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Why Leadership Matters To HR Success


Rachel Lewis and Emma Donaldson-Feilder demonstrate the importance of HR professionals showing strong leadership, in order to help to create an organisational environment conducive to effective people management and ultimately, success.

Research suggests that leaders in organisations personally affect the dynamics, culture and values of that organisation (Giberson et al. 2009) in addition to affecting individual performance and health and effectiveness.

Furthermore, it is widely recognised that good leadership and management are necessary for good organisational performance in addition to being critical for a successful HR function.

We reviewed the leadership literature and its implications for HR for the CIPD.

One of the conclusions we drew was that it is necessary for HR professionals to demonstrate leadership themselves and develop the leadership skills of employees currently in people management positions, in addition to consolidating the systems and processes used for people management activities.

The following is an outline of why this is important and some initial thoughts on how HR professionals can achieve this.


Local implementation of HR practices

HR professionals set the policies for people management activities, such as employee engagement, performance management and absence management; however it is not feasible for HR employees to implement these processes and policies personally within the organisation.

Line managers need to be responsible for such people management activities and CIPD research demonstrates the critical role line managers play in applying such HR policies.

If managers are not developed and supported to fulfil this role, there is a chance that such policies may not be fully implemented or implemented inappropriately.

The effect is that employees may perceive HR to be unsuccessful and employees may experience a ‘rhetoric-reality’ gap where the HR department and the organisation espouse good intentions and advocate best practice.

In reality, individual employees do not experience these at the local level.


Developing the organisation and its people

The current economic and market environment results in businesses needing to be very flexible; organisational development is in demand and organisational change is omnipresent. In this climate, leadership skills and local-level people management are critical. 

For successful organisational change to occur, leadership and management approaches must also change. Employees are central to organisational change, consequently organisational development that focuses only on systems and structure is unlikely to be successful.

To increase the success and long term impact of organisational development programmes, line managers need to work actively with their employees at the local level. 

Line managers also have an important role to play within learning and development. To establish learning cultures in the workplace necessitates local level leadership, which sets the tone in addition to encouraging employees to engage in learning.


Freeing HR for a strategic role

To ensure that HR can truly be a strategic ‘insight driven’ function it is imperative that line managers are responsible for people management activities.

Ensuring managers are responsible for people management activities – engaging employees, supporting wellbeing and getting the most out of employees – will enable HR professionals to prioritise the broader issues, step away from day-to-day management and focus on the overarching people strategy for the organisation and the impact of this on organisational performance.


HR Leadership

To accomplish the goals described above, HR professionals need to display leadership themselves by demonstrating the applicability and significance of leadership and ensuring its development is sustained. 

The HR function needs to be led in such a way that it can confidently lead and take the initiative on people management issues, in addition to developing leadership and management skills at all levels throughout the organisation.



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