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How coaching & mentoring can help develop essential skills for HR leaders – an interview with Sally Learoyd

During times of change, it’s no surprise to see HR leading from the front in supporting organisational leaders to deal with the upheaval. It goes without saying that recently HR functions have been under substantial pressure to help their organisations quickly pivot to new practices in order to survive. Whilst this will be a task eagerly driven by HR professionals, it does mean that these professionals are often focusing on the needs of others to the detriment of their own development. Here, I talk to Sally Learoyd, an accomplished HR Director and Executive Coach who is soon to be launching a supplementary HR coaching and mentoring practise, about this subject and why one’s own development as an HR professional is so critical, particularly during times of change.

1. Could you give a quick overview of your experience and background and how you’ve come to know Oakleaf?

The first 10 years of my working life were spent in the world of marketing services and account management where I managed and led a service delivery team for a major client. This experience was the foundation for everything I’ve done since as it was here I discovered my passion for helping people grow personally and professionally. Plus, the experience of having commercial responsibilities, initially as an Account Manager and latterly as a Company Director, also helped me realise that business success and people success were inextricably linked.

In the 20 years or so since, I’ve held both interim and permanent HR Director roles, and I’ve worked across a range of sectors, including real estate, professional services and pharmaceuticals and in organisations both large and small – from FTSE 100 to small family-owned organisations. So, a wide variety, but always with the focus on helping organisational leaders deal with the change. And it’s this experience and focus on change and transition that I now bring to my work as a coach and consultant.

I first came to know Richard Colgan and Oakleaf some years back when I was a candidate looking for a new role. I remember being impressed by the time taken to get to know me and my skills/experience on a purely exploratory basis i.e. without there being a specific role in mind at the time. And it was that which has led me back to Oakleaf on subsequent occasions to help me find and successfully place HR professionals in my team.

2. You’re launching a new coaching service for mid-senior HR professionals. What’s prompted you to do this at this particular time?

The global pandemic has created huge challenges for society, organisations and individuals alike. In the world of work, HR functions have been under considerable pressure to help their organisations pivot rapidly to new employment and working practices just to survive and continue operations. It’s also pretty clear that the scale of Covid-19 related change could continue for some time to come.

In all of this, a key risk for us as HR professionals is of us focussing on the needs of others at the expense of our development. And, more than ever, I believe that organisations really need the leadership, change and strategic contribution of HR to help them thrive amidst the uncertainty and turbulence in their environments.

So a new commercial service I’m offering - alongside the executive and leadership coaching which my company already provides - is coaching specifically designed for mid-senior HR professionals. The service will combine executive coaching expertise with a deep understanding of the role of HR leader in demanding commercial organisations, to help people take their skills to the next level.

3. It sounds like the service is a blend of coaching and mentoring. Much has been written on the differences between these two development approaches. What do you see as the differences and how do they work together as a single service?

When someone wants to take a step up in their career e.g. from an HR Manager or HRBP role to Head of HR/HR Director, it can be invaluable to gain some experienced-based insights and input from someone who has walked a similar path before to help prepare for and flatten out the learning curve. Mentoring-style input can include things like sharing knowledge and techniques, sign-posting to resources, discussing the person’s plans and ideas and providing helpful feedback and sharing experience where relevant. I’ve had a mentor in the past myself and know how valuable the insights and support were for me.

However, passing on a ‘package of knowledge’ to someone isn’t enough to help them navigate a career transition, in particular from operational to strategic. Knowledge isn’t the same thing as having skills. It’s about integrating knowledge into your own particular way of working and being, and that means developing one’s thinking and behavioural skills and often the confidence too to step out of comfort zone. And that’s where coaching comes in. So coaching works in tandem with mentoring-style input to help turn theory into practice.

4. What does ‘becoming more strategic’ look for like for HR professionals? What does it exactly involve?

A dictionary definition of ‘strategic’ is ‘relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them’. So if we break that down into the activities and applied skills that HR professionals would need to engage in and demonstrate, I think there are four elements starting with:

- Developing a business and whole-organisation perspective on issues and then,

- Working with and influencing senior stakeholders around those issues

- Developing aligned HR strategy and

- Managing and implementing the associated organisational changes.

5.  What are some of the key challenges with attaining those skills?

In particular in SMEs where you’ve got a small HR team, or you are the HR team(!), it’s undoubtedly about balancing giving a strategic perspective and input alongside delivering essential HR operations. I know, because I’ve been there and done that!

I don’t think being more strategic requires us to have a permanent ‘seat at the table’ but it does mean we need to find ways of having conversations with people of influence in the organisation about more than just HR operations, and doing so skilfully. We have to be ready and able to have conversations about topics other than HR and employees. The people in senior management roles that we are seeking to influence are also concerned about clients, suppliers, investors, the Board etc…. We need to gain an appreciation of what’s important to these other stakeholder groups too, so we can, first, relate to management’s challenges and then second, align people and HR strategies to meet the overarching business need.

6. What are some of the ways people can get ready to have those types of conversations?

First and foremost, read widely about what’s happening in the business world in general, rather than just HR. Look to understand business thinking and trends and what other companies are doing to develop and strengthen their organisation. The main global consulting firms offer free email subscription services which give access to regular newsletters and bulletins on different business topics and that can be a great no or low-cost way to gain a broader business perspective.

Doing this can allow you to consider and find out how well your own organisation is addressing particular business issues and think through what the people-related implications might be.

In turn this can be a useful way to get into conversation with someone in senior management on a more strategic topic, i.e. by commenting on something you’ve read and considered through the lens of your own company and by asking relevant questions.

7. What’s some of the most useful business-related literature you’ve read?

Without doubt, the books of business researcher and speaker, Jim Collins.

‘Built to Last’, ‘Good to Great’ and ‘Great by Choice’ tell us about the practices and traits of companies which have been successful in developing and sustaining stand-out levels of business performance including through chaos and uncertainty (see ‘Great by Choice’) which is very apt for these current times!

8. And what’s a helpful mindset to bring to this question of having more strategic influence and impact?

In essence I see that it’s about thinking and behaving like you’ve already got the organisational-level role you’re seeking – whether that’s management committee or Executive Committee or the Board. When you start to think about issues from the organisation and business perspective first as if you already had this type and level of responsibility, then engaging with senior stakeholders and developing aligned HR strategy becomes a whole lot easier.

9. And finally, what’s your view of the impact of the pandemic on the requirement for these skills? Are they affected and if so how?

Overall, I think it heightens the importance of them. More than ever organisations need great strategic, leadership and people insight skills to help them move forward in these challenging times and HR has a crucial role to play to in this. It seems to me that there are some skills which the current conditions emphasise and they are:

i. Flexible thinking skills to help us deal with the ever-changing environment we’re working in, for example by challenging ourselves over any potentially unnecessary ‘rules’ we’re applying to ourselves, our teams or the business that might free us up to work more productively on other areas.

ii. Practising empathy when working with senior stakeholders and self-compassion with ourselves. Accepting that we will encounter frustrations and fall short of our ideals, will help us build our emotional resilience and in turn our ability to lead ourselves and others successfully through this period of our working lives.

Thank you so much to Sally Learoyd for taking the time to discuss developing one’s own leadership skills as an HR professional.

Here at Oakleaf, we are here to help our HR network in any way we can, so please do reach out to and connect with Sally directly if you would like any further information or a confidential discussion.

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