Warning! Are You Sabotaging Your Leadership Reputation?

By Eric Spencer on March 19, 2019

Hi, my name is Eric, and I work in HR. Gets you fired up, doesn’t it? Everyone loves HR…you know, when they want to terminate someone, need some help with that open requisition, or want to point out how unfair it is that the engineers get to wear flip-flops to work and they don’t. I’m kidding, but HR sometimes gets a bad rap. Despite the occasional rub, my 20 years in the function have taught me some valuable lessons in leadership and working in a support function for so long, I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t all about me.

Growing up, let’s face it, we’re not really socialized to work in teams. Barring the sports experiences that we had as kids, most of our childhood is rated and rewarded based on individual results. In school, it’s all about your grades. You do the work, you take the tests, you get all the glory (or shame). I’m not sure who invented the concept of the spelling bee, but that little exercise in public humiliation has scarred scores of children for decades. There’s one winner, and the rest of you are losers…and we all know it! We learn early on, that to be successful, we should strive to be the winner – often at the expense of others. Death or glory!

It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned that teams actually mattered. I waltzed into my first class only to learn that there were no papers, no tests, no individual work. The ENTIRE grade for this course was to be based on a single GROUP PROJECT. Wow. That was new. MBA programs are chock full of students who are used to being the best, used to getting the credit, and quite frankly, used to being the smartest person in the room (or at least in their own minds). Sharing credit didn’t come naturally to us. However, it was in this context that I learned that leadership isn’t really about getting the kudos, it’s about the shared accomplishment.

As adults, most companies expect teams to just perform, but when you’ve got a pack of alpha dogs in the room trying to “out idea” each other, there’s not a lot of teaming going on. I’ve worked on a lot of these teams, but I was “just the HR guy.” Internal services folks have been vying for a seat at the proverbial table since time immemorial. These days, we usually get to sit there, but we’re sometimes treated like the kids who are finally allowed to eat with the grownups at the big holiday meal; just sit there, keep your mouth shut, and try not to spill anything.

Working in a function without a lot of organizational power forces leaders to choose alternate approaches. I’ve learned that humility and vulnerability open many doors in this regard. That’s an upside of the spelling bee experience, we learned all about humility and vulnerability! Humble leaders tend to have the most loyal people around them. Dr. Brené Brown has done a great deal of research in this space, and she posits that being vulnerable shows authenticity, and authenticity breeds connection. Human connection is the secret sauce that allows organizations to thrive. This is where the magic happens: Humility, vulnerability, and letting those around you shine.

Of course, getting people to buy into this philosophy takes some doing. I’ve been making a conscious effort to bring this approach to my work, and over the course of my HR career journey, I’ve learned a few valuable (albeit sometimes humbling) tips, tricks, and tools. Here are a few:
  • Be like Elsa – Let it Go. I learned early on that if I wanted to take credit for all of my nifty ideas, I was going to be pretty limited in what I could accomplish. Once I got over the need to be known for being the person who came up with that amazing idea, I was able to inject a lot more into the conversation. The team came up with (and implemented) better solutions when we weren’t vying for who got the credit, praise, or rewards. Extra credit: How about actually giving the credit away, even if the genesis of the idea was yours? Perhaps giving it to someone who improved upon it, or to the team as a whole?
  • Share the Love. At SkyeTeam we work from a mindset of Abundance and Generosity. Positions of scarcity create silos and protectionism. When we treat the world as a place where there’s enough work to go around (and come on, there’s plenty to do) team members can play to their strengths. The Finance person on your team may not have the sexiest job, but she can likely build a fancier pivot table than you can. Let her rock and roll, and if that data display becomes the thing that everyone loves most – yay. Go team!
  • Seek to Serve. Support functions exist inside an organization to help. All leaders can take a page from their playbooks. If we show up ready to help, versus ready to sell our ideas to the team, we’ll all be better off.
There are leaders who command and control their teams, and there are leaders who inspire, serve, and help team members do what they do best. The higher up the food chain you are, the more important these behaviors are to display. Your colleagues will be more engaged, more loyal, and you’ll get everyone’s “A Game,” even if you let them all wear flip-flops.
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