Lessons learned from bad HR bosses
Published in the Canadian HR Reporter, May 9, 2005
article as a pdf file
Next to the CEO, the leader of the HR function can be the most
influential and important person in an organization. While other leaders
typically manage one or two discrete functions, this role works across
all functions touching every manager and employee.
A trusted HR executive is confided in and knows more about what’s going
on in the organization than anyone else. This gives her a unique view of
the entire business and puts her in a position to diagnose problems —
especially cross-functional ones — and play a key role in the
development of solutions.
So why is there still so much discussion about the struggle to gain the
business’ acceptance to be such a resource? Why are CEOs and other
senior leaders so willing to hire expensive external consultants without
even exploring whether the skill exists in the HR function?
As internal consultants, HR professionals can develop relationships, and
a base of information and insight into the organization that cannot be
replicated by external consultants. But while this position inside the
organization has its advantages, it also presents additional
responsibilities and challenges for HR.
HR functions provide strategic, operational and administrative services
to every business in the organization. Contrast this with other
functions in which strategic roles are played by executives, while
day-to-day operations is the responsibility of line managers
Because we have our own function to manage, our leadership skills become
very visible to our clients.
We must practice what we preach. We must be the leadership role model in
the organization, because if we are not, word will spread. People will
wonder how HR can play a larger role in the organization when it has
such difficulty running its own operation.
In my 18 plus years as an HR professional I’ve worked directly with over
a dozen HR executives. About half of these leaders truly inspired me.
They communicated vision and strategies and created environments in
which it was easy for me to empower myself and give everything I
possibly could. These leaders coached, provided tough feedback, and even
gave me a kick in the pants when necessary — they never shied away from
tough conversations. They didn’t just implement HR programs and
practices in the rest of the organization, they used them with their own
teams as well. In addition, these leaders were always looking for ways
to increase effectiveness while reducing cost – ever mindful that HR is
a cost centre that needs to be as lean as possible.
I watched these HR executives challenge the status quo, tell it like it
is, and push even the most senior business leaders outside their comfort
zones. They always put service to the organization before their own self
interest. The impact these leaders had on my life and career was
significant and still affects me today. And the impact they had on the
organization was even more significant.
Unfortunately, I’ve also worked with, and heard about, the other half —
the HR executives who just didn’t seem to understand how important it
was for them to be good leadership role models.
Take for example, the vice-president of HR who regularly didn’t return
phone calls from HR managers in the field when they needed and wanted
advice and guidance. When one of these managers succeeded in booking a
telephone meeting with her, she was a regular no show — no explanations
or apologies given. And she didn’t behave any better with her clients
This incredibly bright and talented woman never asked for feedback on
her performance from her clients or her own HR team. She did not give
performance feedback or coaching and reacted poorly when questioned or
challenged. When a subsidiary business in the organization was sold, she
never interacted personally with the HR staff or line executives
affected to help them deal with the change.
What kind of message was another HR vice president sending when she was
more than 45 minutes late for a meeting with a director-level direct
report because she just had to get to that clothing sale at an upscale
department store right in the middle of the business day?
How about the HR executive who was not comfortable having difficult
performance discussions with his own direct reports and terminated
employment without ever engaging in an exploration of the issues?
He was not comfortable having an open-ended discussion with an employee
without having complete control and advance knowledge of the outcome.
Imagine the reaction of line executives at another organization when
they came to the planning table having reduced next year’s operating
expenses by 10 per cent - as requested by the CEO in response to
shareholder pressure - only to hear the HR executive ask for an 8 per
Needless to say, none of these executives were highly regarded and
sought after business partners. They were neither trusted nor confided
Aside from problems visible to other executives, we need to remember
that the members of our HR teams are employees too and they talk about
the issues they have with their bosses just like everyone else. When
business leaders hear this feedback, as they invariably do, they lose
confidence and work around us.
Consider the leadership you are providing to your own function and ask
yourself some of these questions:
• Do I model sound operational leadership? Am I searching for ways to
improve service while reducing cost? Do I question whether our function
is doing the right work or if change is necessary?
• Have I created a vision for HR that has been clearly communicated and
understood by my team? Is my team involved in developing strategies,
tactics and goals, and do we measure our progress regularly?
• Do I use all HR programs and practices with my own team? The
performance management process for example? Pay-for-performance
• Do I provide tough feedback when necessary? Am I a mentor and coach?
• Do I put service to the organization over my own self interest every
As HR professionals, we need to ensure we step up to the plate and
practise what we preach. One of the best ways to earn the right to play
in the upper echelons of the organization is to demonstrate our own
phenomenal leadership skills. We need to make sure our own house is in
order before we expect to be given the opportunity to work in someone
Karen Todd is a
professional speaker, writer, and consultant. She can be reached at
, or visit www.karentodd.com
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