At some point in our career, all of us probably experience ineffective leadership. A boss who makes you afraid to make a mistake, has no interest in development or his main focus is numbers, not people. Those who are lucky get to work with leaders who listen, reflect, inspire, and focus on growth and cultivate a work environment where people can thrive. On top of that, as a leader in HR, the focus on people and setting an example has an even bigger meaning. So how do you become a great leader and not just a boss?
Prior to being self-employed, Erikjan Lantink spent his 25-year career in executive roles in general management, retail operations, HR, and organizational learning and developed an understanding of human resources from many perspectives. Now he works daily to help and inspire both aspiring and experienced leaders to become better so they can have a positive impact on their teams and business. ‘You need good managers to run a business, but ideally, you’d like those managers to become good leaders’, says Erikjan.
Off the top of your head, what does it take to become an HR leader?
As a first step, I think you need to love working with people and believe that (good) people are indeed a critical asset to any organization. Then you need to have some understanding of the HR profession and what’s needed to lead a successful HR function. I personally also believe it helps to have a good understanding of the business. That’s why I balanced my HR roles with operational roles during my career.
Is there a difference between an HR leader and HR manager?
Leaders empower their people. Managers control their people. With leaders there’s usually more autonomy and engagement. With managers there’s more control. You need good managers to run a business, but ideally, you’d like those managers become good leaders. Because that means they’re growing their people. Works the same way in HR.
Can you be a little bit of both?
I spent 20 years in retail, so I know controls are necessary. I also believe in trust. It’s not about blindly trusting people so that’s why you also need to have good talent in your organization. When I talk about brand culture pipeline, one of the important aspects is you need to hire the right people and if you don’t, then trust and empowerment will not work, and you will need to have more controls. That is the role that HR needs to take on. Somewhere in my newsletters I wrote that leaders lead and HR enables. I’ve seen too many leaders that stepped away from the responsibility of being a leader and tried to rely on HR to do the hard part: whether to fire somebody, do performance reviews and so on. I think an HR leader has a role to facilitate in the organization, but leaders should also take their ownership.
Should HR stand as an example for the rest of the company?
Yes and no. Leaders have their own responsibility in building a people-focused team and they need to take more ownership of their own people practices and not always point at HR and let HR do the hard work. It’s still amazing to see how few leaders can have a decent growth (performance) conversation. It’s actually a disaster. That’s where HR can help and enable the circumstances for people to grow and develop. So yes, HR does have to set an example in terms of having a vision what a people-centric company looks like and then help building it.
Did the HR leader position change during the pandemic? If so, how?
Overall, yes. But not everywhere. The pandemic has made companies realize how important the people factor is in doing good business. Many companies have also realized that people can be productive from home and still get done what needs to get done. In many cases HR has demonstrated the ability to quickly adapt and change and build a hybrid working model that worked for many people and companies. Many companies have seen that trust and empowerment (forced by circumstances) work. Or otherwise said, that people don’t just sit at home and do nothing, but that they are productive. And then there are the managers (not leaders) who can’t wait to see all their people back in the office as quickly as possible. Those are the managers that are dealing with trust issues.
What is the most common issue preventing people from becoming better leaders?
Fear. Insecurity. People often behave the way they behave because they’re afraid of something. The biggest bosses often have a lot of insecurity deep inside. They’ve built a successful business and a reputation for themselves, and they don’t want to see that change. They learned that command and control work and that’s how they manage. They lead with fear. Fear builds fear. What I’d like to see is companies where fear is absent, people can be themselves and feel safe.
What should a junior HR specialist focus on if they want to become a leader one day?
Anybody can be a leader. It’s not related to a function. That’s a big misconception. Leaders are not those who are higher up on the ladder. Leaders are those who influence, drive change, and help other people grow. My advice for a junior HR specialist would be to first of all be curious. Understand why things work the way they work. Ask great questions of your leaders. Don’t take no for an answer. Ask why or why not? And have a plan for yourself. Know what you want for yourself. Know what your next role could look like. Talk about it. Don’t wait for a manager to come to you and hand you your next job. Good leaders expect their people to be ambitious and ask for the next assignment.
What can an HR leader do to make sure that HR has an important part in business strategy?
Here are 6 steps you can take to create a more strategic role for HR in your company:
- - Have a clear vision how HR can help drive the business (Employer Brand. Engaged Culture. Talent Pipeline).
- - Demonstrate that vision with concrete initiatives.
- - Influence other leaders by being curious and engage in dialogue.
- - Be present in the business.
- - Build a strong talent pipeline.
- - Rotate talent also through HR.
What HR trends do you see for 2022?
The future of work will continue to be a hot topic with hybrid working models. An increased focus on Brand > Culture > Talent Pipeline will continue to become more important - the war for talent has just begun. Other trends I see coming are the individualization of the employee, skill development for the future (i.e. digital, IT, human leadership) and growing leaders who understand the above and are willing to invest in it.
Is there some final advice you'd like to share?
For every leader: Listen a little more to your people. They have great things to share.
For HR leaders: Now is the time.
For everybody: If growing your business is what you’re looking for, start by looking in the mirror.
Thank you to Erikjan for an interview with great insights. If you would like to continue your personal and/or professional development, feel free to subscribe to his weekly newsletter with insights on growth, leadership, motivation and mindset that will help you keep your focus on throughout the year.
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