I recently wrote an article about the importance of mentorship for executives, and I wanted to write another article specifically about why HR executives should have mentors.
If anybody has ever seen the American version of The Office, they may associate HR with Toby. If you haven’t seen The Office, Toby is a well-intentioned HR professional but is hated by Michael Scott, the branch manager. Their acrimonious relationship is because Michael perceives Toby as the “killer of fun” or put another way, the killer of innovation and new ideas.
We watch the show from Michael’s perspective because he is the boss and the main character, but let’s take a second to put ourselves in Toby’s shoes.
Toby is an HR team of 1 where he has to manage all of the HR functions of the entire branch. If Michael comes up with an inappropriate, or even illegal, idea and Toby doesn’t step in to stop it, the company could get sued and Toby is at fault. For comedic relief, we laugh at the antics and the angst between Michael and Toby.
But if we put ourselves in Toby’s shoes, I think the dilemma becomes clear. How do we handle novel HR scenarios and issues without having the experience and information necessary to be sure we are choosing the right action?
After interviewing over 50 HR executives in the past 3 months, I have learned that most companies have more HR projects that their HR team can possibly handle. Their work turns into a process of constantly taking care of what is most pressing right now while deferring an ever-growing list of lower-priority tasks for a later date “when things calm down”.
HR executives must understand what’s going on within their own company while also monitoring other companies to assess how they are doing to see if they are falling behind in any way.
HR teams can end up isolated from other the broader HR professional network, save for the occasional SHRM conference or HR networking event. This lack of professional connection can be an obstacle to handling all of the work thrown at HR executives. An experienced network of like-minded colleagues can greatly improve your work and can help you avoid the emotional toll of not having somebody you relate and connect that can console you on how to balance the load of everything being thrown at HR executives.
So, why should HR executives have mentors?
1. Learn about what other HR executives are doing
If you are getting your guidance on what innovations you should consider pursuing at your annual SHRM conference or planning organizational changes and innovations years in advance, you are probably reacting to old advice. For example, let’s say you find a promising new Learning Management System at a conference in August. It seems valuable so you bring it up to your HR team in September, and you focus on ironing out all of the kinks in the plan before presenting the idea to the other company leaders. Now it’s December. But, budgets are approved for January in November/December meaning that now you are waiting until the following January for implementation. Now, your innovative idea from 18 months ago is finally being implemented and it’s already a bit out of date.
With a strong network, a fellow HR executive mentor could have informed you about the Learning Management System back in March. You could have brought the idea up to your team and ironed out the kinks in preparation for the conference in August and been ready to implement it by the initial January. You’ve just cut your time-to-implementation time by half from 18 months to 9.
2. Expand your network to other HR executives who can relate
When people don’t know each other that well, they have a tendency to only share the good things in their world – e.g. “My company was listed in the top 100 places to work”, or “we have made 30 new hires in the past month and are growing exponentially.” These conversations are pervasive at conferences or networking events. Brag fests and casual banter are fun pleasantries, but no one should mistake these for the deep, meaningful conversations that drive innovation and professional development.
A fellow HR executive mentor from outside of one’s own company allows you to open up, share, and relate to another executive that shares your mindset, but has their own experiences. These connections, and the vulnerable conversations that occur in these mentorships, make HR executives not only better at their jobs, but most importantly, happier at work.
3. Get advice on how to handle unfamiliar scenarios
The world changes all of the time. People are not antique toys that can be put in plastic boxes and held in place until they retire. There are actions and reactions that HR executives cannot control, and when uncertain situations strike, you have decisions to make. Here’s the most important decision: do you keep it to yourself and try to handle it alone for fear that asking for advice will make you seem ineffective at your job?
A fellow HR executive mentor might have faced that type of situation before. At a minimum, they can ask relevant questions and share their thoughts based on what they have experienced before. And at best, they can share their wisdom and help you find the key to solving the problem.
As an HR executive, you are whom your company turns to when they have an HR question, regardless of whether you know the answer. Mentorship provides HR executives with their own team of informal advisors, and a fellow HR executive mentor makes life easier because they provide balance, insight, and perspective that you cannot find from your current network.