Meet Gandhi, the Mentor, and the Judge

You can’t talk about companies with great HR without talking about the HR leader in charge.

Some companies are blessed with incredible market position, strong economic advantages and visionary founders. Within these rare organizations, it’s hard for culture and progressive people practices not to thrive.

Then there’s everybody else. If your company exists in normal circumstances, how strong your HR team is and the way it is viewed typically falls on your HR leader, their match for your company and ability to build effective people practices.

I’ve spent the past few years studying the ability of HR pros at all levels to innovate, drive change and add true value, and my book on the topic — “The 9 Faces of HR” — publishes this June. Based on my research, I believe there are three types of HR leaders in the world today, segmented by traits that drive their distinct and unique worldviews.

Here’s a rundown of the three HR leader personas I see in today’s HR world, named in a way that will allow you to quickly identify them:

1. Gandhi. Gandhi is an HR leader persona who sits at the top of the world of HR. This profile represents senior-level HR leaders with maximum ability to innovate, drive change and add value in their organizations. My research shows less than 1 percent of the HR world fits into this persona.

Gandhis in the world of HR are rare for good reason. They are routinely viewed as elite HR creators and they are good at incubating culture inside organizations. HR teams reporting to a Gandhi respect them as visionary but at times wish they were more connected to the day-to-day work. Gandhis are highly curious about the world around them, are better marketers than their senior-level HR peers and at their core, may not view themselves as HR pros. HR leaders matching the Gandhi persona are the most likely to leave the industry based on other interests, as well as distaste for some of the mundane components of HR, like employee relations and benefits.

I believe there are three types of HR leaders in the world today, segmented by traits that drive their distinct and unique worldviews.

2. The Mentor. If Gandhi sounds too removed from day-to-day HR work, you might welcome working for The Mentor, who is more than a supportive HR leader or a shoulder to cry on. The Mentor is a senior-level HR leader with midrange ability to innovate, drive change and add value. This midrange ability to innovate is important, because it means she’s comfortable with a wide range of direct reports and can maximize results with dramatically different teams.

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HR leaders fitting The Mentor category will figure out what makes you tick and develop a personal coaching model for you, and will encourage and expect you to chase big wins. The Mentor will provide face time with the most important people in the organization and just as importantly will protect you from those same individuals to give you space you need to do great work.

True matches to The Mentor persona care how you feel, but if you’re not extremely talented, they care much less. They’re not here to raise children. They are here to win. That’s why they’re leading your HR function.

3. The Judge. A senior-level HR pro with low ability/willingness to innovate, drive change or add incremental value, The Judge has a simple mandate: Enforce rules and limit risk. The Judge didn’t make it to the top by greenlighting a bunch of innovative stuff and watching half of it fail. This person rose to the top the old-fashioned way: respecting the command and control roots of HR, delivering to the manageable expectations of peers and being an absolute master of the political game inside the company.

Based on, “Know your role and shut your mouth,” The Judge is often a talented HR leader but views “vision” as something that’s best left to marketing. This person is present to manage the ground game of HR, ensuring base services are delivered, lawsuits are minimized (and won when they happen) and the team doesn’t threaten the authority of the leaders/managers of the client group they serve.

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What’s the right HR leader persona that causes great HR to be great inside a company? As you might expect, the answer is complicated. While The Mentor profile has the most capacity to grow dramatically different types of HR pros to their fullest potential, Gandhi and The Judge may be a better fit to lead an HR team inside specific types of companies and industries.

Great HR can grow from any of these types of senior leaders. Know who’s leading your HR function to maximize your career.

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