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HR's role in establishing good leadership skills


Emma Donaldson-Feilder and Rachel Lewis from Affinity Health at Work explore the vital role that HR has to play in addressing leadership capability.

In recent years particular attention has been drawn to the negative impact that poor leadership can have on organisations.

Research shows that leaders’ role in influencing organisational performance, and employee health and effectiveness should not be underestimated.

HR professionals can help shape the way leaders in their organisation behave, with potential for huge impact.  If you can nurture good leadership skills, this can secure the functioning and future of the workforce.

We reviewed the latest thinking on leadership and its implications for HR for the CIPD.

As a result of this work, we identified four aspects to the role that HR needs to play in addressing leadership capability:

  • Clarifying the meaning of good leadership
  • Developing the skills of current and future leaders
  • Implementing organisational infrastructure to support good leadership
  • Establishing a culture which appreciates the value of leadership


Clarifying the meaning of good leadership

The term leadership means different things to different people; numerous definitions exist and numerous approaches to leadership have been taken.

Employees in organisations develop their own idea of leadership, what it is and how it should be demonstrated, however HR professionals have the opportunity to create consistency, by developing an explicit explanation of what leadership means in their particular organisation.

This could be demonstrated in behavioural indicators and descriptors setting out clear expectations and offering a common language about leadership for leaders and followers.  HR professionals can also use this as a chance to clarify that leadership is not just exercised by a small group of executives but is dispersed across the whole organisation.


Developing the skills of current and future leaders

In organisations, people are often promoted to leadership positions without being provided with the necessary support and development required to fulfil the people management aspects of their leadership role.

To address this problem, HR professionals need to ascertain the current skills and capability of leaders in the organisation and identify where the gaps lie.  From this basis, leadership development programmes can be created that will specifically develop the skills needed by those already in leadership roles, and those who will be leaders in the future.

To ensure that the leadership programmes have a lasting impact and that behavioural changes are maintained, it is important to have a long-term approach that aims to build skills, but also the individuals’ identity as leaders.

Coaching, mentoring and support over a prolonged period may have a greater impact than a short training program.


Implementing organisational infrastructure to support good leadership

To establish good leadership skills in their organisation, HR professionals can also put in place use processes and policies.  In addition to learning and development processes, as described above, recruitment, promotion and appraisal processes can also be used to establish good leadership skills in an organisation.

Using recruitment and promotion systems to ensure that those identified as having leadership capability or the potential for such capability are selected into positions requiring leadership can help shift the leadership quality of the organisation.

Employees who have technical excellence but perhaps not the necessary people skills for good leadership could be promoted via a technical route to ensure that their contribution to the organisation is recognised appropriately.  The processes of appraisal and performance management can also be used to support good leadership by clarifying the organisation’s expectations of leaders and how leadership capability is measured and developed.

To strengthen and highlight good people leadership, culture and values exercises, job design and employee engagement can all be used.


Establishing a culture which appreciates the value of leadership

Buy-in from all levels of the organisation and in particular employees at the top of the organisation is critical to achieving good leadership, and investment in leadership development.

HR professionals can achieve this by championing leadership, demonstrating the impact of leadership on organisational performance and showing the critical importance of people leadership in order for businesses to adequately handle the complex world in which businesses operate.

It is also imperative for HR to ensure that all levels of management role-model good leadership, authenticity and values.


The responsibility of HR

HR have a large role in establishing good leadership skills within an organisation. The four areas discussed above are interlinked and sustain each other.  If HR successfully achieves these four areas it will enable leadership to be considered across the organisation in a consistent manner, positively impacting on leaders themselves, employees, the organisation and HR.

As discussed above, one method of establishing good leaders is to support and develop managers effectively.

Recent, award-winning work by Affinity Health at Work investigated how to create the context and implement development programmes to support managers in developing behaviours that are important for preventing and reducing stress in those they manage and for engaging employees.

This research is still in its infancy and you can help: we are looking for individuals who are responsible or partly responsible management development programmes, internally or as an external consultant, to complete a short survey.

The outcomes of this research will be of great benefit to anyone who works with management development programmes and will be free to access. 

Please complete the online questionnaire here.





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