Being an HR manager or team leader is challenging and delicate work.
On the one hand, you spend your time coaching, mentoring and encouraging everyone on the team….not just to survive, but to thrive. These kinds of responsibilities require a deep level of trust with everyone on the team, not to mention the discretion involved in gaining and maintaining the confidence of individual team members.
On the other hand, you are the agent of the organization you work for; with a responsibility to help define and implement their agenda. You are front and center on performance reviews, called on to deal with sticky personnel issues, mediate personnel conflict, and handle inappropriate workplace behaviors. Staff attrition, defections, performance reviews, terminations, compensation decisions, downsizings, restructurings, plant closings, layoffs, collective bargaining agreements, grievances….one way or another many of these initiatives fall into your laps. Yuck!
When you think about it, this can be a highly political role…..and we all know how popular politicians are these days….and bosses too.
All of which got me thinking about Niccolo Machiavelli this summer when I was lucky enough to get to Italy for a couple of weeks. How’s that for a segue?
Those of you who have visited Tuscany will likely remember the hill top fortress towns. They have existed from time immemorial and were significantly strengthened and expanded in medieval times. Competition among these towns – Florence, Siena, Verona, Pisa, Lucca, Volterra and many more – helped produce (among many other things) the changes in business, religion, the arts, architecture and education that resulted in the “Renaissance”. Many of these changes we still see echoing in our own time.
But what the heck does Machiavelli have to do with HR? Good question. I wondered that myself.
After all, when we label someone “Machiavellian” this is usually taken as a “negative”; certainly rarely as a compliment. The words “cunning” or “duplicity” come to mind. You know….the guy who supposedly coined the concept that it was “better to be feared than loved”, or “the ends justify the means” kind of thinking.
Now HR professionals may be labelled this way by some, but they certainly hope not to be considered this way (who does?).
Still the job IS a highly political one, and fraught with peril, so I wondered what it might be like to apply some Machiavellian insight to this aspect – the political aspect – of the role.
So, back to Italy…and my question.
I figured I should try and get into the swing of things on my trip. We were travelling through Florence, Siena, Pisa, Verona and all these other places that were Machiavelli’s turf after all. Incredible. So being a fan of history, politics and the social sciences generally, I grabbed a copy of “The Prince”, written by the famous Niccolo M. and claimed by some to be one of the first serious studies of “political science”.
This book is a really a “go to resource” for those aspiring to positions of leadership. In today’s lingo it might go by a title like “Best Practises In Leadership”, or maybe even “The Dummies Guide to Being A Leader”.
Since matters HR are at the forefront for Organimi, as I read through The Prince I couldn’t help asking this question…what kind of advice would Niccolo offer to today’s HR professional? (Seriously, and yes I am THAT exciting!).
I thought it might be helpful to summarize some of his findings, and possibly rework them for today’s crazy HR environment. Niccolo’s tips for effective HR leadership might read as follows:
(I have offered some suggestions on how his “tips for princes” might translate for HR leaders. Feel free to add your own, or comment on these.)
An effective leader strives by all their actions to inspire a sense of greatness and goodness because nothing “makes them so well thought of as to undertake great enterprises.”
Translation: You need to think big, think forward and plan for larger things for your organization. You need to strive by all your actions to communicate and position this larger, forward looking vision. [Hint: Organimi is awesome at projecting org structure into the future so you can plan accordingly. Lots of people are already using it for that.]
An effective leader… carefully chooses their heroes, and incorporates their best features into their own selves. The great rest on and channel the shoulders of those who have come before them.
Translation: You need to think about who your own leaders are within the organization you work for, and other organizations you have worked for in the past, deeply understand why you admired them, and then borrow from and build on their strengths. You are looking for characteristics, not to simply be a pale imitation of someone you once knew, but the composite strengths of all the best you’ve known.
An effective leader….Is perceived to be wise, just and governed by higher moral laws.
Translation: You demonstrate both wisdom and discretion; you don’t take sides or play favorites; you are independent, impartial and concerned about the best interests of the organization…period….to paraphrase from Google “you do no evil”…to paraphrase from Hippocrates “you do no harm”.
An effective leader….uses force only when in the best interests of the state
Translation: You understand the power and influence of your position and you use it wisely, in the interests of the organization as a whole, not your own.
An effective leader…..Is not wantonly cruel.
Translation: “Hire slow. Fire fast.” is one of many HR cliches that illustrate this principle. You understand the decisions that are required to be made, and you make them, without drama or delay. A bad hire or a non-performing staffer is poison; you deal with it, as dispassionately as possible
An effective leader…..is judicious in the use of funds provided.
Translation: You deeply understand that the compensation budget of the organization is one of the largest consumers of the organization’s capital resources and that you need to maximize the benefit to the organization procured through spending those dollars. You are equally aware that errors in personnel management can be costly – financially and in human terms. You are focused on managing and optimizing those costs and mindful of the value they generate.
An effective leader…understands politics is as much about image as substance and acts accordingly.
Translation: You understand the importance of the spectacle, of roles and of culture in making the organization sustainable and geared for growth and success. Your focus as a senior member of the team is to maintain, sustain and enhance those elements. You are the organization’s “chief internal officer” for marketing and promoting the organization’s mission, values and plans across teams.
An effective leader…is wary of flatterers who invariably provide incomplete and incorrect pictures of what is happening.
Translation: You do not rely on gossip, rumour or even incomplete or unreliable processes or data in reviewing and making decisions. You are data driven in decision making, while also being cognizant of the importance of cultivating many relationships through interaction across staff.
An effective leader…has a handful of trusted advisors who are able and encouraged to speak freely without fear.
Translation: Within your team and in discussions with peers and senior executives you both practise and cultivate a culture of openness.
An effective leader…consults widely, but is perceived to be a decision maker, and is decisive in making decisions without vacillating
Translation. You make decisions thoughtfully, without rushing to judgment but without delay, and without needing backup or support in making them.
An effective leader…backs what they say with force to the extent required; the perception of weakness being fatal to those in power.
Translation: You back up decisions with actions, and the appropriate measured steps needed to support those actions.
An effective leader…recgonizes that fortune favours those who work to direct and influence its course.
Translation: You subscribe to the view that hard work, timing and luck all will play a role in your success, and you work as hard as you can, all the time to be in the best position to capitalize on circumstances as they arise.
So….loved or feared?
If I can boil Machiavelli’s advice down to a few simple things, I would say “transparency” and “authenticity”. People want to know where the organization is going, what changes are going to be necessary to get it there, and how those changes will impact on them, personally and professionally.
Fortunately, Organimi is totally awesome for this process of defining, testing and then broadcasting your organizational structure today and plans for tomorrow. You get the chance to map it all out, do all the variations and iterations, get all the strategic and operational inputs you need, all in a simple but powerful org chart design tool, and then make it available to everyone, everywhere they are, at the same time.
We think Niccolo would approve.
Hope you had a great summer….wherever your travels took you.
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