HR Administration

Why the Best HR Leaders Are Moderate Republicans

By Kris Dunn

Mar. 23, 2010

You realize I’m baiting you Fox News and MSNBC viewers with that title, right?

Good. Because it’s quiz time today with the HR Capitalist! Look at the list below and tell me the presidential career that most resembles the arc of a world-class HR pro (at any career level):

1. Bill Clinton
2. Jimmy Carter
3. Ronald Reagan

Time’s up. Which one did you pick? If you only picked one, you’re either a single-lever-pulling Republican, or you’re telling me what I want to hear based on the title of this column. Or maybe you just wanted to make a Monica Lewinsky reference when talking about your HR team. (Have you no shame?) The truth is that two names on this list resemble world-class HR leaders at their best.

Both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan could have been great HR pros. Turns out that in order to be a great HR leader, it’s more important to be a moderate than either a Republican or a Democrat. Need proof? Let’s examine the relationship between getting things done in politics and getting things done in HR.

First, let’s talk about politics. As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently outlined in The Washington Post, Jimmy Carter struggled so much to get things done in Washington that his own White House counsel suggested abolishing the separation of powers, citing that the system had become “unmanageable” and congressional gridlock had made America “ungovernable”.

That talk ended when Ronald Reagan came to town, continuously reaching outside his Republican base to Democrats like Tip O’Neill (for Social Security reform) and Bill Bradley (tax reform) to get results that were good for America.

As proof that getting results isn’t limited to Republicans, Bill Clinton continued that tradition of collaboration, working with GOP leader Newt Gingrich to abolish welfare as an entitlement, among other key bipartisan initiatives.

Still with me? Great, because here’s the point related to great HR: Great HR leaders, like effective presidents, understand that in order to get results, they have to be the moderate voice of reason.

Think about it: In order to get things done for the American people, effective presidents have to be moderates and reach across the aisle for balance and compromise. The same holds true for great HR pros, except that instead of moderating their stance as Republicans or Democrats, great HR pros have to balance the conflicting platforms of the following interest groups:

The company: Most HR pros are employed by the company they serve. That company is in business to serve customers and make money. If HR pros don’t have a firm grasp and appreciation of that and are only concerned about the welfare of employees, they’ll systematically help kill the enterprise that employs the people. Ironic, don’t you think?

The people: HR pros get paid to understand the finer points of people management and have to be advocates for talent in any organization. If HR pros fail to realize this and are only concerned about the interests of the company they serve, all kinds of bad stuff happens (unions, bad culture, retention issues), most of which affects the company in a negative fashion. Yet more irony.

It doesn’t take much creativity to see that in comparison to the major political parties, an HR pro only concerned about the company can easily be compared to a rabid Republican, and an HR pro only concerned about the people looks like a staunch Democrat. Without question, there are waves of HR pros who have adopted these caricatures as their professional identities.

They’re dead weight. Great HR is played between the 40-yard lines of the business world, at the intersection of company and people interests. Move too far to either the left or the right and the blitz comes, and you find yourself lying on your back. Decreased profitability and layoffs usually follow.

Here are a couple of ways you can channel your inner Reagan or Clinton as an HR pro:

1. Advocate for a reasonable spend on people, then live within the budget: Times are tight, so spending on people initiatives is usually the first thing stripped out of the budget. Your job isn’t to dream of unlimited spending on programs you wish you could have; it’s to get agreement that a certain amount of spending on people is strategic. Once you have that budget, it’s up to you to figure out where the ROI is. Just make sure you have a budget on people that equates to the corporate equivalent of a percentage of GNP.

 2. Pork programs focused on your best talent are cool: The true moderate politician takes care of the masses, then looks out for special interests that are strategic to the citizens they serve. Once you’ve secured the budget for your general programs, it’s time to find some pork, Washington-style. Rather than focusing on junk projects like a bridge to nowhere, the moderate HR pro focuses all pork programs on the best talent in the company. You’ve taken care of the masses with the merit budget; now you should be politicking for a discretionary budget to accelerate increases for your stars, without taking something away from the normal citizen. That’s why you’re a dealmaker like Reagan or Clinton.

3. Help the masses understand the leaders and vice versa: Once you’ve flexed your moderate muscles through funding and development of programs that help the company and people, your attention must turn to communication. You need a communication plan that helps the masses understand the challenges your company faces, and also helps your leaders understand what keeps the average employee up at night. If you really want to channel Reagan or Clinton, guess who needs to be in the middle of the message, showing the balanced approach? That’s right, you, the moderate HR pro. Clinton and Reagan were never afraid to represent the interests of one group to a rival tribe in an effort to bring people together. If you’re going to lead, you’ll need to show that ability as well.

You can get your Fox News or MSNBC game face on and rant that Clinton was a socialist or Reagan was an arms-escalating warmonger. If you chose either of those stances, you’re missing the point.

Clinton and Reagan found the strength to be moderates and get things done. And that’s what you have to do in the world of HR if you want to be viewed as great.

Workforce Management Online, March 2010Register Now!

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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