Why It’s Critical for a Corporate Culture to Embrace HR Leadership

People are at the center of virtually every company, which makes the role of human resources managers particularly critical. However, with the focus on the day-to-day aspects of HR, from payroll to regulation compliance, it can be easy to overlook HR’s critical role in establishing a corporate culture that sets the tone for an organization and its workforce.

“To me it’s real clear that HR needs to be not only involved but one of the key drivers of corporate culture,” says Joe Schaffer, managing director of the Rutgers Center for Management Development in New Brunswick, N.J. To Schaffer, corporate culture is defined in a number of ways: values, norms, beliefs, processes and the company’s shared story. “That’s what a corporate culture is all about: not just what you do but how you do it,” he says.

Terri Howard, senior director of FEI Behavioral Health in Milwaukee, suggests that corporate culture is innately tied to the company’s workforce and, as a result, its HR managers.

“What is the brand of an organization? What is it that you see representing the company and its mission and values? The answer always comes back to me as ‘people,’” she says. “Because HR focuses on people, it’s just a logical leap to say that they certainly should be a responsible for having a critical role in shaping corporate culture, because they have a critical role in managing talent, in hiring and recruiting the right people for the right jobs, for succession planning. All of that is part of what becomes the culture of an organization.”

But how can an HR manager create a corporate culture?

Developing a Leader

According to these experts, HR professionals can best drive a company’s corporate culture by adopting a leadership role.

“Because HR’s role is really about being the motivator and being the caretaker, if you will, of the greatest asset that the company has, it seems to me only natural that they have a seat at the leadership table,” Howard says. “I can’t imagine HR not seeing themselves as leaders and a strategic partner in terms of the organization or business.”

After all, Schaffer agrees, “The nature of the business is human resource and resource capital. As an HR leader you’re a leader in how to best unleash the enormous potential that people can bring to an organization, and you put the right processes in based on the company’s strategy and culture. You have to be in the leadership position to do that and good organizations put HR in a leadership position.”

However, many of us think of leadership as an innate ability: you’re either born with it or you aren’t. And, to some degree, this may be true, Schaffer says. He believes that it is possible to develop a leadership ability—but not in all cases.

“There’s no question that you can take someone who has a certain standard of ability to manage people and make them better at it,” Schaffer says.

To help develop this ability, Schaffer suggests four critical steps.

“The first thing you can do to help enhance your leadership ability is to go through a process of better understanding oneself and who you are,” he says. As he points out, there are countless different styles of leadership. By taking a close look at your style and how others view it, you can better understand what areas need to be developed.

“The second part of leadership is knowing others,” Schaffer says. By way of example he points to the fact that today businesses see more generations in the workforce at one time than ever before. “When you think about how many more people are not retiring as organizations thought they would and then you bring in the Millennials, Gen-X, Gen-Y, etc., all of these people will react differently to different leadership styles. You have to know who you are but, more importantly, you have to know who you’re attempting to lead to better understand their needs and wants and capabilities,” Schaffer says.

The next piece of the puzzle is learning to understand the situation, Schaffer continues. “Some leaders fit in certain situations better than others, so it’s important to recognize that it’s not one size fits all,” he explains. “Even after going through a leadership development process, getting the match between strategy, culture and that person’s strengths is critical.”

Does Your Corporate Culture Support Leaders?

A critical fourth piece of this leadership development puzzle, Schaffer suggests, is making leadership development a part of your corporate culture—a step that must be embraced beyond the HR department.

“I think many organizations believe that if they send ‘John’ to a leadership development program, he’s going to come back as this stellar leader or greatly improved leader,” Schaffer says. “While there’s a lot to be said for the effectiveness of different leadership training programs … what’s more important is what you do before you send the leader to training and what you do after.”

Schaffer compares leadership development to a mission to the moon. Both missions should begin with a great deal of preparation work. In the case of leadership development, this would include discussions around the HR representative’s apparent strengths, abilities, gaps and style.

“Next you have the ‘blast off’ where the person goes to training, but then you have to have a ‘re-entry’ strategy,” Schaffer says. “You have to recognize that after someone has gone through leadership programs, the company needs to have a systematic approach back in the workplace that will nurture, support and enhance, what the person learned in leadership programs.”

So while leadership training is a valuable tool for creating a strong HR manager, the existing corporate culture that promotes that leadership role is even more critical.

Putting Leadership to the Test

Schaffer is quick to point out that a company cannot simply “talk the talk” when it comes to corporate culture. “Where it goes wrong is when you suggest that an organization has a culture of friendliness or of caring about the world, but then you put in these recruitment, selection, performance appraisal, development, benefit, comp, reward systems, etc., where someone coming in can’t see what the culture means through those documents,” he says.

These processes have to be aligned and support the overall corporate mission, and it takes a leader to ensure these valuable processes determine a positive direction for the company.

For Howard, HR leadership can mean the difference between a company that can handle a crisis and one that simply muddles through. “On the crisis management front, it’s always a feel-good moment for me when I see HR stepping up and playing that leadership role,” she says. “Having HR lead is something that we don’t see much of, but certainly when we see it we see the impact on the business as being more prepared, much more ready and much more likely to rebound from an event.”

Schaffer adds that by taking leadership initiative themselves, HR managers can create a stronger and potentially more engaged workforce.

“HR often helps mentor, coach, lead and develop other people in the organization. If you don’t have an effective leadership style in HR yourself, people are going to say ‘I’m not going to take advice from this guy.’ There’s a higher standard for HR people to demonstrate and continue to develop their own leadership capabilities,” Schaffer says.

About the Author

Megan Headley is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at rmheadley3@gmail.com.