How HR leaders can help executives become change ready

the responsibility of HR to build a strong business case for interventions to build a change receptive organisation

There are a number of ways HR can help executives develop the courage to change internally, with a view to improving their personal leadership style and positively impacting organisational culture, according to Rose Clements.

The most effective approach to internal change is to work at the “human operating system” level of self-understanding and awareness, to help executives become conscious of why they think what they think and why they hold certain predispositions, she said.

“It is these attitudes and mindsets that drive behaviour and create impact with others,” said Clements, who is currently HR director – group leadership, culture & talent at Westpac Group and formerly served as HR director for Microsoft Australia & NZ.

“Too often I see organisations working furiously at the behavioural ‘human software level’ to rectify habits and develop skills without having first addressed the destructive or misaligned ‘bugs’ in their operating systems.”

Clements, who was speaking at a recent Lee Hecht Harrison event in Sydney on courageous leadership and change management, said she believes behavioural training alone creates leaders who act as they think they need to (a kind of “speed camera” approach to leadership)  – until such time as they slip back into unconsciousness and established habits.

“The right 360 tool, when used for development and not performance, in conjunction with feedback, coaching and group workshops can catalyse this self-awareness,” she said.

“I have yet to meet a leader, who when faced with a demonstrable gap between the leader they believe they are being with the leader others actually experience them to be, has not been motivated to close this gap.”

“The foundation to demonstrate the above skills is a strong ability for self-reflection – a characteristic I rarely see in leaders”

Georg Hirschi, talent solutions director for Lee Hecht Harrison, also said the ability for leaders to change internally is only possible by reflecting on their own behaviours to increase self-awareness.

Given change is a constant for most organisations and new leadership styles or behaviours are needed to lead workforces into the future, Hirschi said ‘point in time’ 360 assessment tools are no longer sufficient.

“An effective leader needs to develop the ability to reflect on their own behaviours and seeking feedback from others, from across the workforce including direct reports – however challenging that may be – on an ongoing basis,” he said.

“This mindset truly defines a courageous leader and builds a culture of collaboration and inclusiveness.”

Developing courageous leaders
Leaders play a significant role in successful (or unsuccessful) business transformation outcomes, according to Clements, who observed that courage is a key quality that leaders must possess in the change process.

“In the context of organisational transformation, to me a courageous leader is one who is prepared to demonstrably step out of their comfort zone and lead the way – even if this provokes personal feelings of insecurity and vulnerability,” she said.

“Courageous leaders turn rhetoric into reality through role modelling and congruence between what they say and what they do; courageous leaders use their leaders voice to actively evangelise why the prize of change is greater than the price of change; courageous leaders have the self-awareness to acknowledge their fears and concerns in a constructive way and create space for others to do the same.”

Clements said this ensure things do not get swept under the carpet or buried, but are faced head-on and dealt with respectfully and honestly.

“I see it as the responsibility of HR to build a strong business case for interventions to build a change receptive organisation”

Hirschi explained that a courageous leader in a time of transformation is one that is firstly visionary, but more importantly, demonstrates behaviours and clear actions towards the articulated vision.

“The ability to ‘lead from the front’ is a defining ability of a courageous leader in this context,” he said.

“However, I believe that, given the increased complexities of today’s world as well as the continuous changes facing organisations, some of the other skills or traits of courageous leaders have changed in this decade compared to the last.”

In order to succeed in a transformation, he said a courageous leader needs to ensure that teams and a workforce are truly engaged and willing to go the extra mile to make the shift happen.

This is only possible if a leader has outstanding skills in communication (both formally and informally), said Hirschi, who added that it is important to communicate in a way which people understand, which fosters a culture of outcome driven collaboration and ownership, and which demonstrates a real desire for open and honest dialogue.

“A courageous leader needs to welcome feedback from across the workforce (not focused on hierarchy), be open-minded and, even more so, appreciate open debate and challenges on ideas, concepts, behaviours and so on,” he said.

“To make a transformation happen a lot of people need to be in it and they need to want to do it, which is only possible if the courageous leader allows them to have a voice and truly take part in the change.

“The foundation to demonstrate the above skills is a strong ability for self-reflection – a characteristic I rarely see in leaders,” he said.

Authenticity and the role of HR in change
Authenticity is also a critical quality for both executives and HR leaders in the business transformation process, said Clements.

“Human beings are highly astute and we have our ‘BS’ detectors switched on full pretty much all the time,” she said.

“When a leader can find the meaning and purpose in a business transformation for themselves, then this is as easily detected as is the absence of same.”

In building a change receptive organisation, Clements said HR must be an early, authentic adopter themselves.

“Whether in people leadership roles or not, HR must walk the talk,” she said.

“HR is the guardian of culture, and the steward of talent. They are also the trusted advisor who can steer support to or away from change.”

“Human beings are highly astute and we have our ‘BS’ detectors switched on full pretty much all the time”

To tactically enable this, Clements said HR needs to develop and apply intelligent, relevant interventions to help leaders lead well, to help employees understand and trust the organisation.

“I have previously described HR as the ‘midwives’ of the organisation – we help people deliver things they never thought possible, but at that moment of delivery we need to step aside and let the leader and organisation as a whole say ‘look what we have done,’” she said.

Similarly, Hirschi said HR needs to be internal ‘thought-leaders’ in enabling successful transformation from a people perspective.

A prerequisite for this is that HR must understand the technical, financial and economical drivers of the transformation in order to pull the right people levers to build a change receptive organisation – “a development area for many HR teams in my view”, said Hirschi.

“This foundation will then enable HR to be a trusted advisor to the business and demonstrate strong influencing skills to implement the right interventions,” he said.

“Every successful transformation needs upfront and ongoing investment in capacity and capability to make the shift happen, and I see it as the responsibility of HR to build a strong business case for interventions to build a change receptive organisation.”

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