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Innovative HR and Leadership Strategies for Today’s Workplace

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Mark Stewart is the in-house Certified Public Accountant, an accomplished author and financial media specialist.

Innovative HR and Leadership Strategies for Today’s Workplace

Innovative HR and Leadership Strategies for Today’s Workplace

In a compelling conversation with Tim Toterhi, a seasoned CHRO, coach, and author, we explore the intricacies of human resources from a refreshingly unique perspective. Tim’s journey from a karate instructor and nuclear fuel broker to a pivotal figure in HR underscores the power of transferable skills and continuous learning.

Throughout this interview, he shares insights on the evolution of HR, the transformative role of AI, innovative HR practices, career development strategies, and the essence of leadership coaching.

Furthermore, Tim addresses the challenges of global HR management, the impact of HR in organizational development, executive development, crisis management, employee performance, and personal growth for HR leaders.

His narratives are not only a testament to his vast experience but also serve as a beacon for aspiring HR professionals and leaders seeking to navigate the ever-changing landscape of human resources. Join us as we explore these topics, offering a glimpse into the future of HR and the strategic role it plays in shaping successful organizations.

Career Journey and Background

HR – Could you share with us your career journey and background and what led you to your current role in HR? 

Tim – Mine is the classic tale of a former karate instructor and nuclear fuel broker who switched gears to chase a career in human resources.

I did this by leveraging transferable skills. First, I used my sales expertise to snag a job peddling training products. Then, I leveraged my teaching background to thrive as a corporate trainer. Once I was where I needed to be, I stayed in learning mode. Over time, I transitioned from instructor to designer to related roles such as performance and talent management. Skill to skill, mentor to mentor, I listened, learned, and made my way from L&D and running an HR PMO to M&A projects and, ultimately, a series of CHRO spots.

Today, I serve as a speaker, coach, and trusted advisor to new CHROs and talent management leaders.

Future of HR

HR – What major changes do you anticipate in the HR industry over the next decade, and how can aspiring HR professionals prepare for them?

Tim – For years, HR has suffered a limiting and lackluster reputation as the “personnel department.” You know… the administrators who buried “real” business people in forms, planned the office Christmas party and then monitored the alcohol intake at said event. We were, in short, viewed as a necessary evil and, to some, not all that necessary.

However, as I discuss in my speech, Nimble HR — How to Attract, Develop, and Retain Awesome Employees, times have changed.

HR isn’t “HR” anymore. It’s also marketing, communications, and digital strategy with elements of IT, legal, finance, vendor management, and big data analysis sprinkled in. Like IT before us, our profession is taking a project management approach to its efforts and shifting focus from activity to value creation.  

This trend will continue, ultimately making HR leaders indistinguishable from other business leaders. Aspiring HR professionals who want to succeed in this field need to understand core HR operational functions and have deeper expertise in at least one sub-specialty. But that is just the cost of entry.

True differentiation comes from what you know outside of HR. Skills such as project management, communications, social strategy, design, etc., are the X-factors that add value to the business and set you apart from other candidates or internal players seeking the same promotion.

AI in HR

HR – How can AI be leveraged in HR to improve efficiency and decision-making?

Tim – AI is a calculator on steroids, a tool designed to reduce repetitive tasks, supply data, and prompt insights. The word “prompt” is critical. 

Many HR professionals believe that AI is, at best, out for their jobs and, at worst, a friendly version of Skynet, quietly preparing to terminate the profession. However, that fear is founded only if we refuse to evolve.

If AI advocates overcome legal hurdles and glitches, the technology can be useful in eliminating non-value work, automating low-value essential operations, and enhancing processes.

We’re already seeing AI streamline the employee relations function by quickly handling low-level queries. It’s also improved the staffing function with shorter applicant response times and objectively surfacing a wider pool of candidates (though glitches remain). 

Most critically, AI serves data and aspires to produce reliable predictive analytics. This is the area that sparks the most hope and the most fear. But more and better data is usually helpful as long as HR professionals don’t surrender their decision-making authority. AI can prompt insights, but humans must validate connections, balance science with art, and make the call. Only together can decision-making be improved. 

Innovative HR Practices

HR – Can you share examples of innovative HR practices that can significantly impact employee engagement and productivity?

Tim – Every organization has a talent brand, whether they realize it or not. It’s a story written by current, past, and prospective employees and told when leadership is not in the room. One of the biggest factors that decrease employee engagement is when there is an incongruence between what is promised (or even implied) and what is actually delivered — the employee experience.

As I discuss in my speech, On A Dime — How to Quickly Transform Your Company Culture, one of the most impactful things an organization can do to increase employee engagement and productivity is to conduct a brand and operational audit. Once you understand the gap between what you promise and what you deliver, you can make critical choices, such as what to change, what to promote better, and what new operational activities are required to adjust the plot.

