Years in a Commonwealth country have taught me that the acronym HRH is supposed to refer to His/Her Royal Highness. You know.... Harry or Kate or the matriarch to end all matriarchs Queen Elizabeth II herself. But there is always a part of me that will associate this sobriquet with the Human Resource Highness. Gender not withstanding, the Human Resource Queen is the spider that sits at the center of a web of policies, KPIs and company secrets who manipulates them for evil and self-aggrandizement.
Characteristics of an HRH include:
- Considerably more power and influence with executives than warranted by official responsibilities or position
- A granularity of interest in small matters of how the company operates that feels petty, vindictive, and controlling all at once
- A seemingly inexhaustible ability to justify participation in decision making on the grounds that it has an HR component
- An utterly unfounded self-confidence and unshakeable belief in the quality of their experience contribution to the enterprise
- Look, this is clearly an extreme personality type. You would think it a complete corner case, emerging rarely. Yet in only a few decades and few dozen companies, I have run into several. Moreover, when I talk with friends, clients, coworkers... They have all tangled with an HRH. The business community is apparently awash in this beast. Notably, I spoke not long ago with a leading voice of the human resource field in New Zealand, and he declared that it was his professional mission in life to provide the counter example.
How is this possible? My working theory is that the intimacy of many aspects of the human resource field attracts -- in addition to very good, sincere people -- the kind of people who are naturally drawn to HRH behavioral patterns. This is a personality that likes to be in control and at the center of the flow of information and power but without the overt authority of an exec. This personality likes secrets, likes to know them, to keep them, to Act in the Best Interest with privileged information. Because the HRH knows so much, it never occurs to him that his knowledge is not complete, her perspective not strategic, his judgement not sufficiently experienced in areas for which he has no training or education. So the ground is ripe for abuse and a person who might otherwise be just the office chatterbox, the Gossip, even a Sir Know A'lot is placed in a position responsible for facilitating relationships, determination of compensation, recommendations for structural and transformative changes.
How we deal with the HRH is more of a challenge and one which should particularly concern Change Managers. I haven't met one yet, but I believe it is only a matter of time before I run into the CM version of an HRH and for precisely the same reasons. The profile and job description are likely to attract and foster the same kind of web building, secret wielding, de facto power hungry behaviors. Like the quality HR people, we need to define and strictly adhere to a personal code of ethics to keep us on target serving and enabling rather than brokering and manipulating.
My strategy for the HRH is admittedly both pathetic and fatalistic. As far as I'm concerned, you don't actually work with them or against them but rather around them. Consider the HRH an environmental constant and define your change strategy assuming that you can not change or influence HRH behavior, only mitigate the damage caused. It may be necessary to provide leadership coaching to your execs or project leadership on the perils of tangling with the HRH. So many times I have seen a leader die fruitlessly on that particular hill. Remember, the HRH by definition has an inexplicable super power and figuring where precisely all the strings lead and snipping them all seems to be a suicidal project.
The technique that appears to work best with an HRH is the look at the monkey gambit. Help your leaders find something other than your project or initiative to distract the HRH while you get your work done. Tell them an 'important secret' in confidence that directs their focus away from you and yours at key points. Give them a pointless and incredibly time consuming project. PRO TIP: They like anything having to do with DFA or org charts. When all else fails, buy them flowers.
I confess I have nightmares about my past HRHs. Worse are those moments of doubt when I fear that I am taking on HRH characteristics. How I keep the hounds at bay is to remind myself everyday that my primary responsibility in the change space is to make my leadership, the teams I support, the projects I represent, the companies that pay me as successful as possible. My ego must be derivative of their success. And the secrets I keep are not mine to use, just sitting briefly with me until their owners need them back.