Decisiveness and the quality of decision-making is, not surprisingly, in the top half of Mosaic’s annual poll of Future Fit Leadership traits.
After all, it’s an unavoidable part of the role of any leader, to somehow make sense of the storm that includes: situation, context, circumstances, options and inputs and to come to a conclusion about a course of action that remains true to the official trajectory that the leader has subscribed to.
Yet it’s especially difficult, messy and lonely when that leader happens to work in the people professions, as many of our clients do.
The Mosaic team is drawn from practitioners who have all, at some stage, trodden similar paths to our clients, whether in the agency worlds or other sectors. But we recognise that, as objective third parties or consultants, the nature of the decisions we make, or influence, come with different levels of accountability. Our influencing relationship is different and the nature of the invitation is markedly different to that between a salaried Director and their Board.
With this in mind, we have again called upon the perspectives of a long-standing friend; someone with a legendary international networking presence; an HR pop star Steve Browne, to share his practical perspectives on this tricky topic, from the other side of the pond.
“I’ve worked in HR, here in the States, for oodles of years. My heritage pre-dates enlightened terms like “people-centered” and even “engaged employees”. To be blunt, workplace culture used to be sniggered at when terms like “satisfaction” or worse still, “employee happiness” were used.
Even as a junior staffer, I knew that something was wrong and that issues being experienced by colleagues downstream were the result of what was happening in the “water” above
(quite the metaphor for anyone who’s been camping).
My first “real” HR role was in a manufacturing company where the notion of process was strong. There were few bridges between HR and colleagues. So I took it upon myself to make the brave decision to get out of the office and to walk the floor, to go to where the bulk of the people were. Tom Peters calls this “managing by walking about, MBWA”. It just made decent horse sense to me.
Senior peers and managers said I was crazy and that I would be plagued by moaning or confronted by angry staff. But, within a relatively short time, the number of complaints and “tickets” raised dropped significantly. Why? Because I was accessible, people had a relationship with me and could come to me informally to address challenges before they snowballed. It worked.
My gut was right. My decision was vindicated.
I’ve always tried to present as an approachable, friendly person. It’s how I was raised and it is a natural part of my leadership style in a profession where others choose distance and many boundaries. Friends and contacts tell me that’s why I have nearly 50,000 international contacts, because I work on the social aspects of social media, a lot. I’ll take that. But it isn’t easy cultivating networks or leading change.
When I joined my current company, 17 years ago, my predecessor was known for his focus on due process; rigidity and hierarchy. Rules and systems took priority. Theory X was his leadership style.
I took a different view of our environment and felt strongly that integration and working across teams was the way forward, consulting and facilitating, coaching and influencing. To my mind HR should be seen as a partner and not a back office support function. It wasn’t always a popular view. But I held the line, despite strong opposition at times.
I have to admit that it’s taken longer than I’d hoped and has been a rocky road some weeks. But we’re now getting there. I’m proud of how HR is now woven into the fabric and that we’ve mentored and nurtured people-centric skills. It did test my belief in my convictions, however, and like many HR peers, I seldom get a lot of thanks.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had my share of setbacks during my career and there have been times where I’ve questioned why I didn’t adopt a more straightforward profession or approach with cleaner and clearer deliverables and outcomes.
There are HR professionals who set boundaries rigidly and come to work to focus on task. Perhaps they sleep better at night? But I’ve learned the hard way that there’s often an inverse relationship between organisations that claim, loudly, that people are “their greatest asset” and the sub-prime amount of time and attention as well as resources they actually dedicate to the people professions.
I’ve joined organisations where the reactionary and inflexible nature of the more traditional management strictures has been doggedly persistent. Here, my approach has been criticised as idealism and I’ve been constantly under attack. Sometimes, the adage “you have to work within the culture to influence it” is all too painfully true. And there have been situations and roles where I’ve had to admit defeat and give in to the status quo.
Where I have left the arena on my shield, I know that I’ve at least managed to cultivate enlightened sparks in at least some progressive eyes, through example. But rigid structures are hard to re-shape, even when they’re faced with a changing commercial landscape. Not surprisingly, however, one of those organisations was recently taken over by an acquisition they couldn’t defend.
In terms of lessons, I see leadership as something that has to change and evolve organically in line with changing pressures and norms and opportunities. I feel I’ve learned from mistakes. Not least that we all make them. But what’s important is that I’ve consistently made decisions that are true to my core values and beliefs; I’ve stuck to them; despite a lot of pressure and ultimately I’ve left most roles better for having been there. And that matters.
I’d have it no other way.”
We know that the community members who read these posts are interested in the power of the people professions to influence and enable effective business outcomes. Steve’s journey and examples highlight the importance of taking and sticking with values-based decisions at key moments. As an agency, we attract our fair share of cynicism and are often called idealists.
Well, long may that last.
Here’s to Steve and the fellow Don Quixotes, tilting at giants. He’s an author, speaker and prolific HR networker on a mission to connect with HR professionals worldwide. Soi f you’re not connected with him on Twitter, look up @sbrownehr or contact us at @PartnersMosaic and we’ll join the dots for you.