How can HR sustain their leadership in 2021?

‘HR leaders must own the moment — the soft touches as well as the tough decisions’

How can HR sustain their leadership in 2021?

As we head into 2021, there’s been plenty of optimism about the prospect of a ‘new beginning’. For one, there’s plenty to be hopeful about: access to an approved COVID-19 vaccine, the start of economic recovery, and even the possibility of travel.

For another, 2020 has drastically changed the way we work – and HR has been at the helm of driving those changes.

Whether it was about ensuring business continuity, managing employee engagement, or accelerating long-overdue issues such as well-being and flexibility, leaders showcased their capabilities and rightfully took the driver’s seat through this people-centred crisis.

Read more: HRDs reveal their greatest lessons from 2020

HRD spoke to Dan Cullen, partner-in-charge at Heidrick & Struggles’ (H&S) Singapore office to find out how leaders can continue to sustain their leadership in the ‘next normal’.

Sustaining business continuity
HRD: What role will HR play in achieving organisational sustainability for the business in the ‘next normal’?

DC: We can expect a forced evolution in the HR role over the coming years – continuing the acceleration away from its perception as an execution-based function in APAC, to play a pivotal role in ensuring the performance and sustainability of the business.

Specifically in Asia, the pandemic has exposed the changing nature of HR, where there has been an increasing push to improve the talent in the function to account for the larger role that HR plays in an organisation, and also more interest in the role from a new generation of applicants.

For businesses to be sustainable and accelerate performance, they need to focus on the concept of simplicity – finding a common, fundamental purpose for the entire business to be aligned to.

However, based on H&S research, large organisations are increasing in complexity by 10% year on year, and 100% of poorly performing companies do not identify simplicity as a driving factor.

As purpose becomes more important, HR is poised to take on an increasingly strategic role in the business by becoming a gatekeeper for the talent it brings in. Every hire – no matter junior or senior – must be fit for the company and aligned in both vision and mission.

HR must also balance internal development and external hiring.

Read more: Internal mobility is reshaping the future of recruitment

As a strategic function, HR can catalyse sustainable change in the business. With the ongoing pandemic, business priorities have been skewed in favour of delivering results, namely hitting business targets and building resilience in the dynamic APAC market.

However, the crisis has also presented organisations with opportunities: the acceleration of digital transformation, and creation of a more agile workforce. The onus is on HR to identify the right teams and leaders to oversee and put into action the transformation of the business.

Managing leadership capability
HRD: How can HR continue to engage the company’s C-Suite leaders and guide them to meet employees’ needs in the post-pandemic world?

DC: Although influencing a base of employees is [not just HR’s role], the HR function should aspire to be a key driver and inter-connector to help both leaders and employees within a business achieve a shared purpose.

From a leader’s perspective, the needs of employees are many in these tumultuous times. Employees require assurance, increasing amounts of flexibility, and a greater amount of transparency from upper management.

To address these needs, the skills that define today’s business leaders are different from those from a decade ago.

Today, leaders must be quick to understand new concepts against rapid developments in technology, be able to lead with humility and empathy, and be willing to take risks to address employee needs.

However, as businesses look to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the short term, they are also looking for leaders with stable skill sets.

Where HR comes in is through guiding C-suite leaders to match the needs of employees through the creation and execution of leadership development strategies, to prepare these leaders for the demands of leadership roles today.

These strategies require buy-in from leaders and immense commitment of resources, such as money and time. These strategies in larger business are also accompanied by a formal program which includes assessment, coaching and mentoring, to ensure that the leaders develop the right hard and soft skills.

At the same time, HR’s gatekeeper role comes back into the spotlight, as they must be able to identify the right future skill sets in incoming business leaders as well, especially when hiring externally.

Read more: What skills will leaders need to navigate the 'new normal'?

Continuing to lead in a virtual world
HRD: We may be in for the long haul in terms of remote working. How can HR continue to lead in a virtual world of work?

DC: The COVID-19 crisis has led to a need for agility in HR. They can continue to lead their organisation by doing the following:

  • Remain resilient

HR leaders must stay visible and positive, but also authentic and sincere, as many colleagues are looking to them for cues during this uncertain time.

They must also reinforce the company’s mission and higher calling – to imbue purpose and create simplicity.

If the organisation has not aligned on a clear purpose, it will benefit from finding one in the crisis. Leaders at organisations with a clear purpose make better decisions and have more engaged employees.

HR leaders must own the moment—the soft touches as well as the tough decisions.

  • HR must be adaptable and agile

Leaders must reinvent HR practices in real time, shift the frame, and break old assumptions. We’ve heard creative new ways of thinking that included ensuring the continuity of subsidised health benefits for laid-off employees, adjusting enterprise-wide compensation models to cut costs while reducing layoffs, and providing new antigen testing and safety equipment for critical roles.

Tactics that can be successful include deploying a devil’s advocate to quickly encourage contrarian, alternative views and setting up virtual brainstorming sessions to challenge and refresh old models.

At the same time, they must also value speed over perfection. With many unknowns, HR leaders need to try promising solutions, rather than waiting for one that is bulletproof.

Lastly, they must be accessible and learn from feedback. To effectively adapt, HR leaders need to listen, support, coach, and empathise while being action oriented. This is not a paradox. It is a necessary balancing act.

Read more: How the COVID-19 crisis will redefine HR

  • Have foresight and be ‘effective learners’

Since many HR leaders are responsible for driving the overall workforce response to COVID-19, it is critical that they model a learning mindset and influence others to stay inquisitive and open to learning.

They must model learning in real time and commit to a culture of rapid-cycle iteration. If plans go wrong, get curious about what happened. Recognise and celebrate those making the effort to try new things, even if they don’t succeed.

They also must balance short-and long-term planning. HR leaders should stress-test their organisations’ crisis mitigation actions and separation plans to anticipate unintended consequences.

Another important area of foresight for HR leaders is ensuring succession plans are in place for critical roles in case leaders get ill or key people leave for opportunities with companies better positioned from this crisis.

While these lessons can be applied to the wider leadership team, HR as a function is poised to entrench itself as a strategic, forward-looking role as a central part of business leadership, capable of shaping cultures, transformations, employee experiences, and sustainability in a company.

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