unless they’re nipped in the bud.

Don’t explain away – it is very easy to explain things away, even when they get to seemingly gargantuan proportions. We’re just highly competitive, we have an overarching will to win, others are just jealous, they’re trying to drag us down, we know the real truth. And yes, you probably do but you won’t admit it.

Listen and be willing to hear – There are people who know that things are going the wrong way, there is seldom a lone bad apple or renegade group. People see and know, they just need to be given permission to talk and leaders need to listen and hear. If people think you’re just paying lip service, they won’t bother to risk the wrath and the pain.

Define your values and stick to them – The corridors of corporate power are littered with mission statements, values and charters which no-one knows and no-one applies in business decisions. Values in business are important, but only when they come off the poster and enter the psyche.

Look outside in – Don’t be afraid to ask someone else to take a regular look at your culture, behaviours and ethics. In business we are used to having people look at our accounts, our data and reports, our supply chain and other areas of our operation. So why not culture? An annual health check, by an independent third-party would go along way to holding yourselves to account.