Recipe for Success

A little of this and a little of that

By Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP Mar 11, 2016
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What is the recipe for success in HR? There are thousands of theories about what ingredients are necessary, and in what proportions. Competencies, conditions and processes. Specialized skills and expertise. General, social and emotional intelligence. Leadership traits. The perfect personality. The power of communication. Avoiding destructive habits.

Which ingredient is most important? Which ingredients are rooted in actual research? Which are grounded in common sense but lack empirical evidence?

As far as I can tell, the recipe for success is something my Cuban grandmother called “arroz con mango.” The answer lies not in the ingredients, but rather in the desired end product.

Success in HR means achieving an employer brand of distinction. It means finding an HR leader who can drive results while maintaining competitive advantage among potential talent. Who can be a flag bearer for the employer, implementing and promoting organizational strategy. Who is the best at attracting, growing and retaining talent—in one's own industry and beyond.

What mix of skills can make this desired state a reality? I believe it's a combination of two parts competencies, one part personality. Success calls for HR leadership that consists of three qualities:

  • Focus. The best leaders have a strong need for achievement. The very best leaders also have an almost maniacal ability to focus on minute details. Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence) calls focus the necessary lever for achieving success—his latest book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (Harper, 2013) is devoted to it. Examples? Steve Jobs, who endlessly refined the Mac’s mouse; Bill Gates, who wanted to put Windows on every computer in the world; Michael Jordan, who got in “the zone” better than anyone else. Each was a successful leader—even if not a great team member. Developing killer focus may make you less popular, but it's also likely to make you more successful. (Just remember that results matter as much as, if not more than, popularity.)

  •  Change-loving stick-to-itiveness. Think back on every major change in your life. If you’re like me, you probably hated your new "every day." Then something amazing inevitably happened—the new normal was better than the old normal. Change feels paralyzing because it's unknown, but with each change come countless opportunities for growth. It's paradoxical: the willingness to change, combined with the willingness to stick with it. The most successful leaders not only embrace change, they relish it, they look forward to it. They see change as a chance to drive innovation and improvement with resolve. A close colleague put it this way: "Everybody fears change, but I thrive on it. It's my best shot at aligning people with strategy. Change is the fast track to success, and the taste of success is unmatched." Another paradox: stick-to-itiveness as a fast track. The lesson? Don’t fear change; take it by the horns!

  •  Courage (and all that jazz). Terms like “managerial courage” or “credible activism” may sound like touchy-feely buzzwords, but they are core ingredients for success—specifically, conscientious leadership in the face of challenges. Unlike some business leaders, the most successful HR leaders triumph with courage and strong ethical fiber. A great CHRO or CHRE has the ability to champion difficult perspectives and strategy while rising to a challenge, rather than shrinking behind an arbitrary policy or some obscure law. I’ve seen examples of both attitudes. There's the manager who blames a third party for instituting a new rule that closes opportunities to qualified candidates. Then there's the leader who decides to hold tight to a perspective or strategy because ultimately it will lead to a more talented workforce and make her organization better. You can disagree with someone’s perspective but still respect them. You cannot agree with someone’s perspective but lack respect for the person. Human nature prevents it. So stick to your guns and trust yourself. Fewer might like you, but just about everyone will respect you.

 Each of these ingredients contributes to the desired end product—success. Mixed in just the right proportions, they are akin to another menu item from my grandmother’s homeland, the sweet nectar of a mojito.

What is your success recipe? How many parts of this or that do you need?

Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is senior vice president of knowledge development at SHRM. 

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