A New HR Leaders First 90 Days: Avoiding the Darkside of HR
Updated: Jan 25
If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” - Yoda
A few years ago, Cass Sunstein, a Harvard professor, wrote one of the most influential business books called Nudge. In the book, Sunstein explored the world of hidden human biases and how we can use them to make better decisions. More recently, Sunstein focused his attention on a much more interesting topic: The Jedi Knights.
Now don't laugh, but he wrote a book called The World According to Star Wars. It is a sci-fi enterprise study from nearly every angle: economic, psychological, political, etc.
There are many good points in this book that parallel the business world with that of the Star Wars saga, but one specifically made much sense to me as I was writing this article.
When it comes to impact in your role as an HR leader, there’s no substitute for physical proximity. You've got to be "in the room where it happens," as Aaron Burr famously sings in the Broadway hit, Hamilton. When looking to make an impact in your new role, you've got to be sitting with the people who make the decisions, and you've got to be able to influence them.
Furthermore, consider that in 1975, Harrison Ford was not a successful actor and didn't have many prospects. At this point, he had only a tiny part in George Lucas’s previous film, American Graffiti; however, Lucas didn't have any plans of casting Ford in Star Wars.
So, what would any great actor do? The seemingly obvious? Nope. Exactly the opposite, as you might think. In fact, when Harrison wasn't acting, he made extra cash as a carpenter. Thus allowing him to take a position as a carpenter on the Star Wars set where Lucas spotted him one day, was reminded of his existence, unorthodox charm, and the rest is history.
What does this have to do with HR leaders?
I've enjoyed working with executives and HR leaders across nearly every industry in the last 15 years. In that time, I've interacted with thousands of executives and HR leaders; both independently and jointly in projects, and I've learned so much about how the C-Suite perceives the HR department, and additionally, how many of them behind closed doors are not considered to be thought leaders and equals with their peers.
Time and time again, I see how many HR leaders and their departments fall into the drudgery of becoming disconnected from the top of the organization and often are not considered vital for the most important decisions. When in truth, you're the most valuable asset in the business toolbox.
As a consultant in the HR industry, I've engaged with the entire spectrum of experience levels ranging from CHROs of Fortune 500 organizations down to startups hiring their first employee, thus giving me a broad perspective on the differing approaches tackling the human resources dilemma.
The role of today’s HR leader demands broad responsibilities that include organizational leadership, strategic reasoning, and negotiation skills. As the HR profession continuously evolves, HR departments should be called upon to make bigger-picture decisions and provide plans on how their teams/departments will execute well-defined HR strategies that align with larger organizational strategies.
As an HR leader, you must be able and willing to articulate your company’s business goals and strategy. However, many are not classically trained or comfortable with taking the steps necessary, and might I say sooner to get the executive leadership teams’ coveted ear.
Do you know how best to align your human resource tools and expertise, from recruitment to talent management and from employee engagement to succession planning, and how it supports corporate strategy? A recent report by IBM indicated a huge disconnect between those in the C-Suite and HR leaders on what is important and how it should be handled.
Several key findings from the research include:
C-suite executives now rank company complexity, deficient skills, and employee burnout as the top three greatest challenges their companies will face in the next couple of years, and 84% of HR leaders say over the next two years they will need to prioritize agility and flexibility in the workforce. Yet only 19% of HR executives say their HR function has the proper business acumen or capabilities to do so.
74% of executives believe they’re providing their employees the ability to learn new skills needed to work during the pandemic; however, only 38% of their employees believe this to be true.
Notwithstanding, nearly 80% of executives say they assist with their workforce's physical and emotional health right now, while only 46% of employees actually agree.
In contrast, brilliant HR leaders (or as I'd like to refer to them, HR Jedi) are different and take a unique approach that bridges the communication gaps and leverages their departments to maximize ROI. These same HR Jedi also had a uniquely different ability to see the bigger picture of the strategic impact that their role makes on an organization. And because of this, they are invited to the strategic planning committee and have a seat at the table with the executive leadership team. Because if you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu.
