A Lesson in Leadership from the HR Perspective

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06-12-2019

7 min read

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“Good morning, Michael. James would like to meet you today, at 3:30 pm. Are you available?”

I reached the chief executive officer’s (CEO) office early, wondering what HR matters the CEO wanted to discuss, as I could not recall any major HR issues that happened in the organisation recently. All seemed to be fine and in order, or so I assumed.

Once I was seated in James’ office, he said: “The reason I’m calling this meeting is to discuss David’s resignation – he tendered it last Friday. We had a short conversation about it and I tried to persuade him to stay but to no avail.”

I was shocked at David’s resignation. He was a good performer and an asset to the organisation – he made many improvement initiatives not only to his operations department but also to the organisation as a whole. He was a servant leader who cared for his team members. 

He was also recently promoted and had a bright future ahead of him. I wondered what made him decide to resign from his current role. Tasked to find out more, I immediately went to David’s office.

David and I had a good working relationship and I highly respected him I saw him as my mentor and a good advisor. David was headhunted for the role of deputy chief operations officer and was later promoted to chief operations officer after a year being with the company. 

Intelligent, visionary, and a humble man, he had served the company for about three years. He loved his job and was proud of his achievements so far. The company provided a good remuneration package and attractive benefits. So, why resign?

David and I had a long conversation about his resignation. We discussed the push factors and challenges he encountered that led him to this decision. He was very open with me and hoped that I could look into these matters for improvement. As the chief human resources officer (CHRO) for the organisation, people and organisational issues are top on my priority list.

The sharing session with David was eye-opening for me. The concerns he brought up were so relevant in terms of how they impacted the way people work in an organisation. This resulted in employee dissatisfaction, role ambiguity, and office politics. 

I took my notebook out and summarised the key issues highlighted: 

IssueContributing Factor
Company’s direction is not aligned to its vision and mission, not clearly defined, and frequently changes.
‘The blind leading the blind’ syndrome.
Leadership
Management does not walk the talk; they just talk and walk away. Practises ‘seagull’ management.Leadership
Information sharing is limited to select individuals. There are ‘blue eyed-boy or blue eyed-girl alliances’ and this creates suspicion and disharmony among colleagues. Transparency
Management likes to micromanage and advocate the ‘who’s the boss’ way of work. Employees are not empowered to manage and lead their work, what more their career development.Trust
Management hardly accepts suggestions or constructive criticism from the middle management team. Suggestions were put down publicly without valid justification. Shows the ‘my way or the highway you go’ rule of thumb in decision making.Team synergy
Management reprimands and silently punishes employees for their mistakes. Employees have to ‘face themusic’ and accept the unpleasant consequences.Leadership

READ: 10 Ways to Determine If You Are Ready to Manage People

From the notes, I deduced David’s resignation was very much associated with James’ leadership. The saying, ‘Employees do not leave companies, they leave managers’ is indeed very true and still applicable till today. 

How would I respond to David’s concerns? How do I communicate these concerns to the CEO? What interventions should be in place to reduce the impact (i.e. more resignations) to the people and organisation?

A good leader makes all the difference

Leadership is one of the most important factors determining the success of an organisation. Poor leadership can seriously affect employee morale, create a toxic work culture, and even cause the organisation’s bottom line to plunge like a sinking ship! 

Bad leadership leads to poor employee retention and demotivates the remaining employees, causing them to be less productive. It is vital to identify the traits of a bad leader so that they can be noticed early and rectified before the organisation suffers. 

Here are some prominent examples of poor leadership in general:

● The leader has no communication skills

● The leader tends to micromanage

● The leader has no vision

● The leader has no clear expectations for their employees

● The leader has favourites

● The leader is a bully

● There is high employee turnover in the organisation

How do human resources (HR) deal with poor leadership in the organisation? How can it find some common ground with the top management – or at least stay sane in the working relationship? 

Please bear in mind that HR cannot always be the problem-solver for every issue that happens in the organisation. Forbes’ Human Resources Council states that HR plays the role of Advocate and Enabler, which is to address or mediate conflict resolution between the management and employees. 

HR needs to be advocates for these concerns and encourage employees to find creative solutions, going into such conversations with a coaching mindset – not a problem-solving one. 

