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Born to Run (HR Departments)

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How do you measure your success as an HR leader? Gary Cookson, Director, EPIC and HRD Thought Leader, explores what success means for an HR leader and how to identify it.

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In this article I’ll be talking about how to measure your success as an HR leader. There’s obviously different ways to do it – personally, through others and organisationally – and I’ll try to explore some of these dimensions.

I don’t think of myself as an HR leader much. Others seem to, but not me. It dawned on me a few years ago that I may have accidentally become one, and I hadn’t put too much thought or planning into that, so I was mildly surprised that I was viewed as an HR leader.

I’d led HR teams, yes. And I’d led HR for whole organisations. I suppose TECHNICALLY I was an HR leader. But the, as now, I wasn’t too sure what the qualifying criteria was or is.

What makes an HR leader? How do you become one and how do you know if you have?

My reflection on this is that you have influence outside of your immediate team and outside your organisation too. Beyond that I don’t know. On this site I’m fancifully called an HR Thought Leader and that label is slightly baffling too.

But, my point being, we can all be HR leaders – though how do we measure our success?

In my own journey I’ve learnt so much about leadership, about HR, and about being a human being, and if I’m honest I think HR leadership encompasses all of those. It’s not, for me, about the qualifications you hold, or the memberships you may have. Those are important but leadership in HR isn’t measured that way.

If anything though those are examples of what I’d call personal measures of success – your qualifications, CIPD (or other) membership level, maybe a few relevant career goals achieved too. On top of this you may have objectives for your own personal development of skills, knowledge etc and may be able to track these too.

But, on a personal level, focusing only on those seems to me to be a little shallow. Personal success is not just about work. I often say that we only spend about one quarter of our entire week at work so any measures of personal success need to be kept in that kind of proportion.

And yes, we spend about one third of our week asleep, and I’m seriously suggesting that a measure of personal success is whether we are getting the rest that we need. If we don’t, we can’t give 100% so looking after ones mental and physical health is as important as work related goals.

We spend a great deal of time with family and friends and the balance of our goals should be about the impact we have on and our relationships with them. I always introduce myself as “a father of four, a husband of one, and in my spare time I run my own HR business” so I’m suggesting that if we are to be taken seriously as an HR leader that we need to focus seriously on our legacy as parents, significant others and close friends. If we have the right elements in place, we will be a better HR leader and can bring our whole self to the workplace.

Which leads me on to how we are perceived in the workplace and how we measure our success there.

It’s possible to measure our success vicariously through others success, and this is a main measure I think. A Chief Executive I used to work for had a proud record of having mentored five different junior staff and had seen each one progress to be a Chief Executives in their own right in different organisations. He was rightly proud of this and saw this as an ultimate measure of his own success.

There’s something to that.

In a blog post on my own site a couple of years ago I suggested that bad leaders beget bad leaders, in the sense that one tends to often mirror the behaviour of those who had a formative influence on your early career. It follows though, that the same is true at the other end of the spectrum – good HR leaders beget good HR leaders. In that sense, you could measure your own success by how many good HR leaders you help to create. What influence are you having on them?

Whilst it may be living vicariously through the success of others, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Surely the ultimate success of any leader, HR or otherwise, is about the happiness and overall quality of their followers? So helping those followers to achieve their own success is a very relevant measure.

As is how we ourselves are perceived by others within our workplace. Glassdoor has a rate the CEO type measure that comes close to this kind of measurement but is subject to a lot of game playing. However, this type of feedback from others is invaluable and it’s one thing I’ve learnt relatively late into my HR career – that it’s possible to be successful by being liked, being likeable and displaying a lot of good, human behaviours.

And then of course we can measure our success via our impact on the business we work in. However that business measures its own success, so ought we to do.  Of course there are other factors at play and the correlation isn’t 100% but if we are working in a very unsuccessful business then we have to take a good look at ourselves as HR leaders and ask if we are doing enough?

I said earlier that to be a great HR leader we also need to have influence beyond our own organisation, and that’s about visibility, networking and connections – all human qualities and underestimated by many HR professionals.

But, if these are ways in which we could measure success, how do we ensure it happens?

The CIPD Profession Map, in the UK, gives a good structure to follow in terms of the behaviours that many would say are essential for HR leadership. To me, there is currently no better structure to look at.

However there are a few things that in my experience have made a difference to being an HR leader.

In my experience, great HR leaders are in touch with their own and others’ emotions. They are all helpful, supportive, genuine people who inspire loyalty, and whose approach to getting others to do something is to make those people feel that they really wanted to do it. They laugh, they joke, and they are self depreciating, never once overstating their worth. They have a caring approach and a focus on family, and bring their whole self to work – there’s no difference between the “home” HR leader and the “work” HR leader and no hidden aspects. In doing this, they’re displaying honesty and a great appreciation for how to interact with and lead people – being yourself.

One could say, with some justification too, that I’m not necessarily describing great HR leaders, but great leaders.

And I think you’d be right. But, we know great leaders are necessarily great with people, and ensure that whatever they do, they do it with people feeling motivated to follow them and being treated in the right way.

And, ultimately, that’s what great HR is too.

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