On the other side of the coin, and far more frequently, I've also seen the less desirable parts of HR rear their ugly head. As much as I hate to say it, it's more likely that you'll be seen as a necessary evil in the battle against regulatory compliance and appeasing employee disputes. This is what I like to refer to as "The Dark Side of HR," and not so affectionately, I might add.
To help my fellow HR leaders, I've decided to share what I've learned over the years and some ways for aspiring HR leaders to open up new avenues of communication, career pathing, and acquiring the proverbial seat at the big boy/girl table, and be seen as more than a check the box.
It's critical for any new employee to quickly harmonize with colleagues, inspire confidence, and immediately impact the organization. This is significantly more important when the position that is being filled is as complex and critical to success as an HR leadership role.
Furthermore, the first few days are pivotal to establishing yourself as a key contributor to the company’s strategic planning committee. Executing this properly gives you a coveted seat at the table. This period, known as the assimilation period, usually spans the first 90 days.
To support you in your new role, I've put together a useful guide to help you check all of the boxes for a successful integration period as a new HR leader.
Let's start by quickly summarizing exactly what a human resources leader is responsible for. Secondly, I’ll outline some practical ideas for succeeding in the first quarter. Lastly, I'll lay out some of the mistakes to avoid.
What does an HR leader do?
An HR leader is typically responsible for the administration, mobilization, development, and effectiveness of all human resources strategies. To clarify, this does not mean that people are resources but rather that people provide the resources (experience, skills, gifts) that need to be managed.
As a human resources leader, it is up to you to support the organization in creating the systems and culture that best supports utilizing those resources to best invest in achieving its objectives. This responsibility includes the following skills:
Consultation and permanent negotiation
Planning of jobs and resources
A well thought out recruitment process
Commitment to continuous education
What are the responsibilities and scope of the HR leader function?
HR leaders often need to intervene in several essential areas in the company to the extent that confusion sometimes arises between their responsibilities and frontline managers. If you are in a small firm, the two roles seem to have similar goals; in larger firms, the differences are far more noticeable. Here are the most critical initiatives that HR leaders and their teams typically focus on:
Company-wide committee facilitation;
Company, employee, and community communication;
Compensation and benefits administration;
Employee onboarding, orientation, development, and training;
Employee safety, health, and welfare;
Employee services and counseling;
Organizational and space planning;
Performance management and improvement systems;
Policy creation and documentation;
Recruiting and staffing;
The human resources leadership role is often one of the most complicated positions since it encompasses nearly every department of the organization across a wide spectrum of categories. Nevertheless, with some helpful tips that I'll offer you below, you can spend your assimilation period focused on making a noticeable and welcomed impact.
Viable tips for a productive assimilation
As I mentioned before, your first 90 days in a new organization is called the assimilation period. It is, therefore, imperative for both you and the organization that it goes smoothly. However, you may be asking, "why is this period so important?". Great question: I'll tell you why.
Your first 90 days as the new HR leader will determine your future influence within the organization. I realize this may give some a little anxiety, but don't worry; it's not that complicated. However, if you'd like to get the most out of your new role, you must meet expectations and take the right actions to earn the respect and acceptance you probably already deserve.
It’s the moment in time when you show your colleagues, your employer, and your team that you are the right person for the job. Assertive, yet still humble and approachable. Try to remember; that this is not about implementing a bunch of changes too quickly. It's about influencing, winning with people, and getting a permanent seat at the table. Doing or asking too much too early will only make people feel uncomfortable. The first 90 days are crucial for you. They must run smoothly.
Your first 90 days:
You should focus on learning as much about the organization, your role, and current processes.
Set up a strategic planning meeting and committee to discuss the organization's future with key stakeholders.
Find out what is expected of you, and have frequent conversations with the executive leadership team to determine your role's goals.
Keep in mind that your first three months are an opportunity to exhibit your ability to strategically align company goals with HR initiatives and how your role must contribute to the growth and productivity of the company.
