HR Leading Others to Lead


By Cathy Gallagher-Louisy

In many organizations, the word “leadership” is associated with hierarchy and power, and “leaders” are those who have a big sphere of official, institutionalized influence, such as people in the C-suite, senior management.

In this article, we argue instead that a “leader” is anyone who helps others see their own leadership potential, and HR professionals are uniquely positioned to be just such leaders within their organizations. In fact, their informal sphere of influence is much bigger than they realize, as they often have connections across the organization and access to talented people in every function and at every level.

How can HR lead from where they are?
We posed this question to Dr. Richard Williamson, the faculty lead for the Centennial College Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion, an online leadership development certificate with a strong focus on diversity and inclusion.  HR professionals and managers from all types of organizations across Canada have enrolled in the program.

“HR’s goal should be to create the opportunities for people to learn how to lead, on top of learning how to manage,” said Dr. Williamson. “Traditionally and understandably, HR’s focus has been on management and compliance-based work, but an intentional decision can be made to shift the focus to a more holistic approach, and create opportunities for people to engage in leadership learning.”

Leadership development and talent development are very closely related and HR has a tremendous role to play here.  “Leadership development should be happening at all levels of the organization.  HR folks are uniquely poised to encourage that,” said Dr. Williamson.

Leadership and HR at Sodexo
Sodexo is an organization that exemplifies this holistic approach. Sodexo’s HR team is heavily involved in encouraging and developing leaders at all levels of the organization.  Mark McKee, a custodial manager who works for Sodexo at a school in Victoria, British Columbia is a participant in the Centennial Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion, and shared his views on their approach to developing their people.

“In companies where I’ve worked in the past, there was little to no interaction with senior leadership. People stayed within their levels of the hierarchy.  Also, interaction with human resources was extremely limited, and when it did happen, it was rarely for a positive reason. The HR department often seemed to be more in a policing role than one of support,” said McKee.

However, that perception changed when McKee joined Sodexo 5 years ago.

“When I joined Sodexo, it was obvious that the company’s approach was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my career up to that point.  For example, managers fully supported their staff, encouraged suggestions, and listened to their ideas.  At first, it was astounding to me that we’d have so much interaction with the general manager and regional directors,” said McKee.  “Here, everyone has access to leaders at all levels of the organization.  People in my team really appreciate that. I mean, where else does a frontline employee get to meet with the president of the company?”

How does Sodexo’s HR team support employee development? “At Sodexo,” explained McKee, “the HR department actually does what I think an HR department should do: they engage with the company’s greatest resource – its employees.  They encourage us to get involved, to listen, to consider other ways of thinking, other ways of looking at people and issues. Sodexo understands that HR’s true role is to create an engaging and inclusive work environment, and they are trying to maximize their impact.”

According to McKee, Sodexo’s succession planning process—spearheaded by HR—really helps managers become leaders, and helps them develop their own teams as well.

“I have become a big proponent of the succession planning process here,” said McKee.  “It makes me feel good to help people in my department grow and become leaders in whatever way they can.  I’m never going to push someone to do something they don’t want to do, but I’m always looking for ways to give people opportunities to grow if they want them. The HR team provides so much support to enable us to do that.”

Leadership Development with a Focus on Inclusion
It was while perusing Sodexo’s learning management system that McKee found the centennial certificate in leadership and inclusion as suggested development for Sodexo managers.   He chose to enroll because he “wanted to gain the ability to become an inclusive leader in an organization that is so clearly dedicated to diversity and inclusion, and to carry that lens with me throughout my career.”

Williamson explained that the program draws a wide range of people from different sectors and different levels—including HR professionals in a variety of functions, as well as people who have been in management and leadership positions for more than a decade.  Although there are structured learning activities each week, Dr. Williamson explained that a significant part of the learning stems from the participants’ discussions.

“We were delighted by how incredibly rich the online discussion becomes when people have such varying viewpoints and perspectives,” said Williamson. “We have found that our participants have a longing for opportunities to engage in these types of discussions, but they may not have those opportunities outside of this course.  Their diversity of perspectives is really helpful to build understanding.  People come to us from different roles and for different reasons, and they can take from this program what works for them in whatever their position or function happens to be.”

McKee echoes this sentiment. “The program has been very helpful to me so far,” he explains.  “I’ve been able to apply some of the insights at work immediately. Recently, I had to deal with a difficult situation which I was dreading, but thanks to the support of my classmates, I learned a new approach which worked spectacularly and I walked away feeling fantastic.”

Williamson acknowledges that McKee has been an enthusiastic participant, just the kind of participant they want in the program.

“I thought it was going to be a chore, but now I look forward to going to the website and getting into the discussions. It’s changing my life and the way I look at things,” said McKee. “I’m a better leader for it.”

The Final Word
“Everyone has a sphere of influence.  HR’s role should be encouraging people to lead from where they are,” said Williamson.

A famous quote on leadership from John Quincy Adams reads: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

It’s time to ask yourself: how are you leading from where you are?  As an HR professional, how can you inspire others to dream more, learn more, and become more?

Cathy Gallagher-Louisy leads the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion’s (CCDI) research and knowledge services portfolio. CCDI has become the trusted advisor for all issues related to Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Human Rights management within Canada’s workplaces.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2015)

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