Courageous HR Leadership

New SHRM board chair Johnny Taylor says courageous leadership is a top challenge for the profession.

By Bill Leonard January 1, 2005

HR Magazine, January 2005 Johnny C. Taylor Jr., J.D., SPHR, loves challenges. And when a unique job opportunity to head a new HR consulting practice opened up recently, he jumped at the chance, even though he was also taking on a demanding two-year term as chair of the Board of Directors for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). In taking on both challenges simultaneously, Taylor says he wants to set an example for what it truly means to be a courageous HR leader. Taylor recently took time from his busy schedule to talk with HR Magazine Senior Writer Bill Leonard to discuss his hopes and visions for the HR management profession and SHRM.

HR Magazine: You are the second lawyer to become chair of SHRM in recent years (Michael J. Lotito, SPHR, served as chair in 2000). Do you think this gives you a different perspective on the HR management profession from other career paths?

Taylor: I believe that more and more the discipline of being an HR professional does include some elements of legal background and training or at least a working knowledge of the law. I believe that being an attorney has definitely provided me with an advantage and has served me well in my career. In law school, you are taught to really use your analytical and criticalthinking skills, and I have found these skills have helped me tremendously throughout my career.

So much of what we do as HR practitioners has to do with workplace laws and compliance with rules and regulations that it has reached the point where employment law is almost a subspecialty of the HR profession. An increasing number of HR executives do have law degrees and have moved over to the HR department after serving as in-house counsel or in similar positions. This has happened because so much work of businesses in-house legal counsels revolves around employment law.

HR Magazine: Do you think being a lawyer will become a requirement for most HR professionals?

Taylor: I dont think attending law school ever will be a requisite to becoming an HR executive. However, a working knowledge of the law is definitely a skill HR professionals should have. The need for some legal skills seems to increase every day because todays workplace is so highly regulated and new laws and regulations impacting HR and the workforce are enacted every year. Theres no doubt that employment law is an area of specialty for many attorneys, such as myself, and that more HR professionals than ever before have attained an impressive level of knowledge about the laws that impact the workplace. I also believe this trend toward more knowledge and expanded skills in employment law will continue.

HR Magazine: Since there is a growing trend toward more knowledge and skills in employment law, do you plan to make it a special goal or emphasis during your two-year tenure as chair of SHRM?

Taylor: SHRM does an excellent job of providing the information and educational opportunities that HR professionals need. Developing educational sessions and offering information that includes a legal perspective and background is very much a part of the Societys mission-critical goal of serving the professional. Some of the best-attended and highest-rated sessions at SHRM conferences feature attorneys, and the SHRM Employment Law and Legislative Conference in March is always well attended and focuses primarily on aspects of the law that impact us most as HR professionals.

While SHRM is obviously doing a great job in this area, thats not to say the Society wont continue to work hard and provide the tools and information HR professionals need to perform their jobs. During my tenure as SHRM chair, I want the Society to focus even more on serving the professional and advancing the profession, and to offer all HR professionals the most comprehensive and highest-quality package of information, tools and services possible.

HR Magazine: Should SHRM members and HR professionals expect to see over the next two years any changes in the products and services that the Society offers?

Taylor: I think SHRM is doing a superb job. Our members and HR professionals wont be seeing any drastic changes in the products and services SHRM offers, but hopefully they will see enhancements to the high-quality products and customer service we currently provide.

The theme for my term as SHRM board chair is Courageous HR Leadership. I strongly believe that we need more aggressive leadership in the HR profession. We need more of those courageous leaders who step up and take responsibility and show that HR has an important leadership role in todays workplace.

I believe that the door is open for HR professionals because more and more employers recognize the most important asset they possess is their people and their talent. And we as HR professionals must show how businesses can realize the full potential of their workforces. Its a huge responsibility. We must have the courage and strength to step in and show we are true business leaders.

I believe that there are many HR leaders who are strategic players in their organizations and have been for years. HR executives who do not possess these skills or knowledge have the potential to do more harm than good as we work to continually advance the profession. Frankly, having the wrong person at the table can be much worse than having no one at the table at all. There are HR professionals who have an opportunity right now to step up and demonstrate their strengths as leaders, but they have to be prepared to do it. Otherwise, they could miss this chance, and if the door closes, it will be very hard to open it again. I believe the chief responsibilities of committed HR professionals should be to completely develop their HR management expertise and build their skills as business strategists. The role of the professional society, in this case SHRM, will be to provide the knowledge and skills that HR professionals need to take their place at the table.

HR Magazine: As you work to promote your theme of courageous leadership, will there be other goals that you want to achieve for yourself and the Society?

Taylor: The goals I have set for the Society and myself for my term as board chair are very much tied to the Courageous HR Leadership theme, and I think they will help further the Societys key mission objectives of serving the professional and advancing the profession.

