A Smarter Approach to Preventing Costly Leadership Shortcomings
Human resources contributes to hiring skilled executives and yet also allowing problematic organizational leadership behavior to grow more pronounced. Boards of Directors are not blameless either.
“Most people don’t realize that HRs function is not to protect the employee, but to protect the company. And often that means supporting the executive players that are responsible for revenue,” says Michael Sherlock, Chief Potential Officer for Shock Your Potential, an international leadership and professional development training company.
“In this type of environment it is easy to have bad apples who are not only allowed to stay in operation but who are, by lack of accountability, almost encouraged to still behave badly,” she says.
That error of company structure, process and response can and usually does prove expensive to organizational reputation in the media and public and eventually, financially.
“By the time a leader makes headlines, there is always a trail of complaints in the wake, that could have been reviewed and mitigated. It is really a shame,” Sherlock says.
The why and how behind it is not as perplexing as it might seem to the outside world, she says. It is often an acceptance of certain behavior to gain the greater goal despite knowing that what gets tolerated gets repeated.
“Executives who have been brought in specifically to address a problem — merger, takeover, rebrand, salvage — have a clear reputation and if that reputation comes with a list of character flaws itself, HR and boards may still move forward if the need is so great that the benefits outweigh the risks,” Sherlock says.
When unwanted, unsavory behavior happens, the problem is not so much that it goes unnoticed but that it does go unaddressed and isn’t corrected. HR might not have full authority to step in yet might have more power, either alone or with strong alignments within the executive team to influence or persuade positive change yet it may choose anyway to stay out of the disputes and ongoing conflicts.
“Along the way, HR tends to walk a fine line between ‘It’s not our job’ to ‘We are in control.’ But regardless, HR very rarely pays the penalty for disruptive executives,” Sherlock says.
Practical alternative responses that promote prompt recognition and corrective, effective measures are possible to learn and implement. Organizations must insist on higher standards and create the habits for successful governance that override typical disinterest, wanes in motivation or disagreements that often result in authority not doing the right thing to problem solve dysfunctional executive behavior.
“The best way to truly evaluate a manager is to conduct a type of 360 review where you are soliciting information directly from the person’s direct report and peers,” Sherlock advises.
Yet it is not without challenges, she says, “The problem? Employees rarely tell the full truth for fear of retribution.” They require significant time and effort and despite that investment, the findings and areas of necessary improvement “often go unsupported, meaning that the list of things to work on and develop usually aren’t reviewed until right before the next annual review,” Sherlock says.
These shortcomings should not prevent recognizing the value of 360 reviews and using them as a tool for professional development and organizational protection.
“This process, done well, however, can help identify problems earlier and is a better traffic cop in any organization,” Sherlock is convinced. “It also proves that a company is listening to their employees and does not support a hostile environment.”
Organizational leaders don’t often question themselves when ethics are of shaky quality or missing, misconduct is taking place or corruption is present. There isn’t individual and organizational introspection when it needs to be commonplace. Instead, there is rationalization and blame shifting.
“Someone has to take responsibility in every company, and it starts at the top,” Sherlock says. “A great executive team will expect this and put the correct elements into place, with a dynamic V.P. of HR. But the company must first have spent time identifying their values, making them public and having someone in charge of making sure the company leads by this.”
What could prove helpful in improvement, she says, is continuing education and training for the people leading organizations.
“The best next part of the equation is a training executive. Think VP of Training and Development, that lives within but outside HR,” Sherlock says. “Why? Because no one is afraid to tell training anything and fear of talking is what continues cycles.”
She reasons that training executives will notice what other leadership might often miss and then be able to credibly analyze and report findings with recommendations for addressing and solving trouble.
“A training executive can be an undercover cop that works with the executive team and in coordination with HR but who is also responsible for making sure the entire company is trained and supported well,” Sherlock says.
This is a step beyond executive coaching and can be used in conjunction with it.
Top-level organizational decision makers, within scandal and many crises, do prove to be negligent, if not legally then certainly ethically. They let down the people of the organization and usually also, negatively impact reputation, public relations and investors.
Rare is it that leaders study failings of other companies who created or walked into or through the fire of scandal and crisis. That is a lost opportunity often due to indifference and optimism bias (someone believes that they are less likely to experience a negative event).
“There are many levels of misconduct within any organization, from poor management skills to gross misconduct. Poor management skills are a baseline challenge and one often overlooked,” Sherlock says.
“Consider this. You have an excellent sales rep who always exceeds their quotas. They are excellent individual contributors who have been successful on their own. You promote them, and assume that their individual success is a marker for their ability to lead a team,” she begins, adding “The person becomes a tyrant to work for. Who is to blame? The tyrant or the company that assumed they would make a good leader and never invested in the person?”
It is imperative, she’s learned and advises, to not assume people have fully developed professionally. There is always benefit for the individual and organization to continually grow, improving strengths and working through challenges and shortcomings.
“The single biggest opportunity that every company has yet hardly ever employs, is on-going training and professional career coaching,” Sherlock says. “In a Covid world, this is even more challenging as companies, in financial stress, are reducing their training spend.”
In the end, organizations can help protect their people, top down, and itself by realizing it is not immune to misconduct, corruption, scandal and crisis, whether that is confined to inside the company or bleeding outward.
“To avoid scandal and crisis we need better interviewing processes and substantial training and professional development programs,” Sherlock says. “We need our eyes open at all times and need to create mechanisms for people to grow in their careers and skill sets.”
Michael Toebe is a specialist who helps individuals and organizations accurately evaluate and wisely respond to reputation crisis and scandal. He is the writer of Red Diamonds Essays and Reputation Specialist Essays (both on the Medium platform) and contributes analysis and advisory for: Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, New York Law Journal, Physicians Practice and Corporate Compliance Insights. He is the voice of the Red Diamonds Podcast.