Career Development

HR – What advice do you have for HR professionals on building their career paths and achieving their goals?

Tim – There’s an old saying among musicians, “You should learn classical before you play jazz.” In other words, you have to learn the rules before you can break them.

The biggest choice traditional HR people face is whether to be a generalist or a specialist. For those in smaller companies, the choice is made for you. Like it or not, you’ll end up doing everything.

My advice is to walk both roads and then blaze your own trail. Start your career learning the basics of HR. Run an employee relations case, draft policy, and navigate the HR operational cycle by supporting the goal-setting, performance review, compensation, and talent review processes. Learn the ropes for a few annual cycles.

Then, rotate through the sub-specialties to gain deeper insights. You’ll be amazed at how hard staffing people work. They have the toughest sales job in any company. You’ll marvel at the analytical insights of the compensation team and their ability to navigate corporate restraints. And you’ll be captivated by the L&D and talent professionals’ ability to blend art and science into meaningful initiatives to propel people’s careers. 

Your trip around HR will take several years, but you gain a complete understanding of the profession and find the ideal landing spot, be it as a generalist/HRBP or in one of the centers of excellence. 

From there, keep learning. Buddy up with someone outside HR and learn a skill that complements your primary responsibilities. For example, many HR people lead projects, but I’d rather have someone who holds a PMP, knows the company playbook, and has a track record for delivering.

Leadership Coaching

HR – How important is coaching for leadership development, and what tips can you offer for implementing an effective coaching program?

Tim – I graduated from my corporate coaching program in 2004. I am an ICF-certified PCC-level coach and have run a global coaching program for a major healthcare company. After 20 years of coaching and hiring coaches, I’ve learned that implementing an effective coaching program stems primarily from two factors.

  1. Hiring credible coaches
  2. Agreeing to clear objectives and ROI

The coaching field is littered with pretenders. As I note in this video, Great Coaching: You’ll Know It When You S.E.E. It, your coaches, whether internal or external, must, at minimum, process three key attributes. They must be a successful, credible example of what you want to achieve.

First — Are they successful? If your business or career coach has never built a business or navigated a complex career, think twice before you hire them. Your coach should have a frame of reference for success so they can guide you to yours. Experience and results matter.

The second is education. They should have coach training via a reputable coaching school and have been certified, so they have the tools and resources to help you — education matters.

Finally, your coach should be an effective example of their process — someone whose words and actions align. This is critical because it provides the foundation of credibility — a hallmark of any good coaching relationship.

As for clear objectives and ROI, HR must work with the coach, coachee, and sponsor to ensure all parties clearly understand what goes into and is expected from a coaching engagement. That confirms buy-in and sets up all parties for success.

I detail this process in my article, How to Ensure Your Coaching Program Pays Off, Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Global Business and Organizational Excellence. I’m happy to share a copy with those who may be interested. Just email me at [email protected] 

Global HR Management

HR – What challenges come with managing HR on a global scale, and how can these be overcome?

Tim – I used to joke, “How dumb you sound is often related to where on the planet you’re standing when you speak.”

You must educate yourself on the norms and practices of the various countries you operate in. That said, avoid being lured into the idea that country culture is all-powerful or even widely applicable. 

I once gave a presentation to a group of mid-level managers in Japan. Before the trip, I studied the generally accepted truisms of the culture and took advice from seasoned speakers who cautioned me to slow my pace and avoid humor and jargon.

During a casual conversation at the pre-event reception, I learned that 100% of the audience spoke fluent English (some better than I or me… see what I mean?), several had completed expat assignments in the US, and two went to school a stone’s throw from where I grew up in New York.

It would have seemed patronizing if I had approached my presentation with the classic advice. Instead, I wove in appreciation for the culture and then expressed myself naturally, earning both laughs and understanding.

Individual personality trumps culture. Never make assumptions about people. When you seek first to understand, you can develop rapport, earn respect, and secure buy-in for your global project. 

Managing a global team is easy when you select the right players and trust them to make the right calls using expertise and experience that you simply don’t possess.

Organizational Development

HR – How can HR drive organizational development and change management initiatives?

Tim – Effectiveness comes from taking a project management approach to strategic initiatives. Before beginning work, you should develop a project charter and secure approval from the business-level sponsor, be it the department head, CHRO, executive committee, or even the board.

At a minimum, the charter should clearly define the current and future state and outline the project’s scope, timeline, and budget. It should also define risks, assumptions, dependencies, constraints, and items that are not in scope. Finally, the charter should define the lead and lag metrics for success and the roles of all stakeholders.

Too often, HR fails to incorporate enough process rigor into its initiatives. Having a clear charter helps secure buy-in and resources and creates a contract that helps demonstrate the department’s value.

