The three key questions in leadership are the shortest: what, why and how?  Leaders are expected to answer these questions and communicate their answers to their organisations.  What are we going to do? Why have we decided that? And how is it to be done?

When Tony Tyler became the Director General of IATA, the International Air Transport Association, he had to address these questions for IATA.  As a former CEO of Cathay Pacific Airways, Tony was familiar with the airline business.  Scanning the scene across the airport from his office in Geneva, he pondered the state of the airline market.  He could see clearly that the world’s airlines were safe and secure but hardly sustainable due to the decades-long pattern of making money in some years and then losing more in others.

These thoughts led Tony to a simple conclusion: that IATA needed to become a source of innovation and change in the airline industry.  That answered the What? And Why? Questions but what of How?  It might have been expected that Tony’s job was not finished until the third question had been answered but he was honest, brave and wise enough not to attempt the answer himself and, instead, involve his senior leaders and teams in answering the question.  In this way, he not only drew on the wider intelligence and knowledge of the team around him but also built their commitment to the solutions found.

If the challenges of leadership include creating alignment, then one powerful means of doing so is to involve colleagues in making decisions.  In most organisations, involvement is now expected and enforced compliance is only acceptable in a crisis. As decision making is democratised, consultation, involvement and delegation are increasing deployed to widen the franchise.  In this way, smart leaders put the ‘How?’ question out to the wider group, even with respect to bigger, more strategic issues.

Yet there is one group in organisations that needs to specialise in advising line managers on ‘How?’ questions, and that is Human Resources (HR).  HR can ensure that managers act legitimately: not breaking employment laws.  They tend to be the guardians of the company’s values and their advocates.  They drive the performance management process and system in most organisations and hence they influence deciding the criteria for performance related reward.

HR are, potentially, the champions of How who know about best practice, managerial techniques that bring out the best in people, enable their creativity and enhance their morale and motivation.  But many HR teams fail to develop in this way, becoming distracted by administration, rules and regulations, restrictions and compliance.

If, instead, HR are to become the champions of How, then their training, role definition, skill set and practice will all need to change.  The people recruited into the function will need to be different: more like consultants than administrators.  Their understanding of the function will need to change and their expectations of how they will contribute to an organisation will also need to shift in the direction of influence, insight building, coaching and facilitation and away from being the fixers for line managers.

There is a very bright future for HR teams if they embrace becoming The Champions Of How but the journey from their current position is neither easy nor short.

Dr David Pendleton,
Professor in Leadership, Henley Business School, UK