Missing the Mark: Leadership Aspirations for HR Professionals

January 13, 2017

Missing the Mark: Leadership Aspirations for HR Professionals

How are the aspirations of HR leaders shaped by their view of the ultimate value HR can bring to an organization? If HR’s role is to be a partner, have a seat at the proverbial table, advise on potential risk, and support the business, then HR professionals need to have in-depth knowledge in the various HR disciplines. Success in this realm is for an individual to be recognized as an outstanding HR leader.

If, on the other hand, HR’s role is build organizational capability, make significant contributions to competitive strength, and drive (not just support) business results, then functional excellence is no longer sufficient. Being a partner is similarly not enough, because the ultimate goal is to be perceived and recognized as a business leader, not a functional expert.

This may seem like a small turn of the phrase or a minor difference, but it is not.  This basic distinction leads to behavior of a support player or a business leader. Part of the message of Fearless HR is that clarity of purpose matters, and it affects many factors, such as what to measure, which outcomes are meaningful, and even what leadership means.

Not all HR professionals aspire to be leaders, but they can still add value through commitment, skills, and functional excellence. For those who do seek leadership recognition, they must contribute to the larger sphere of the business, not just HR. The new standard for people who strive to be leaders within this framework is simple: Become a business leader that drives business results. There are certainly other factors that contribute to HR being able to impact business results, but the mindset of leaders is an important contributor. As Henry Ford has said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you are right.” 

So, how do aspiring HR leaders break out of their own silos and expand their network to be seen in a different light? How do they achieve credibility in the eyes of their business colleagues? Part of the answer comes from hard work, increased business and financial knowledge, and becoming more evidence-based, and part is demonstrating personal behaviors that engender trust, build new relationships, and extend boundaries.  The 7Cs that will build visibility, influence, respect and trust with peers and colleagues follows:

  • Continuously improving. Always be learning, especially in such a fast-changing, turbulent world.  Ask questions, be inquisitive, and seek new challenges.


  • Compassionate. EQ, active listening, concern for others, empathy, “Connect, then Lead.” (Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger, 2015)


  • Crossing boundaries. Step out of internal views, develop cross-functional buddies, look at the bigger picture, and develop bridging networks.


  • Connecting people, resources, and ideas. Be the connective tissue of the organization, connect the dots, find new linkages, and employ systems thinking.


  • Consistent champion for people and organization. Can be counted on, support others and the organization, and demonstrate humbition (humble ambition, as described by Collins, 2001).


  • Courageous. Have a strong point of view, be fearless, speak truth to power, and show conviction.


  • Credibility. Credibility is earned when the other Cs are demonstrated. It cannot be declared or personally bestowed; it must be conveyed by the respect of others.


Clarity of purpose means a great deal to a profession and the actors involved. It enables better choices to be made because goals are unambiguous and shared. Accountabilities are explicit. When HR’s purpose of “driving business results” is embraced, it provides sharper focus, stronger alignment to the business, more relevant prioritization, and improved professional confidence. A shared and accepted purpose also defines the qualities of leadership more crisply. It can be easy to miss the mark or raise the wrong bar, despite best intentions, if leaders are chasing an incomplete vision of what the profession can become.

The Authors: 

David Forman is president of Sage Learning Systems and former chief learning officer at the Human Capital Institute. The courses he has developed and taught for HCI have been taken by thousands of HR professionals around the world. Dave has spent more than 25 years in the training industry, working with large global organizations to improve the knowledge, skills, and performance of their people. Major clients include FedEx, IBM, DuPont, Microsoft, SAP, American Express, PwC, Ford, Prudential, Apple, Scripps Healthcare, and Allstate. He has written more than 40 articles on talent management, analytics, strategic human resources, learning systems, high-performance cultures, and leadership. He has also spoken at a variety of national and global tale and leadership conferences. David is the author of Fearless HR: Driving Business Results. He can be reached at dforman1@cox.net.