HR as leaders in employment equity: It is all about Leadership and Personal Credibility by Marius Meyer

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Leadership and Personal Credibility go hand in hand. Leaders must have personal credibility in an organisation for people to trust them.  This aspect is also very important for human resources (HR), so much so that we have positioned it as the first HR Competency under Core Competencies in the National HR Competency Model developed by the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP). See the first core competency below (first blue block from the top, just below HR and Business Knowledge).


    Source: ©SABPP. (2014). National Human Resource Management Standards.  Johannesburg: SABPP


However, SABPP is concerned that the slow progress in employment equity may be attributed to a lack of HR leadership. As custodians of people practices, HR professionals are the leaders of people practices, and they therefore need to work closely with line managers to guide, advise and coach them on people practices.  Although leadership is more important for HR Directors and Senior HR Managers, all levels of HR professionals should be able to practice leadership skills.  Even a junior HR officer should be a leader in his field, and starts to build personal credibility until he or she is ready to occupy a formal leadership position.  In essence, we are challenging HR Managers to work on their professional leadership as an HR professional. However, this competence area should not be seen in isolation.  Reading and mastering Leadership and Personal credibility work in conjunction with the competencies of ethics and professionalism,  because being proficient in ethics and professionalism makes it so much easier for HR professionals to achieve personal credibility. Achieving success in employment equity is all about HR leadership in enabling the organisation to meet and exceed its employment equity targets.

Norman Schwarzkopf puts it clearly: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy. “HR professionals as leaders should be competent in strategy and character. Or put differently, they must have leadership and personal credibility.  The word “personal” is very important in this context.  “Personal” means that you can achieve credibility as an individual.  If you do good work as an HR professional, you will achieve credibility. If people listen to you, and consult you, and are interested in your opinion and professional advice, you have achieved personal credibility. Think of the top economists in the country. They are often interviewed by the media, not because they run large organisations, but because they have personal credibility. People want to listen and learn from them, given the fact that they have personal credibility. Even the Minister of Finance listens to them, because he knows that they are confident in their analysis of the economy and they can be trusted, thus, they have personal credibility.

Mervin King, as custodian of the King Reports and Codes of Corporate Governance, has personal credibility and that is the reason why the Institute of Directors feel comfortable to name these reports after him, given his track record on corporate governance, even before the King I Report was launched in the early 1990s.  Today the King Report (latest version is King IV) is considered the best corporate governance code in the world. That is what personal credibility is all about – the person behind the document gives the document even more credibility, despite the fact that hundreds of other people also contributed to it.

Thuli Madonsela, the previous Public Protector has personal credibility given the excellence of her work and her commitment to ethics and good governance without fear or favour, despite numerous efforts by other people to discredit her when they were found on the wrong side of the law and ethics in her reports. Patrice Motsepe as Chairman of African Rainbow Minerals has personal credibility.

The challenge for HR professionals is to rise the occasion and earn personal credibility. Once they have that, people, including line managers will listen to them, respect their opinions and follow their advice.  Surely, top HR directors such as Paul Norman at MTN, have personal credibility, to such an extent, that management will be very reluctant to take major business decisions without consulting him. However, the converse is also true – if you don’t have personal credibility, people don’t trust you, and they don’t listen to you.  This is the problem in many organisations, and that is that HR does not have credibility. Sometimes it is about the overall performance of the HR department, or negative experiences relating to the behaviour and conduct of individuals within the HR department.  Be that as it may, the professionalism of HR professionals will determine whether they have personal credibility or not.  Thus, working continuously on HR’s credibility is of paramount importance to chancing perceptions about HR.

However, credibility is influenced by the quality of leadership provided, whether in an appointed leadership position such as HR Director, or HR Manager, or as a technical leader such as Remuneration Specialist. Leadership is leadership, whether positional, or professional.  Even a relatively junior HR professional, such as a Skills Development Facilitator (SDF) could earn credibility by doing a sterling job in driving skills development and recovering levies for the company.

In essence, similar to general business leadership, HR leadership is about the following key aspects:

  • Having a clear vision for the organisation (specifically a people vision);
  • The ability to make the purpose of the organisation clear and inspirational;
  • The ability to influence people in the organisation;
  • Providing direction in achieving the business goals of the organisation;
  • The ability to operationalise the strategy, and to make it come alive;
  • Inspiring others to make a difference;
  • The ability to leverage relationships in connecting people and getting them productive;
  • The ability to track progress and to keep on stretching people towards goal achievement.

In the light of the above discussion it is clear that HR leadership is key for HR credibility in the organisation.  To conclude, HR Leadership is all about Leadership and Personal Credibility.  The journey has started and presents an exciting opportunity for HR Managers and Business Managers to level the playing field in joining hands as Business Leaders taking their companies forward with the best possible leadership standard and practice. Thus, getting employment equity right depends on strong and credible HR leadership – leaders  who can influence line management to empower their people and creating a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP) and author of 26 books for Juta, Van Schaik, Lexis-Nexis, Knowledge Resources and more than 400 articles for magazines such as HR Future, HR Voice, Talent Talks and Achiever Magazine.