The HR Leader as Change Leader

June 18, 2019

The HR Leader as Change Leader

In today’s fast-paced business environment, effective change management is more important than ever. The ability to respond quickly to changing business conditions lends resiliency to an organization and allows it to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. This can only be achieved through effective change leadership. 

A change management partner is a person who provides tools, expertise, and feedback to help executives stay on track. HR leaders are well suited for this role because they work directly with the people in an organization. Successful change requires changes in behavior; HR leaders are well positioned to facilitate the necessary behavior changes that will improve performance within the organization. It is therefore inevitable that the role of HR leaders has shifted to help assist in the change journey. This shift is requiring a different approach to HR leadership—one of becoming a change partner.

The HR leader’s role has traditionally included such activities as internal communications, employee relations, talent management, and policy enforcement—activities which support productivity and profitability. However, these activities don’t necessarily influence behavior in ways that facilitate strategic change. To fully step into the change leader role, HR leaders should have change-focused mindset. 

3 Mindset Shifts for HR Leaders to Become Effective Change Partners

As change agents, HR leaders can drive transformation by supporting business leaders in making organization decisions that assist in restructuring organizations, redefining culture, and cultivating critical relationships inside and outside the organization. 

HR leaders can become more effective change partners by making these three mindset shifts:

  • Redefining their relationship with organization leaders.
  • Providing leaders an expanded perspective of the organization.
  • Overcoming leaders’ resistance to partnering with HR to drive change.

Let’s examine how HR leaders can enact these shifts. 

1. Redefine your relationship with organization leaders.
To be an effective change agent, HR leaders must shift their role from that of a subordinate to that of coach or advisor. To do this, they must be willing and able to think and act strategically. Doing so enables them to become effective liaisons between leaders and the rest of the organization, to ensure that envisioned changes actually take place in the organization. 

2. Provide leaders an expanded perspective.
Traditionally, organization decision making has often centered around tangible metrics. However, HR leaders have a unique understanding of the intangible elements—complex interrelationships as well as beliefs and values—present in an organization. Whether it is understanding what motivates loyalty in customers and employees; how company culture affects an organization’s ability to attract top talent; or how the company’s products, services, policies, and/or philanthropy influence customers and communities, the availability of this type of knowledge can profoundly influence decision making. HR leaders who are able to help leaders realize the impact of their choices in light of these intangibles can help organizations initiate and respond to change in ways that best support their strategic goals. 

3. Overcome leaders’ resistance to change.
Change is slowed or stunted when business leaders won’t let HR leaders be part of the team driving change. The following are three common obstacles HR leadership need to confront if they aspire to being true change partners with the business. 

Objection #1: “We don’t need your input.” 
It can be challenging initially to get leaders who are used to seeing HR leaders as subordinates—whose role is simply to execute orders—to start trusting and relying on them as advisors. To overcome this objection, an HR leader will need to convince leaders of the value they can offer. You may need to explain and/or demonstrate to leader how important behavior change is to actually achieving desired change in your organization, as well as how your understanding of and influence over the people in your organization positions you to support or enact behavioral change across the organization and to validate and enforce those changes. 

Objection #2: “You don’t need to know how we operate or what our priorities are.” 
Gaining trust is essential. Department leaders are often understandably protective of their data, strategies, and work. HR leaders will need to explain how they can act as a liaison between disparate groups within the organization, helping them work together to achieve common goals. Cultivating key relationships across organizational departments, functions, or units can assist the HR leader in getting the necessary toehold within each group to reach that trusted status.  

Objection #3: “We don’t need additional data.” 
HR executives may need to help leaders understand how powerful a role data can play in driving effective change, and point them to the right data when appropriate. Just as sharing intelligence between countries helps fight terrorism and improve global security, pairing HR data with productivity, finance, or sales numbers can shed a lot of light on what is actually going on in the organization and what changes need to be made to drive success. 

How HR Leaders Drive Change

When HR leaders understand how to be effective change partners, they can be a powerful force for driving transformational change in an organization. However, they first must realize how to effectively use their skillsets, data, and unique viewpoints within the organization to help the company compete and grow. Then, they have to be willing to step into the change partner role, which may require them to persuade leaders of the value they can bring to the table. Those who succeed in doing both become valuable assets both to the leaders they work with and to their organizations. 

The Authors: 

Reed Deshler is Principal of AlignOrg Solutions.