As a CHRO, here is what I believe HR has to say:

1. Leaders must be ‘present’

As the captain of the organisation, the leader must be actively contributing to the overall vision and mission so that employees can see and understand the organisation’s desired direction. 

This means being physically, mentally and emotionally present in every work situation and giving employees a window into your work. If the leader expects employees to work 56 hours a week but doesn’t put in the same number of hours and effort, he/she can expect animosity from the employees.

2. Leaders must have a solid sense of direction

When leaders don’t understand or fail to plan out the overall organisational direction, the organisation will head downhill – this is terrifying! Employees will call the organisation’s whole purpose into question, as well as their reasons for working there. 

Imagine having no goals. No targets. No future. 

Leaders must make sure that the organisation’s business and leadership direction are conveyed to all levels of employees through regular company-wide updates, as information sharing is important to be competitive in this global business environment. 

It’s like a chess game – the right positioning is key to success, and leaders should know how key personnel fit into the big picture. 

3. Leaders must champion transparency

Humans have an innate ability to sniff out mistruths. If leaders are withholding information, misrepresenting the truth, or – even worse – circulating false information, employees will find out sooner or later. 

The massive impact of this would be employees’ shattered trust in the leader. Without this trust, they will quickly become disenchanted and their respect for you goes down the drain. 

As a leader, you must aim to be as transparent as possible. Honesty and transparency keeps everyone on the same page, hushes the rumour mill, and reduces fear.

4. Leaders must be in authority

Bossy leaders are easy to spot and quickly become intolerable. The opposite is the leader who lacks authority, be it amongst other leaders, employees, clients, etc. These leaders are equally frustrating. 

They dance around hard decisions, don’t push for effective transformation that needs to happen, give poor feedback, and overcomplicate things, thus making the lives of employees miserable. 

These have negative knock-on effects and can lead to team burnout, unproductive processes, lack of growth and more, which pushes employees to leave the organisation. 

Leaders should pay enough attention to be able to spot the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, provide honest and valuable constructive feedback, drive the team in the right direction, and give continuous support when it comes to making hard decisions.

5. Leaders must be good listeners

Leaders need to accept that employees won’t treat them like just another colleague. Leaders are known to be the most senior employees in the organisation, and employees are generally not going to voice their true opinions or disagreement with the leader’s leadership style. 

This is why addressing organisational issues correctly becomes a problem. Leaders have a huge amount of authority and power to make transformative changes, but leaders are also the ones who are least able to get viciously honest feedback on those changes. 

Leaders should have an open mind, ask for completely honest feedback, and listen to those who speak up. If they disagree with the feedback, they should approach the conversation privately with curiosity and reasoning, rather than simply pushing through their own opinions and accusing the employee of being wrong! 

Practise the ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’ principle in daily conversations.

I realise that being a leader isn’t an easy job. Yes, it is exciting to have the big title, the big office, and the big salary. However, all these come with big responsibilities, not to mention a whole lot of stress! 

Many of us in leadership roles know what we need to do to be better leaders; we just sometimes fail to reflect and act. 

Leadership requires a unique and well-rounded skill set that’s hard to come by. Although there are some ‘natural born leaders’, leadership skills can be developed and leaders can be groomed. 

As leaders need to set a good example for others to follow, their values such as commitment, passion, empathy, honesty, and integrity also come into play. 

Taking the next step

I set up a discussion with the CEO to share my thoughts, but the first thing James did was to accuse David of planning to join the organisation’s direct competitor for a larger salary and better benefits. James also questioned David’s value to the organisation, saying that he could manage without David.

I calmly explained that that was not the case, and mentioned that there were push factors in the organisation that resulted in David’s decision to leave.

“To be honest, David said he likes this company because it has great potential, but the current situation has given him no choice but to accept the new offer. We need to salvage the situation immediately, otherwise, there will be more resignations coming in,” I told James.

“What do you mean by the current situation? Tell me more, please.”

“All right, James. Let’s start with…”

Dr Loo has about 19 years of HR industry experience in manufacturing, healthcare and infrastructure construction. Currently, he is the head of human resources and organisational development in a leading infrastructure construction company. He is responsible for the people and culture strategy, and for implementing group strategic human resources initiatives. Dr Loo has also held lecturing engagements for the MBA programme at Lincoln University College. Get in touch with him by emailing editor@leaderonomics.com.

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