Are HR leaders empowered to drive change?

HR leader, confident female business leader

The best HR people don’t actually do HR – they concentrate on the bits that really add value to the organisation, to directly affect the KPIs.”

Marco Reick, HR Director, Black Sheep Coffee

Many moons ago I looked into becoming an HR Professional.

I’m a “people person” passionate about developing potential and I have a natural ability to inspire others, delegate and lead. A match made in heaven or so I thought. But my adventurous nature and love of travel took precedence. I studied hotel rather than people management before doing a complete 180° transition into complementary therapies and wellbeing after a “successful” career in hotel sales burnt me out.

Fast-forward almost 20 years. I’m now a coach helping senior leaders transform their health, growth and impact to model better ways of working and create a corporate culture we want to be a part of, when I find myself in an meeting with an experienced M.D. The talk comes round to a new program I’m soon to launch, aimed squarely at HR Leaders and Leadership Teams.

“I love the concept and the program” he said, (or words to that effect) “but HRDs are not driven or empowered enough to drive change in an organization, so you’ll be wasting your time there!”

To say I was taken aback was an understatement but I know he didn’t say it with any malice or contempt. His perspective was born of years of observation and insight under his belt. And although I hate to say it, based on many conversations with leaders myself, I can see why he might think that way.

My understanding of what makes HR unique within a business is its innate understanding of human psychology and the ability to “get” people on a deeper, instinctive level. A good HR Leader is usually caring and forward thinking but today HR’s must also be strategic, totally *get* the critical needs of the business and have the power and persuasion to lead their people there.

More HR Leaders are getting a seat at the top table, which is great news for the profession but the bad news is: they’re not always finding their voice or having the impact they desire when they’re there.

Back in 2017 global brand and marketing consultancy Prophet surveyed over 550 HR professionals, including 250 HR leaders. They set out to understand how HR was fairing amidst large-scale transformation, a business trend that is only on the increase. What they discovered was that HR saw itself as down the pecking order of influence, investment and perceptions of relevance; and suffering (unsurprisingly) from poor self-esteem.

The research uncovered a spectrum of roles played by HR – six archetypes on a continuum. At one end, people were trapped in a conventional state, being tactical and reactive and at the other they were achieving their ambition to be a true force for change, and actively driving the agenda.

In June 2019 People Management reported that it was more important than ever for HR to demonstrate commercial awareness around their role; both in managing talent and workforce planning, and knowing what levers to pull to achieve the ambitions of the business.

But they still need to be people people; able to instinctively sense into the mood, energy and possible reaction of the collective workforce at large, with the data to back it up. And possess the ability to juggle multi generational workforces who respond in different ways.

Data has become a powerful tool for demonstrating how increased engagement can lead to an increase in revenue (for example) helping other business leaders sit up and take notice. But the value and regard for HR can vary with many still seeing them as ”admin support” and not a major player in business progression in the way that others roles are viewed.

Speaking to HR Leaders their challenges are only increasing. From knowing what their people want, to what will increase performance. Knowing how to capture the attention of their people and engage at all levels, whilst building a culture of wellbeing and creativity.

On top of being data savvy and digitally aligned they need to future-proof their organisations, making themselves indispensable to any discussion around new possibilities and what the future looks like in the process – whilst still, presumably, having some kind of a life and down time!

HR Leaders may not be the catalyst within a business to prompt organisational change, but they generally are the heart of the process. HR Leaders must be equipped and empowered to exert transformation on the wider business but here’s my question: Who’s investing in HR in order to help them to do this well?

If HR Leaders aren’t driven or empowered enough to drive change in an organization (and please note: this is an enquiry and not me stating a fact) why don’t we provide them with the training and resources to change?

I’ve been speaking to many HR Leaders about leadership training, senior level coaching, health and wellbeing strategies – all to help their people improve their performance. But when I ask whether they’ve received coaching or participated in a mastermind to fast-track their progress the answer is generally no.

It’s almost impossible to understand coaching if you’ve never experienced its transformational effects or embody healthier working practices if you’ve not been shown them yourself. Coaching cultures should start from within. Speaking to those more senior than you will always be a challenge if you are not adequately resourced yourself, and whilst most skills develop as your career progresses, techniques to build authentic empowered relationships can make all the difference to the impact and influence you have.

Knowing how to challenge someone in authority on his or her limiting beliefs is undoubtedly a delicate art but when you know how to shift to a growth mindset yourself it becomes easier, and an even a fun conversation, to have. Once we master something ourselves the ability to teach and share with others is almost second nature. And if that learning is around wellbeing and performance, imagine what that could do for the health and growth of your business.


I’m running a one day Mental Health & Wellbeing Accelerator for Leaders. It’s an experiential workshop and the first step we cover in The Imperfect Leader Program. Having access to these tried and tested practical tools will help you be the strong and secure leader you want to be; inspiring change and making a difference in a way that’s sustainable, both for you and those around you. 

Find out more here

About the author

Lisa Barnwell

Lisa Barnwell is a wellbeing and performance coach and entrepreneurial change-maker, helping transform the health, growth and impact of senior leaders to inspire new ways of working. She draws on extensive experience and a growth mindset to help lead through change and uncertainty. As an IAC® Certified Masteries Coach (CMC) her practice is underpinned by the 9 IAC® coaching masteries™ and 11 ICF core competencies. Lisa is on the Master Masteries Coach (MMC) pathway and completing Feminine Power Professional Transformational Coaching, Facilitation & Leadership Certification Trainings to lead senior leaders and larger groups in greater change and transformation.

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