Executive Development

HR – What elements are crucial for developing a strong executive leadership program?

Tim – Formal face-to-face classes and the knowledge they impart play an essential role in executive development, assuming the instructor is world-class and the group contains a diverse set of engaged peers. The real impact, however, comes from applying the insights obtained.

By the time someone reaches the executive level, development most often comes from micro-adjustments to their behavior, such as how they inspire staff, their ability to tolerate ambiguity, or how they display authentic, transparent communication without devolving into a “no-filter” abrasive style. 

The best leadership programs deliver fresh ideas, spark peer connections, enable participants to see an objective view of their behavior, and design an action-based development plan to leverage strengths and reduce liability. You can achieve this by starting the program with a 360 or other assessments and following with coaching to ensure the learning sticks.

Crisis Management Insights

HR – What strategies have proven most effective for HR in navigating organizational crises, and what practical steps can HR leaders take to ensure resilience and continuity during challenging times?

Tim – The most important thing to do when facing a crisis is to gain perspective. Perspective provides insight that allows you to move in the right direction. Here are five steps for effectively managing a crisis.

Slow down! By definition, crises pop up suddenly and seem to demand an immediate response. But our instincts are often incorrect. For example, when a pilot inadvertently flies into the clouds, he may naturally rely on his perceptions to orient himself, but flying blind is the surest way to crash. Instead, he should pause and adjust his strategy by switching to instrument flight. The thoughtful reaction will keep him straight and level until he can emerge from the bad weather. 

We often do more harm than good when we succumb to the pressure to provide a knee-jerk reaction. Instead of simply reacting, you should pause, reflect, and then select the most appropriate action. The process may only take a few minutes, but those minutes matter.

Acknowledge reality. Denial can fuel any crisis. When you admit internally that a situation is real, you limit its power. Great leaders will define a crisis by name and ensure their teams understand the reality and gravity of the situation.

Communicate reality. The grapevine works; nothing can kill engagement faster than a runaway rumor mill. Take control of the message early on by being direct and honest with all stakeholders. 

Sometimes, leaders wait to communicate until they have a complete crisis control plan. This is the wrong move. Imaginations are powerful and can spawn beliefs that routinely trump facts. Sharing the reality of the crisis in real time builds trust and helps ensure employees look to you for the next installment of factual information.

Answer the urgent. Once you identify the crisis and rally your team, it’s time to act. Just focus on first things first. In our pilot example, the longer-term play is to land safely at the destination. But the immediate action required is to ensure you’re not flying upside down toward a mountain. When facing a business crisis, first steady the craft. Maybe that means conducting a painful layoff or appointing an emergency replacement for a departed leader. The important thing is to answer the urgent decisively.

See and chase the opportunity. Done well, steps one to four happen quickly (in days or even hours, depending on the situation). Once complete, you can flip the crisis coin and look for the opportunity this unforeseen, forced change has provided. In our pilot example, perhaps it’s a challenge to upgrade your training. In the case of a departed leader, perhaps it’s a chance to reevaluate the skills needed for the role.

Employee Performance

HR – What innovative approaches can HR managers take to evaluate and enhance employee performance?

Tim – Over the last few years, there’s been a trend of knocking traditional performance management. Detractors advise skipping the ratings and formal reviews and instead replacing them with frequent feedback. Feedback is critical to drive performance but is no substitute for objective evaluations.

As I describe in my workshop, The DNA of High PerformanceHow to EARN a High-Performing Culture, companies have shied away from ratings, not because the process is substandard, but because they have no idea what good looks like.

Sometimes, the most innovative thing you can do is go back to basics — don a suit while the other guy sports a wrinkled hoodie. In the case of performance management, take time to define what excellence is and then clearly communicate what an employee must do to meet and exceed the role requirements.

Don’t kid yourself. All employees receive a performance review even if you rip them from your system. It’s called compensation. The level of merit increases and the size of bonuses directly reflect how they are perceived. Miss that mark, and you’ll be shouting without a word. 

Personal Growth

HR – How can HR leaders continue their own personal and professional development in a fast-evolving industry?

Tim – Get a mentor. Better yet, get a few.

We had this saying in my old New York neighborhood. “I know a guy.” Back then, it referred to a good electrician, an honest plumber, or a mechanic who wouldn’t take you for a ride. In the corporate world, think of it as what people are known for — their professional brand.

Having an Excel guy, a social media whiz, or a sharp communicator on your proverbial speed dial is priceless. The best way to learn is by brokering brain power. Learn. Teach. Rinse. Repeat.

Just remember, age and titles don’t matter. Learn from those with something to teach and pay back the kindness threefold. Oddly enough, you learn just as much being a mentor as having one. Often more.