Jess ElmquistDecember 21, 2022
Topics: HR Experience

Are HR Leaders Born or Made?

What’s your purpose in life as an HR leader? 

What sparked a desire to get into a people-focused profession? And what’s your reward?

For many of us, HR wasn’t the path we initially envisioned for ourselves. That was certainly the case for me. I was a public high school teacher in Minneapolis. I taught economics and American history to 9th graders on top of coaching basketball and mentoring.

I was inspired to get into this line of work by my dad, a teacher and principal for almost four decades. He made a positive impact on the lives of so many young people, and I knew I wanted to do that too.

I loved teaching, I mean just loved it. 

But after six years, I realized that the four walls of a classroom felt confining — both physically and professionally. It was at that point of introspection that I thought I’d like to try something else. The business world called out to me, and here I am.

I must be doing something right, because I’ve been in HR for 30 years, yet I feel that the runway in front of me is long.

Yes, I found my purpose, which brings me to the reason I’m writing this. 

I recently had the good fortune of being invited to join other HR leaders on an excellent podcast, “Rebels with a Heart.” Host Derek Lundsten brings in a different set of business leaders every month to tell their stories — it’s totally unscripted and natural. 

“Real connection, real empathy, real humanity at scale,” is the way Lundsten describes his platform.

The conversation is powerful, and no topic is off-limits. One episode focused on how to nurture a culture where employees are treated as humans first. Another episode was all about “conscious capitalism” – business as a force for good.

The topic of my episode, which you can watch here, was one that has long held a deep interest of mine: leadership. Specifically, how to be an influential HR executive.

Before exploring that topic further down, let me introduce you to my podcast mates.

“People Are Fascinating, Organizations Are Fascinating”

Adding tremendous value and perspective to the discussion were a pair of outstanding HR leaders: Stu Crabb, who once dreamt of a legal career before pivoting to senior HR roles at Yahoo, Facebook, and other tech companies; and Anita Grantham, head of HR for Bamboo, “where we set people free to do great work,” she said.

After realizing that law wasn’t what he envisioned, Crabb, by sheer happenstance, was offered a summer internship after graduating from university to work in the personnel department of a factory in the town he grew up in.

“Suddenly this fascinating and interesting world opened up to me, which is — people are fascinating, organizations are fascinating,” he said on the podcast.

Grantham, on the other hand, had aspirations of being a doctor to solve problems and help people. Things changed, however, when she failed organic chemistry. 

“It was an early look for me at my strengths versus weaknesses,” she said.

After being tested, Grantham learned she had high emotional intelligence (EQ). A psychologist told her that if she could find a place to leverage her EQ, that would be the best way to channel a desire to help people. She would end up in the HR function of an Arizona-based construction company.

The founder and CEO gave her a copy of “Built to Last” by Jim Collins, which examines the practices of highly successful and enduring companies. Over 10 years, she helped take the construction company from private to employee-owned before pursuing a career in tech. 

There’s a consistent thread in all of our stories: a pursuit of organizational excellence, being mission-driven, and a focus on the intersection of purpose and profession.

But I’d have to say that the big-ticket item we all agreed on is that HR brass needs to step up their game and do away with the tired old stereotype of HR as a back office operation.

HR’s Seat at the C-Suite Table

“There are business leaders in the HR seat by and large that aren't savvy from a business operation standpoint,” said Grantham, “and we have a lot of people-pleasers that just want to say ‘yes’ to the CEO and say yes to things without thinking about ‘Am I really driving performance?’”

Spot-on! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

That tough love is one of the main reasons why I’ve spent a good portion of the year traveling throughout the country to rally HR leaders around one message: claim your seat in the C-suite. 

We have to reframe that stereotype and take command of the seat next to the CEO at the corporate conference room table. Otherwise, we lose the authority to engage in those high-level conversations that matter.

You can't advocate for something if you don't have the voice.

It behooves HR executives like Crabb, Grantham, and me to ensure that there's business competence in how CHROs are looking at their work — that they’re data-driven, they’re problem-solvers, and they’re reading and being educated on the things that the CEO is thinking about, not what HR professionals are thinking about.

Remember how CFOs emerged as the hero from the Great Recession? They’re the ones who had the CEO’s ear.

CHROs and HR executives have a similar opportunity here. But they have to take it seriously and they have to change the way they think and behave.

Otherwise — and I hate to say it — I believe in three to five years, some organizations are going to revert back to being reactive administrative departments again rather than proactive business partners.

There sits a great opportunity for HR to lead.

Break the System

I want to be sure to characterize the challenge for HR partners. It's not that they’re under-performing. I’m calling for a different goal: to be a proactive business partner.

They have the competencies and skills. It really comes down to the desire to change.

I spoke at a SHRM conference in Atlanta over the summer, and there were about 90 people in the room. I talked to them about the trends, traits, and tactics to help HR professionals voice and champion their agendas at the C-suite level.

The biggest issue the audience brought up was that they were so overcapacity with the day-to-day work that they had a hard time understanding how to actually build a business case to go to the C-suite and ask for what they need.

The challenge, then, is to give people permission to step through a boundary that's been put there because organizationally, remember, systems are set up, and you have to break systems to make them work.

Thank you, Derek Lundsten and Rebels with a Heart, for offering a positive platform to dream what is possible. 

So, HR leaders — go smash the very obstacles that are holding you back. I’m more than happy to show you how and am ready to have a conversation.

I’ve also blogged in more detail about how HR leaders can better align with the C-suite — because I think it’s that important!

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Jess Elmquist

Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.

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