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Owning Your Personal Power as an HR Professional

Silhouette of a woman with a red cape standing on top of a hill at sunset.

​Rachel Conard attributes much of her success to her interpersonal skills, her reputation for being honest and trustworthy, and her willingness to adapt her style to meet her colleagues' needs. 

Conard has what social psychologists call "referent power." 

Referent power means "influence over others, acquired from being well-liked or respected." First identified by social psychologists John R.P. French and Bertram Raven, it is built around the twin pillars of personality and character. 

"It comes from the idea that the follower sees the leader as a personal frame of reference—someone they want to emulate and be like," said Ken Downer, founder of RapidStart Leadership, a management consulting firm in Eden Prairie, Minn. Leaders with referent power excel in making others feel comfortable in their presence. They are likeable and have good interpersonal skills. 

Conard started her HR career as a technical recruiter with 1st St NW Inc., a technical staffing company in Milwaukee. Despite her youth and inexperience, she earned the respect of the industrial engineers that she worked with by learning to talk shop with them. Now, as the company's chief talent officer, her ability to build relationships with candidates and hiring managers gives her a unique competitive advantage. 

"Adaptability is key," Conard said. "Different approaches motivate different candidates. A good recruiter intuitively customizes his or her style to meet candidates' needs." 

For some candidates, she functions like a "ghost recruiter." After facilitating an introduction to a suitable employer, she "fades away into the shadows." For those who want mentors, she becomes a resource of knowledge and experience who provides constructive feedback and guidance. With candidates who want a collaborative partner, she discusses the job market along with the pros and cons of each opportunity. 

"The recruiter wears multiple hats. I can be your drill sergeant and your cheerleader. Nag you like your sister and nurture you like your mother. Be your therapist, listen to your concerns and help you find a more professionally fulfilling path," said Conard. 

Beyond the hard data showing a successful track record of placements, the frequent thank-you cards and e-mails she receives from grateful hires affirm the value of her empathetic approach. 

Downer believes that the key to building referent power is to make whomever you are talking to feel like the most important person in the room by: 

  • Giving that person undivided attention.
  • Cultivating an attitude of acceptance.
  • Praising publicly and celebrating successes.
  • Demonstrating respect.

Character counts. It is imperative that referent leaders be trustworthy and deserving of respect. They lead by example, he said, and keep their word.

"HR professionals are perceived as credible when they can be trusted to do what they say they will and treat people fairly and honestly," agreed Melissa Fairman.

As the senior HR manager for Mickey Thompson Tires & Wheels, a Cleveland-area automotive performance aftermarket company, Fairman reports directly to the president and is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the HR function as well as managing the HR team. 

She started her career as an HR assistant nearly a decade ago. Then she worked her way through the job market, taking on varied roles and responsibilities with different companies until she landed her current senior-level leadership position. Though each position provided an opportunity to gain new skills and experience, Fairman believes that her very first job after college as a customer service rep was excellent preparation for her HR career.

"Nothing can ruin the integrity and reputation of an HR department as easily as treating employees poorly," Fairman said. "If you have shot your credibility by partaking in office gossip, sharing confidential information or acting in an immature or unprofessional manner, very few people will trust you." Then, instead of being the person or department employees turn to for help, you may end up turning them against you.

Expert Power

Research conducted by Gary Yukl, a management professor at the State University of New York at Albany, showed that, in addition to referent power, managers who had "expert power" were likely to be more effective. Fortunately, these two sources of social power are available to everyone regardless of their official position.

"The bigger game is being so good at what you do that no one can argue with your results," said Victor Lipman, author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall, 2015).

People with expert power have the ability to influence others based on their knowledge. While some people acquire this through seniority, others take the initiative to develop specialized areas of expertise.

"Find a niche and build your reputation around it," said Dorie Clark, adjunct professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and author of Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following (Portfolio, 2015). Conard, for example, built her reputation and expertise around technical recruiting.

Fairman supplemented her work experience with formal education and training. She pursued a master's degree in business administration with a focus on HR and obtained HR certification. These competency-based certifications are a credible way to demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills that are critical to effectiveness as a HR professional, and allow practitioners to demonstrate their commitment to the profession.

Educate yourself about the business as well. When you understand leadership values and priorities, you are in a better position to help create HR processes that are strategically aligned with the company's objectives and goals. 

"If leaders view HR as a support function that is not essential to the core business, they won't want to fund it or support it," Clark said. "When speaking about your work, cite hard statistics and the business results that it produced."

Yukl believes that people who have expert power have the ability to build and maintain an aura of credibility. They can advance their agenda by being a role model for others, delivering on key responsibilities, interacting with stakeholders, making tough decisions, and continually developing skills, knowledge and expertise.

Standing Out

"Position doesn't define power," said Mindy Grossman, president and CEO of Weight Watchers. "Impact defines power. What impact are you having on people? What impact are you having on the business? Power comes from the relationships you build and the value that you add."

Like Conard's ghost recruiter, many HR professionals work behind the scenes supporting the career development of others. However, you may need to emerge from the shadows if you want to make a greater impact.

Research conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a nonprofit research organization in New York, concluded that people who are perceived as being capable of becoming leaders are more likely to be promoted into leadership roles.

You can foster that perception by developing executive presence (EP). In a recent CTI study, 67 percent of executives identified gravitas as a core characteristic of EP. Behaviors associated with gravitas include exuding confidence, acting decisively, projecting vision and demonstrating emotional intelligence.

Sandra Zimmer, president and founder of the Self-Expression Center in Houston, helps emerging leaders develop greater EP and gravitas. She identified commonly used phrases that capture its essence: 

  • Putting your foot down.
  • Taking a stand.
  • Standing up for yourself or a cause.
  • Stepping up to the plate.

"All of these refer to the ability to stand out, stand alone and stand firm. You have to speak up and contribute your insights," said Zimmer, author of It's Your Time to Shine: How to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking, Develop Authentic Presence and Speak from Your Heart (Self-Expression Center, 2009).

Be aware of how your body moves, and be comfortable with your body, Zimmer said. Build this awareness by working out, going for walks or playing a sport.

Communication skills are another essential feature of EP. This encompasses public speaking, e-mail correspondence and everyday conversations. How you communicate should be a reflection of your talents, style and expertise, as well as the resources available to you. 

Fairman created her HR Remix blog to showcase her writing skills and expand her HR network. As her career blossoms, the blog is becoming a vehicle for her to discuss leadership and organizational development issues with her peers.

No discussion of personal power is complete without acknowledging the importance of a network. Clark believes that the best way to become indispensable in a network is to make yourself a "hub" by building connections with disparate people and groups. She cites an example of a friend who expanded her circle of influence simply by having lunch each week with different people who worked in different departments in her company. This enabled her friend to gain access to information and best practices that other people didn't have.

"That is powerful," Clark said. "That is career insurance."

Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC, is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago.


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