I have thirteen practical tips to help you get through the first 90 days successfully.
I - Develop your credibility immediately
First impressions that count. From the very start, you must show yourself as worthy of respect and trust. If you want to be respected, you'll need to respect others, and if you want your leaders to have confidence in you, you'll have to exhibit poise. You need to establish your image and style. How you present yourself, your assertiveness, and your willingness to bring fresh ideas and back them up with data should be a priority.
II - Focus on understanding the business
To be extraordinary in your role, you must align your plan with the business goals. Allowing you to participate actively in the future growth of the organization. Educating yourself about the business requires a basic knowledge of the company's business strategy, the strategic and tactical goals, how revenue is earned, how it works, which competitors are and the unique market in which they exercise, and the organizational culture.
III - Understand how the company earns revenue
Every organization has a specific way of making money. HR leaders need to understand who the customers are and why they prefer your services/products, design, expand, and disseminate your products and solutions. You should be familiar with how the company creates value. You can acquire this information from conversations with coworkers and evaluate company presentations available to the board of directors and senior management.
IV - Understand the interworking of how the company operates
In your first three months, colleagues will understand if you ask naïve questions. So you'll need to be prepared to ask a battery of questions. Basic questions like “What do I need to know? What needs to change? What shouldn’t change? You've got to come up with that list and ask them of the right people.
This provides a huge opportunity for you to ask any possible critical questions. Acquire the company stakeholders' perspective to know how to support their objectives and how HR can collaborate.
Again, you may change roles several times over your career, so it would be best if you had a battery of questions that you’ll be prepared to ask in your first 90 days. What should I know? What needs to change? What should we keep? Come up with that list and ask them of all the right people.
V - Do your best to acquire direct experience with the product/service
It is important that you have some level of direct experience with the product. If you are new to the industry, you likely do not have a mastery of the product or service of the organization you are working for, which is not ideal. If possible, take some steps to get some experience with the product like a customer interested in using it.
VI - Be in constant contact with key stakeholders
It is vital to acquaint yourself with key personnel from other departments. Your best work will not be done in a bubble. Converse with them as often as possible. You'll likely discover more actionable intel in these conversations than you will in the company systems and documentation.
You could ask them questions about the company's strengths and weaknesses, team members, potential pitfalls that should be avoided, and how you can make an immediate impact.
VII - Get to know your direct reports
Likely, you're not the first person in your department. If that is the case, this may be less helpful. If there was, get someone on one face time with the team and the individual members. Find out their strengths, weaknesses, insights, and opinions on the company and avoid possible mistakes. Trust me, they've made mistakes, and they are likely to share what not to do.
VIII - Review employee surveys or exit interviews, if any exist
It would help if you examined the old employee’s surveys before you arrived. It will help you better understand how employees feel about the company's approach. You will also help give you a perspective on what new ideas you have should be addressed first. Yes, you’re new; you ought to have a myriad of new and relevant ideas.
When you combine all this information, you can have some confidence that you've got a good understanding of your new company. You can then properly assess the objectives of your department and your role.
In short, to best deliver in your leadership role, the first important thing to do is to understand the business, and culture, build key relationships, get to know employees and how the company works, understand how it is organized, its relationship in the world of commerce, and especially how revenue is made.
IX - Assess all human resources activities
To contribute to the company's growth, you must research and list the ongoing human resources priorities and projects. This should be a collaborative exercise, an opportunity to work together, and a time to build your dream team. It's far easier to pull everyone together to summarize who is doing what so you can prioritize together.
Reflect, prioritize, and outline the areas of your department that you believe can be improved.
Focus your time and investments on attainable goals and create SMART goals around them. The goals need to make a visible difference in business.
Evaluate previous goals that were met, and seek to improve.
X - Set up your strategic priorities
Don't expect to solve everyone's concerns at the same time. You'll need to organize your priorities based on the most significant level of impact or urgency. Being new in the organization, you'll undoubtedly discover some small improvements you can make to what is already there. If they are simple and can be implemented quickly, get these done first.
