Having worked for the past 30 years as an executive leadership coach and organizational development consultant, I can’t tell you how many times I have seen well-intentioned executives and their Human Resources (HR) counterparts work together in a manner that appears to be effective, but is actually quite the opposite. The scenario often looks like this:
Highly aligned on the outcome, Sally, a busy executive, and Jack, a talented and high-achieving HR professional, are working together on a new initiative for proper selection, onboarding, and rapid technical development within Sally’s fast-growing area of responsibility. This seemingly positive situation has the potential for disaster if they are unaware of how to properly play their roles together. Sally considers herself a great delegator and the potential CEO, and Jack, in his desire to show what he can do (since he is not part of operations and feels a bit “second class,” being outside of direct technical work), accepts the assignment fully. Jack correctly takes responsibility, but mistakenly assumes the authority that belongs to Sally by virtue of her position and Sally wrongly gives it to him.
Within an executive’s unit of responsibility, wherein they are required to set goals, give performance feedback, mete out reward and have the ability to hire and fire, they can obviously expect performance that will achieve their goals. Sally is an excellent leader and thoughtfully uses her “executive amplitude” or “position power” with grace and ease. She is respectful, listens well, and doesn’t overshadow the leaders who report to her. With her inherent role-authority she politely asks for things to be done and compliments high performance, yet also gives timely, accurate, and acute critical feedback if necessary. She expects those who report to her to do what she asks. She uses what I call “authority-demand” (making decisions and taking action) well—a key reason she very well may be the next CEO. But, as with any other type of power, authority-demand must be properly used.
An executive on a management team wouldn’t think of directly and assertively using their authority demand in a peer’s area, but this is what Sam innocently did in his eagerness to prove his capability. When HR or other staff members take authority they don’t have, they usually create resistance similar to the unthinkable: An executive’s taking charge in another manager’s unit of operations. In Sally’s rush to cover the broad scope of her responsibilities she inadvertently pushed Jack into this untenable situation—trying to lead with authority when he had none. In short, it is ludicrous to think that an HR staff member could take over the operational executive’s area, yet this is a big mistake that is often made by well-intentioned executives and their partner HR staff when executives ask their HR professionals, who have responsibility only for their professional expertise, to lead with authority.
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