Positional Power is a Thing


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A few years back, I was in a discussion with a group of emerging managers. One expressed concern: their company was about to publish their first org chart, ever. How would people react?

Another participant had been through it before and offered comfort.   They observed that once a company has managers, there’s already an org chart:  it’s just not on paper yet.

A newer manager — and yes, this may mean a newer CEO —  may naively deny the power inherent in their position.

You may not understand the weight your words and actions assume because you’re the boss.  It may seem easier, nicer, or just more reasonable to approach people as though you’re their peer.

You’re not their peer.

I’ve written before about an early lesson learned.  I asked a junior staffer an innocent question, and noticed that he looked like he wanted to cry.  (I wish I could say that this was in my first management role, sigh.)

While you may wish to be friendly with people, you’ll find that it’s tough to actually be friends.  Even if you brought an existing friendship to the venture with you, it can be difficult.

When you’re the boss, your incentives are different.  And everyone knows it.

It has (thankfully) become less fashionable to believe that your organization can redistribute power by disrupting the traditional organization.   A company’s rewards and liabilities belong to its owners — and even with generous options, most of your team members probably aren’t truly your partners.

I’ve also written about the weaksauce way we sometimes use the word empowerment.   tl;dr, just don’t.

I’m not here to be power’s cheerleader.  I can’t balance the equation between good and devastatingly wrong uses of power.

It is a wrong view, though, to deny power as an element of humanity in your workplace.  Or to try to wish it away.

When you can acknowledge power, and how it operates, you’re better positioned to be a good leader, ally, and citizen.

This goes especially for your own power.

Photo: 76075 Wonder Woman Warrior Battle by Brickset, via Flickr under CC2.0 license.

(This is a follow up to What You Disregard, You Accept:  Red Flags for CEOs.  I’ve also posted this over at Medium.)

Don’t Drink the HR Haterade


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‘HR is there to protect the company, not the employee.’

The Internet

This refrain may have your HR/People Ops lead feeling pretty demoralized right now.

HR is woefully misunderstood as a discipline. It’s undervalued and often maligned. Even before recent stories featuring HR fails hit the news.

We so don’t love HR that we’ve rebranded it as People Operations. (See also, “fun police.”)

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: your company needs HR.

In early stage companies, the HR/People function is often managed by one single person, who juggles many balls. You ask them to be conversant in recruiting, employment law, people/performance management, diversity/inclusion, market research, payroll/benefits admin, vendor management, compensation. For starters.

Also, you ask them to be mediators, coaches, trainers, brand stewards, event planners and more. Your HR lead can only succeed when other people —  who don’t report to them — do things that they don’t really want to do. (Who loves performance reviews?)

So, your HR/People lead’s role is as complex as your role. It takes 10,000 hours to become a skilled people manager; it probably takes more develop into an HR expert.

I’ve worked with some HR masters. Some of them could have run the companies we worked for. (Shout out to retired HR exec Fran Snow! Her expertise, mentoring, and advice made me a better manager and leader.)

And yes, it’s their job to protect the company. One way to do this is by making sure that people are not breaking the law, or violating basic ethical values.

Harassment is breaking the law. Creating a persistently hostile environment is breaking the law. Assault is breaking the law. Yes, it’s all unethical, too.

The problem we’re seeing out there is not “HR.”

The solution is to value the role correctly. And the HR role is only what you enable it to be.

In growing companies, you may have a talented HR/People lead whom you’ve promoted from within. They may lack broad domain-specific experience and training; they may not have support from people with relevant experience and knowledge.

To develop and support someone with this profile:

  • Sponsor them for trainings and/or certifications
  • Connect them with external domain experts, like an employment attorney
  • And, oh yes: you need to make their authority clear in your organization.

You communicate their authority and their value by giving them seat at the executive table. Whether they report to you, or elsewhere:  they must have your ear.

When they bring you information you don’t like — and they will —  you must demonstrate that you’re listening, and willing to actively support actions required to resolve the issue.

Even if it means figuring out how to let go of someone you had thought was performing well.

If you’ve had hockey stick growth in headcount, the HR/People role may demand a more senior professional to further develop the function. And also to mentor, coach and develop your existing team.

After all, you probably wouldn’t recruit one of your talented community managers to be CFO. It’s not supportive to allow anyone to struggle and fail in a role that has outpaced their ability to grow along with it, through no fault of their own.

Yes, it’s tough. And, it’s sometimes how it needs to be.

Photo: adapted from Lemonade Stand Poster by Carissa Rogers, via Flickr, under CC2.0 license.

(This is a follow up to What You Disregard, You Accept: Red Flags for CEOs, which I wrote in June, 2017.  I’m also cross-posting this to Medium.)

Also, Dear Wonderful People who follow my blog by email.   You are used to getting 5-6 posts a year from me.   You’ll probably get that many from me this month, as I finish the series of followup posts to my red flags piece.   Thank you for reading, and after another post or two, I promise to drop back down to the usual dull roar.