Then make a list of 3 to 5 priorities to help support the company's strategy to get maximum results. Your work and priorities must be results-oriented. With that in mind;
Identify the victories or practices used before you and leverage your best methods to get some quick wins and improve them.
Arrange your priorities into short, medium, and long-term goals.
XI - Establish your team
Having an excellent team makes your work so much easier. Here is how you can combat that to get the best out of your team.
You must be a good example and set the pace of work: your team members will be the first people who develop strong opinions about you due to the time and proximity to you spend with each other.
Identify and avoid the envious team members and the incompetent ones at first: they will slow you down in developing relationships with the keepers. Do your best to encourage them to be more cooperative or make the difficult choice to find a replacement as soon as possible. Either way, do not fall into the trap of becoming too accommodating to the wrong crowd.
Contrastly, find and work with those who show initiative and extend trust and respect to you and your coworkers. These people will be the building blocks of your future team, the catalyst that allows you to build a strong team.
Establish a training and development strategy to help everyone perform their best.
Get to know each other by engaging in some less formal conversations.
XII - Build relationships and get a mentor
As soon as you join, it is essential to build strong relationships with people who can help you. As a human resources leader, you know that people like it when you show genuine interest in them, right? Begin to build relationships that will be useful for your job and even outside of work.
Now for a mentor. Make it a priority to find a mentor during the assimilation period. This person will not necessarily be about coaching you on managing, but someone who understands the company culture, processes, and quirks.
Someone who will listen to your concerns and provide valuable insights. Be sure to select someone who is both trustworthy and part of the leadership team.
XIII - Develop an action plan
It's on you to convince company leadership that you are the right person for the job. This is one of your primary goals in the first 90 days. So, define a clear plan of action, exhibiting that you are competent and capable.
After your first three months, take the time to present an action plan. Leverage any data you can to support the reasoning behind your recommendations.
The action plan should consist of all of the priorities and activities you'll deploy and involve the key stakeholders for input. Outline a schedule, likely resources required, vision, and goals. A successful deployment will be a direct reflection of your competence.
Common mistakes to avoid
To declare success in your first 90 days, you'll need to avoid some common pitfalls. Here as some likely mistakes that new leaders often make:
Failure to adapt to company culture effectively
Company culture is always unique and tends to develop over time. It will typically parallel the conduct, language, preferences, and daily business practices the workforce has adopted. Walter Lippmann describes culture in this way, "Culture is the name for what people are interested in, their thoughts, their models, the books they read, and the speeches they hear." In essence, culture is nothing more than the preferences combined with the collective group's acceptable social norms.
So, as the team's newest member, not adapting to the current culture can quickly lead to a disconnection with the other staff member. This avoidable disconnect can result in misguided decision-making that will often frustrate both parties causing unnecessary disagreements.
Be intentional not to isolate yourself from the rest of the staff
It would be a real misstep to only focus on the organization's needs. This will likely isolate you, and your isolation will most likely be lethal. Therefore, reducing your opportunity to create strong relationships with others and get the valuable insights you'll need about business operations.
Retaining a low performing team member
As a new leader, you will probably inherit a team that may not completely embrace your new direction. It would be detrimental to your success to retain members of that team unwilling to participate in change or buy into team collaboration.
It's natural to feel a little intimidated by the opinions of senior team members. Still, you've been tasked to bring about change, and this will require some difficult decisions that may not align with popular opinion. Once identified, make the change sooner than later, and build your ideal team.
As the new HR leader, the first 90 days will be spent on assimilating your vision and goals with those of the organization. Thus conveying you have the competence necessary to execute and show everyone that you are the right person for the job.
Do your best to avoid most or all of the common mistakes, and choose the best course of action. By taking action quickly and thoughtfully, you'll establish yourself as a leader and critical asset to the organization's strategic goals from the very start. You are solidifying for yourself a seat at the coveted table.
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