First of all, I really would like to promote and increase the Societys international initiatives. Youll have to pardon the pun here, but I really want to put SHRM on the map. What I mean by this is to increase SHRMs international presence and make it not only the No. 1 HR professional association in the United States but also in the world.

The Society has already made some great strides in bolstering its international presence, but theres so much more that we are planning. Representatives from SHRM this year have met with our counterparts from many different countries like the United Kingdom, Japan and Korea, and we plan to continue these dialogues. We also have plans in the works to visit China and expand SHRMs presence there.

Second, I want to continue the Societys membership growth and increase membership retention. SHRM is now approaching 200,000 members, but theres still so much growth potential both in the United States and internationally.

And my third area of focus will be working to find more ways to advance the profession through the Societys governmental affairs effort. The profession is impacted by a number of factorsranging from who is in the White House to the makeup of Congress and who will be appointed to the Supreme Court. SHRM has always provided excellent leadership in governmental affairs issues, and I want that tradition to continue and grow.

HR Magazine: In October, you started a new job as president of the HR consulting group McGuireWoods HR Strategies and now you are chair of the SHRM board. How do you see these two demanding jobs working together?

Taylor: When the opportunity with McGuireWoods was first offered to me, I thought the timing was impeccable because here I have the chance to build a new business that will focus primarily on developing high-level HR strategies for employers while at the same time serving as the chair of the largest HR association.

As a member of the SHRM board, I have worked to help develop and implement strategies for advancing the HR profession. So I was very comfortable with taking on the new challenge with McGuireWoods and felt the new job would fit together nicely with my role as chair of the SHRM board. My work as a volunteer leader with SHRM has helped me to grow and develop in my professional career. I had never held a board-level position until I was appointed to the SHRM board. The experience taught me so much about how boards work and how to understand and develop successful strategies. Being a member of the SHRM board and a volunteer leader with the organization has been an invaluable learning experience. When I later had the opportunity to take on a board-level position in my professional career, I had a lot of confidence that my experience as an SHRM volunteer leader would serve me well, and I was right. It has led me to this point in my career where I can take on a challenging new job, while also serving as chair of the SHRM board. Its exciting and at the same time a bit overwhelming, but its the two challenges of making strategic decisions and setting policies for both my employer and for my professional society that I truly look forward to doing, and Im ready to go to work.

HR Magazine: Weve talked quite a bit about strategic thinking and decision-making. Are these the skills HR professionals now need the most?

Taylor: For several years now, the mantra has been that HR professionals have to further develop their strategic planning and thinking skills, and I think that message has been heard and well received. The challenge that we now face is how to take those skills and create and sustain HR policies that really work for your organization.

My new job very much reflects this new challenge that HR professionals face. While McGuireWoods HR Strategies is associated with a large international law practice, the focus is completely different than other human resource consulting groups and the labor and employment practices of other law firms. Our job is to work with boards of directors, senior-level HR executives, chief compliance officers and general counsels to develop HR strategies that ensure they comply with workplace laws and steer clear of legal troubles. Frankly, there are just too many high-profile cases of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. My job is to show businesses how to develop the strategies that will keep them from becoming tomorrows headlines and avoid record settlementsjust like Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola have recently faced. And this really is the job of all HR professionals to develop and maintain policies that create workplaces that help people and their businesses reach their fullest potential.

We talk a lot about strategic thinking and planning, and HR has definitely taken on more strategic and forward-thinking roles within organizations. However, there still is the transactional and administrative role that must be performed and executed well.

We are now witnessing the outsourcing of much of the transactional HR work, which is freeing up HR professionals within corporations to do the strategic thinking and planning. While this is a tremendous leap forward for the HR profession in some ways, it is forming HR management into a two-tiered profession -- one focused on strategic HR and the other on tactical HR. I think the most important challenge right now that we face as HR professionals is how to make sure that we embrace and support both the strategic and tactical functions of HR management within our organizations.

A professional mentor of mine and successful HR executive, JoAnn Griffith of MTV Networks, would often remind me that we as human resource professionals must first and foremost make sure that the trains run on time. We simply cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that the tactical function of HR is a vitally important role and an integral part of what HR does every day for our employees. You can be the best strategic thinker and planner in the world, but if you dont have the people or mechanisms in place to carry out the basics -- payroll, employee relations, health and welfare administration -- then those grand strategic plans and policies will be worth less than the paper they are printed on. This is the real challenge that the HR profession and SHRM now face. We have to take strategic ideas and make them work, while simultaneously executing the basic tactics that our employees rely on. I believe professionals who understand this and meld these HR functions together set the example for business leadership and ultimately decide the future success of our organizations and the profession.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect