It's the adults who often don't understand the role an HR leader can play in positively contributing to an organization's success, particularly in a more progressive organization. It's more than just hiring, firing and processing paperwork. I'm not going to bore you with the history of the human resources function. If you're interested in that information, here's a resource (and for some, a sleep aid). Since the HR function basically originated in the Finance / Accounting function, you'll generally find HR reporting to the CFO in more traditional organizations. In more progressive organizations, HR reports directly to the CEO / President. The proverbial and coveted "seat at the table."
I have as a general practice used the following two popular cultural references to explain with more depth and texture the value-added organizational role an HR leader can play.
In the Star Trek universe, Counselor Troi is the HR Leader for Star Trek, Next Generation. Here's the Star Trek.com take on her leadership role (Note: just for the record, I do not at all resemble this physical depiction, nor would I show this much cleavage at work):
Although actually of mixed human and Betazoid heritage, Troi is one of many from her planet active in the Starfleet counselor corps and was ship's counselor for the U.S.S. Enterprise throughout its service life and now aboard its successor namesake. Troi's race is known for its inter-species telepathy and its emotional empathy with most other species whether on board the ship, in a ship at close proximity or on the planet below. While such a capacity has heightened her counseling skills, they have also aided her captain's command mission decisions on several occasions, including hostile encounters, negotiations, and first-contact missions.
Also for the record: I am not an empath and I was born in Queens, NY, very much of this earth (although there are some who have a different opinion, I have the floor in this blog). However, the last part of the excerpt: they have also aided her captain's command mission decisions on several occasions, including hostile encounters, negotiations, and first-contact missions -- is spot on.
Whatever organization I've worked in, I thankfully was taught to become as much of a subject-matter expert as my client leaders, so that I could provide the best advice and counsel. In the more traditional organizations / leadership teams, I give my best advice and professionally accept the fact that the decision is ultimately up to the operations leader I serve. (E.g. Troi's service to Captain Picard.)
However, on the more progressive leadership teams I've served, the work of running the organization has been shared and collaborative, cross-trained and therefore seamless: any one of us on the leadership team, including me, the HR geek, could take the helm and run the ship. Those have been the best, most fulfilling and most educational leadership experiences, and I strive to recreate that collaborative cross-functional leadership spirit wherever I serve.
For the mainstream audience:
The HR Leader is the Consigliere, as represented by Tom Hagen in The Godfather. Here's Wikipedia's take on the role of Consigliere in the leadership structure:
In the movies The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, the consigliere to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and later Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), is Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall). Hagen is the adopted son of Don Vito Corleone, and a lawyer for the family. At the end of The Godfather, Don Vito's successor and son, Michael Corleone, temporarily demotes Hagen within the organization, moving him to Las Vegas, saying "things are going to get rough, and I need a wartime consigliere." (In an earlier scene, Santino 'Sonny' Corleone, Michael's older brother and acting Don after Vito Corleone's attempted assassination, similarly criticizes Hagen.) Vito Corleone, Michael's father, replaces Hagen at Michael's side until his death. After killing the heads of the five families, Michael reinstates Tom.
In Italian, consigliere means "advisor" or "counselor." It is derived from Latin consiliarius (advisor) and consilium (advice). The terminology of the U.S. Mafia is taken from that of the Sicilian Mafia and suggests that an analogy is intended to imitate the court of a medieval Italian principality. For example, Venice was led by a doge (duke) and a consigliere ducale (advisor to the doge). An underboss will normally move up to boss when the position becomes vacant, so his position is equivalent to that of heir to the throne. Consigliere, meanwhile, is analogous to chief minister or chancellor. (Oddly, in the novel The Godfather, the word is spelled consigliori; in the films, it is clearly pronounced consigliere.) In Joe Bonanno's book (A Man Of Honor) he explains that a consigliere is more of the voice or rep for the soldiers of the family, and may help solve and mediate disputes for the lower echelon of the family.
The consigliere role is also spot on. I have conducted some my best career work behind the scenes; for example, mediating disputes that would otherwise undermine the organization, with little fanfare. And when I started my HR career, my dress code was the female version of Tom Hagen's standard 1950's business attire.
However, the ultimate HR leadership cultural reference is Xerox's former CEO Anne Mulcahy, 2008 Chief Executive of the Year, as described in Chief Executive Magazine:
The choice for the 2008 Chief Executive of the Year marks several firsts. By her own admission Anne Mulcahy did not set out to become a chief executive. Nor was she groomed to become one. Neither did she bargain to face what some have called the turnaround of the century when her predecessor, Paul Allaire, called her into his office one day in 2001 to say that the top job was hers. Allaire himself returned to the company at the request of the board when Xerox dumped Allaire's chosen successor Rick Thoman. Fortune dubbed her "The Accidental CEO." One might add "Improbable Turnaround CEO," since everyone knows turnaround bosses tend to come from the outside. (Former Lee Iacocca point man "Steve" Miller is the archetype.) Mulcahy had worked for Xerox for 24 years at the time of her appointment; she spent 16 of those years in sales and the rest heading HR. The company was so much in her blood she bled copier toner.
Oh yes, Mulcahy is also the first woman CEO to be chosen by her peers for the honor of Chief Executive of the Year.
Mulcahy joined Xerox as a field sales representative in 1976 and rose through the ranks. From 1992-1995, Mulcahy was vice president for human resources, responsible for compensation, benefits, human resource strategy, labor relations, management development and employee training. Mulcahy became chief staff officer in 1997 and corporate senior vice president in 1998. Prior to that, she served as vice president and staff officer for Customer Operations, covering South America and Central America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and China.
Forget about being granted a seat at the leadership table: Mulcahy built her own seat, and more importantly, used her discretionary power to make even more room at the leadership table. Crowning her career as CEO at Xerox, Mulcahy broke new ground in naming her successor, also courtesy of Wikipedia:
Ursula M. Burns (born September 20, 1958) serves as chairwoman and CEO of Xerox. She is the first African-American woman CEO to head a S&P 100 company. She is also the first woman to succeed another woman as head of a S&P 100 company. In 2009, Forbes rated her the 14th most powerful woman.
From Customer Service to HR to CEO: now that's what I'm talking about in terms of cross-functional and seamless leadership, and development thereof.
What role does HR play in your organization: clerk, Counselor, Consigliere, or CEO? Is your HR Leader bench ready to be CEO?