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HR Leaders: To be more strategic, simply follow your own advice

“We’re finally promoting James to VP next week. He’s ready right?”

Looking squarely in his HR director’s eyes, the senior executive questioned her with a mix of urgency and contemplation.

The HR director calmly assured him.

“Of course he is. You know this hasn’t been an overnight decision. But I’d like to invest in an executive coach for him. At least in his first year.”

The executive looked incredulous.

“What?  Why?  If he’s the right guy and this is the right time, why does he need that?  What message would that send about our confidence in this promotion?”

The HR director thought about it for a few seconds. “Well, actually it sends a better…”

He cut her off.  “And even if we looked at coaching, why would we spend money on someone outside?  Aren’t you a coach?  Isn’t that your job?”  

Misplaced responsibilities for new leader success

While leading an internal talent development team at a Fortune 500 company, I helped senior leaders and their HR partners build succession plans for key roles. But executing the plans were challenging given the odds of derailment for newly promoted leaders.

Research shows that 40% of all promoted leaders derail in the first 18 months. Yet only 1 in 10 get coaching early enough to protect against derailment.

Instead most organizations expect new-in-role leaders to “sink or swim.” This is based on the myth that if they were chosen for the promotion, they obviously should be successful on their own.

When companies do hire coaches, they usually wait until derailment has started. But at this point the leader is less motivated to change. The patience of HR and senior management quickly runs out.

So 90% of leaders aren’t getting coaching on the things that will protect them from derailment: self-awareness, stakeholder alignment, sharper business acumen and learning agility.

This is a problem.

But there is also a problem behind the 10% that do receive help: their HR partners are usually doing the coaching and they should stop.

HR leaders must remain strategic stakeholders not hand-holders

As a former internal HR leader, I am convinced HR cannot be strategic unless it delegates this work to an external coach.

HR may be seen as strategic on issues around headcount, recruiting and compensation. But it loses that standing in issues around leader development when it believes it cannot afford to hand this work to an external partner.

This belief that only HR can (and should) develop its newly transitioned leaders actually relegates HR to a tactical role in executing a succession plan.

It also enables senior executives to avoid the work of actively developing successors as part of their responsibility.

And while HR sees itself as the new leader’s closest advisor, acting as the sole source of feedback and development encourages the leader to be less introspective and responsive to stakeholder feedback outside of HR’s perspective.

Despite its best intentions, HR cannot provide the kind of objective, multifaceted feedback a newly promoted leader will truly respond to without conflict of interest.

The result is a development process that is less robust and integrative, and one whose singular feedback channel ultimately motivates leaders to simply tell HR what they want to hear, in order to show progress. Of course, this counteracts the whole intent of coaching.

In the process, HR unintentionally removes itself from its role as a strategic stakeholder to the leader and instead becomes perceived as a “hand-holder.”

And perception aside, this work is hardly sustainable given that every new leader appointment automatically creates another HR coaching need for the one taking over the former post.

Don’t just facilitate. Participate!

Newly appointed leaders – particularly the ones taking the biggest leaps in scope and scale – desperately need objective input related to both strategic business objectives and necessary leadership behaviors.

HR must provide its functional expertise in these areas the way others on the leadership team do.  But HR can’t do that when fully assuming the coaching role.

An external coach solves this problem by integrating business and interpersonal insights across all the new leader’s stakeholders, including HR.

Combined with tools examining the leader’s style and any blind spots, the coach can help him avoid future derailment with precision and heightened awareness.

In addition, an external coach’s objectivity better surfaces unspoken issues and removes conflicts of interest between colleagues. Partnering with a coach improves effectiveness and efficiency by letting HR, leader and team do what they do best.

And here’s the best part: a talented external coach strengthens the partnershipbetween HR and the leader by keeping them on the same side and informed with unbiased insights that reveal deeper areas for fruitful collaboration.

Taking our own coaching advice

To prevent new leader derailment and be a true strategic partner in the business HR must do two things:

  1. Invest in early coaching for newly promoted leaders
  2. Delegate this work to an external coach

HR is always dedicated to helping its leaders succeed.  But like the HR director in the opening story, many HR leaders are pushed into tactical territory even when they know they must remain strategic.

Thoughtful delegation to an external coach when it comes to leader development ensures learning without conflicts of interest.  More importantly, it frees up HR to act strategically and be treated as such.

After all, isn’t that what HR would coach their strategic business leaders to do?

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