When Chief HR Officers Hold Leadership Accountable, Organizations Thrive

Note: This article was originally featured in Industry Week.

Several years ago, I met with the head of human resources for a large company. As we started our discussion, I could tell she was frustrated. She began by saying, “I thought we did all the right things when it came to developing our leaders.”

I asked her what they had done. She explained that her organization had identified its high-potential leaders and created a development program for them: “We then gave them all promotions, with fancy titles and increased compensation. And now we are waiting.”

“What are you waiting for?” I asked.

“We are waiting for them to lead!”

What did she mean by waiting? “They aren’t leading,” she explained. “They are waiting for permission and direction from the executive team on every issue. Or they’re acting like bystanders, watching problems persist, or projects derail.” She then shared what I thought was her most important insight: “It’s like they don’t know what it means to be a leader!”

As the discussion continued, we began to identify some of the implications of this challenge on the organization. She shared that the senior leaders in the training program who reported into the executive team were not setting the tone of accountability for own teams. As a result, those teams were not as effective as they could be. The leaders were also letting persistent problems fester. “Instead of tackling these issues head-on, they instead are choosing to finger-point and blame others and make excuses when projects go off the rails,” she explained. 

Finally, she admitted that the executive team itself was contributing to the challenges we were discussing. “We are very inconsistent in holding our direct reports accountable as leaders, and this is something we have to address as a team, “ she stressed.

It became clear this company had a significant leadership accountability gap that it needed to address and fix right away.

She wondered how she could take the lead in building and scaling stronger leadership accountability.

I told her that in my experience, the head of human resources has a pivotal role in helping an organization build strong leadership accountability. When a company has a strong HR leader in place, amazing things happen for the organization. Conversely, when the leaders are weak or mediocre, nothing good can come of it.

Areas HR executives need to reflect upon and pay attention to:

  • Set the tone at a personal level. Many senior HR executives underestimate how important they are in personally setting the tone of solid leadership in an organization. Whether they realize it or not, everyone looks to the head of human resources to see if they live the values and leadership expectations. Ask yourself: in what specific ways are you setting the tone of accountability for other leaders in your company?

  • Build a truly accountable HR team. I have seen too many organizations have weak HR teams. Unfortunately, this ends up being a disservice to the organization. Ask yourself: have you built a truly accountable HR team that the rest of your organization looks to for inspiration?

  • Encourage senior executives to address weak and unaccountable leadership. HR needs to have frank and direct conversations with executive team members to highlight what happens when they don’t hold their leaders accountable. When senior executives do not set the tone, then everyone is allowed to be off the hook from an accountability standpoint.Ask yourself: are your senior executives doing their part to hold their leaders accountable?

  • Ensure the organization commits to creating clear leadership expectations. HR must take the lead in helping the organization create a clear set of leadership expectations that clarify what it means to be a truly accountable leader. In my global research, which I share in my book, Accountable Leaders, only 49% of organizations take the time to identify a clear set of leadership expectations explicitly. Ask yourself: Has my organization created a clear set of leadership expectations for our leaders?

  • Provide leadership accountability metrics to the board. When the head of HR can provide measures to the board that help them understand the real state of leadership accountability within the company, meaningful conversations can take hold. The board can then better understand its role in supporting the organization to build stronger leadership accountability. Ask yourself: Are you helping your board make leadership accountability a priority?

  • Ensure practices are in place to help drive strong leadership accountability. Finally, the HR team needs to ensure that organizational practices (e.g., recruitment and selection, leadership development, performance management, etc.) are in place to drive stronger accountability. Ask yourself: To what extent has my team anchored leadership accountability into critical HR practices?

Companies everywhere are looking to find ways to build strong leadership accountability across their organizations. The HR team has a critical leadership role to play. Are you and your team stepping up?


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