three best practices of successful HR leaders.

HR and learning and development leaders may want to take a page from firefighters' playbooks when thinking about how to be strategic in their roles. Sometimes, getting an upper hand on the fires we fight in our organizations – from talent acquisition to employee development – requires us to take a step back from the the daily work and view our roles from a fresh perspective. Here in California, forest fires are top of mind much of the year. Weather forecasts lead with wind speeds and ’red flag warnings’ on high fire risk days. Spotting a fire early and getting to it quickly can make the difference between a small hot spot and a raging inferno. Early detection is best done from the highest point possible. Firefighters will tell you to get ahead of problems, you must look at them from up high.

Just like firefighters, we in HR and L&D must zoom out and look at our efforts from a higher and wider perspective if we’re going to get ahead. This ensures the effort we’re spending is on the right tasks, the things that will result in better workforces and ultimately help us e address our most important responsibilities. 

If you speak with successful HR leaders across North America, you’ll hear a myriad of good habits for gaining perspective. Looking at commonalities among them, three best practices emerge as excellent habits for HR/Learning & Development leaders to achieve a better perspective. 

     1. Coaching 

     2. Micro-pauses 

     3. Sabbaticals 

coaching for learning & development 

Coaching is the process of regular engagement over time between a coach and a business professional client. The Worldwide Association of Business Coaches describes the purpose of coaching as, “To enhance the client’s awareness and behavior so as to achieve business objectives for both the client and their organization.” Enhancing awareness often means getting a wider perspective, one that takes a more strategic viewpoint. When coaching is applied as a tool for learning and development, this wider perspective can often mean improved relationships, better understanding and more creative problem solving.  

Marissa Waldman, founder of leadership development firm Leaderology in Irvine, California, says that in her experience, coaching can be an incredibly impactful, perspective-gaining process for HR and learning and development leaders. Marissa shared a great story of a senior HR leader who, through the perspective of a coach, was able to increase her strategic influence in the business. The coaching provided her with better means of listening to business leaders and finding ways to align the business objectives with her knowledge of HR tools. Through coaching, this HR leader was able to have better strategic dialog with her clients in the business, essentially claiming the proverbial ’seat at the big table’ that many HR leaders desire. 

Related content: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders Through Executive Coaching 

increase productivity with micro-pauses 

Like microlearning, the concept of Micro-pauses is emerging as a way to increase productivity by intentionally creating more space in our days. Occupational therapists have encouraged micro-pauses since the 1980s when research showed that frequent breaks were effective for physical recovery from repetitive tasks to prevent on-the-job injuries. The concept is now finding traction in helping improve our mental well-being. Popular keynote speaker Juliet Funt has created the hashtag #whitespaceatwork, advocating for reducing busywork in order to make more space for “innovation, strategy and big-picture thinking.” Many work environments now have meditation or quiet rooms to encourage employees to take mental breaks throughout the day. Anecdotally, HR and L&D leaders have seen the value of these mental breaks, and research supports the positive effect on productivity.

In a study by the University of Quebec, a small group of surgeons was given tiny, twenty-second breaks every twenty minutes and then tested for their physical and mental acuity. The surgeons were seven times more accurate in their mental acuity tests after surgeries in which they were allowed micro-breaks. They also reported half of the physical fatigue. 

In the HR and L&D world, our jobs can be mentally challenging and often include emotional challenges as well. As the empathizers of the organization, HR leaders are often dealing with the human emotional side of business and because of our nature, it’s easy to absorb an employee’s emotional energy. Micro-pauses are essential to building our own resilience. We can prioritize them just as we would any other productivity-increasing tool by recognizing that taking a break can make us better listeners and better leaders. Here are a few ways to prioritize micro breaks:  

     1. Change your environment. Step away from your desk, get a cup of coffee, go outside for five minutes or find a quiet spot just to ‘be.’ 

     2. Schedule meetings for 45 minutes instead of an hour. Use the balance of the hour to take a break. 

     3. Turn off notifications when working on thought-intensive tasks such as workforce planning, strategic thinking and problem-solving.  

     4. Find a form of meditation to clear your mind. Use an app like Insight Timer. One HR leader we know keeps knitting needles and some yarn handy in between meetings. Doodle on a blank piece of paper. Do a Sudoku puzzle or two. Color in an adult coloring book. Any of these tasks can light up different areas of our brains and allow the overworked part of the mind to briefly rest.  

Related content: A Happier Workplace: Tips for HR Leaders Looking for More Employee Engagement  

refresh with sabbaticals 

The idea of a sabbatical, an off-the-job learning break, has found its way from academia into common practice in the corporate world. Employees can take several weeks to several months away from their jobs with the security they’ll have a job to return to and, in many cases, full pay and benefits. Many companies now offer an extended break from the job as a benefit for long-tenured employees. In fact, a 2016-2017 study by Mercer showed that nearly half of respondents offered some kind of sabbaticals and 34 percent offered fully paid sabbaticals. Employees can use the time to learn a new skill, volunteer or travel, creating their own opportunities for discovery and learning, and bringing those experiences back into the workplace. This leads to more well-rounded employees who are more engaged. 

Sabbaticals can also be taken in-between jobs. Kristen Robinson, the former CHRO of music streaming service, Pandora, is currently on a self-imposed sabbatical. Kristen said her intention in taking time-off before her next new role was to replenish herself and that it took courage to not rush off to the next opportunity. She says the confidence she has in her skill set allows her to truly disconnect and follow new interests. “I had a realization that I know, without a doubt, that I can take time off, get back in the workforce in a great job and actually be better at the next thing because I’ve taken the break.” Kristen says the sabbatical has given her the time to connect her head and her heart, combining data with her own trusted gut-check to ultimately make better decisions. 

Many HR leaders, in the context of workforce planning, often plan their own exits during M&As or leadership changes, making the most of the hot employment market. One senior leader we know, a self-confessed ‘plant killer’ said she started growing orchids, a habit she would have scoffed at when she was juggling a global head of learning and development role and a family. Caring for orchids brought her a needed, measurable challenge during her time of rest. Another leader we know started following an interest in quantum physics, just to set her brain in a different direction.   

In HR, we have unique visibility into opportunities to take these self-imposed breaks, whether they’re a couple minutes or a few months. At a time when 96 percent of managers believe they see signs of burnout in their workers, it’s important that, as HR leaders, we exemplify healthy, balanced professional lives and the perspective that space can provide. Not only does the research backs this up, but we all have all undoubtedly seen examples of the risk of not finding perspective. Our own training and development, as well as employee development, can be done in ’off-the-job learning’ and give us the perspective our businesses need to lead into the future.

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