20 Maxims from the Greatest Leadership Expert (Part 2 of 2)


In Part 1, I shared the first Top 10 leadership maxims from Dave Ulrich, one of the top 50 management thought leaders in the world. Dubbed as the “father of modern human resources”, Ulrich is widely recognized as the most influential thought leader in HR. Ulrich distills his career-long study of leadership into 20 simple maxims. The maxims below reflect the assumptions and actions he would recommend to leaders who want to improve their organization. You might want to print a copy of this and always reference back these timeless principles.

11. Why of Leadership: Create a Case for Effective Leadership

Most individuals can identify a leader who made a difference in their professional and personal life. This leader matters because she or he positively affected our lives. In organiza­tion, we have found that more effective lead­ers matter because they increase employee productivity, organization’s ability to deliver strategy, customer connection, investor confi­dence, and community reputation. When lead­ers deliver these outcomes, they add value. At a personal level, most individual leaders want to be better; at an organization level, better leaders lead to important results.

12. What of Leadership: Define What Makes an Effective Leader

Everyone has a wish list of what makes an effective leader, which now includes millions of references (google “leader” to find millions of responses). In our research we have used the metaphor of leadership brand to define effec­tive leadership. Any brand has core elements that are basic, or generic, to the brand. We call this the leadership code and have identified five factors all leaders must demonstrate:

  • Strategy: leaders understand future con­texts and stakeholders and position their organization for the future;
  • Execution: leaders make things hap­pen through execution, decision making, accountability;
  • Talent management: leaders coach and communicate current employees to have competence, commitment, and contribution;
  • Human capital development: leaders invest in future employees through employee branding, workforce planning, and empow­ering employees;
  • Personal proficiency: leaders build trust through intellectual, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual energy.

We found that the leadership code explains about 60 to 70% of what makes an effective leader. The other 30 to 40% are the differentia­tors, or those things leaders do inside the firm that reflect customer expectations outside the firm. When defining leadership for an orga­nization, we often look at the firm’s brand, or expectations in the marketplace. This brand should then show up in leadership compe­tency models as behaviors, training programs as curriculum, and appraisal systems as standards.

13. How of Leadership: Ensure That Leaders Do What They Know They Should

Most leaders we know want to improve (the why) and even know what to improve (the what), but they often do not make the improvements they know they should (the how). We have studied the research on how leaders can accomplish what they know they should do and identified seven disciplines of leadership sustainability:

  • Simplicity: start small, focused on a few key changes
  • Time: make sure the change shows up in your calendar in 3 hours, 3 days, 3 weeks, and 3 months
  • Accountable: take personal ownership for making the change happen
  • Resources: find help in accomplishing the change through coaches and HR systems
  • Track: measure and monitor the change
  • Meliorate: learn and grow (demonstrate grit or resilience) in persevering with the change
  • Emotion: make sure the desired changes are consistent with your personal passion and identity
  • When leaders follow this STARTME applica­tion (see app by this name), they sustain their desired changes.

14. Culture from the Outside-in Shifts from Event to Pattern to Identity

When we work with leaders, we often ask them to answer the question, “what is a cul­ture?” The answers almost always include: values, norms, unwritten rules, behaviors, expectations, and so forth. We note that all of these definitions come from a dominant logic that culture is what happens inside a company “our” values, norms, etc. We believe that the study of culture should shift from an event (an all employee meeting, training pro­gram, communication message) to a pattern (how people think and behave) to an identity. By focusing culture on an organization’s external identity (what we want to be known for by our best customers), the events and patterns have a clear focus. When an organi­zation’s external identity drives and reflects its internal culture, it is likely to be more effective and sustained.

15. Culture May Be Embedded through an Intellectual, Behavioral, and Process Agenda

Once a desired culture (identity) is defined, it is important to make it real to all employees through four processes:

  • Top/down intellectual agenda: the desired identity has to be communicated through­out an organization. The rule of thumb is 10:1; the message has to be shared 10 times for every 1 unit of understanding.
  • Bottom/up behavioral agenda: each employee needs to act on the desired orga­nization identity in their daily behaviors. A great leader said “we teach people correct principles and let them govern themselves.”
  • Side/side process agenda: the desired identity should show up in organization process including staffing, promotion, com­pensation, financial controls, and informa­tion technology.

When these agendas are woven around a desired identity, they ensure that the outside expectations shape employee thought and action.

16. HR Professionals Should Be Architects of Talent, Leaders, and Culture; Line Managers Are Owners

Building talent, leadership, and culture requires thought leadership and disciplined action. In a final exam for MBA students, I asked the question: who has primary account­ability for HR (talent, leadership, culture) issues within an organization?

a. Line manager

b. HR manager

c. It is shared between line and HR

d. The consultant

e. I don’t care, I am going into finance

Most answered “c” … it is shared. And, I marked it wrong. I believe that the primary accountability for HR issues is the line man­ager who is the owner. HR professionals are architects, not owners. Architects create blueprints of what can be done and facilitate dialogue to come to a common decision if there are multiple owners (husband and wife who disagree). Architects also bring unique insights to offer advice on technical issues and ensure that regulations are followed. HR professionals are social architects who man­age the content and process of strategic and organization clarity.

17. HR Organizations Should Align with the Structure of the Business

In the last 15 years, there have been many efforts to restructure the HR organization. In recent years, there has been a movement to ensure that HR has service centers (technol­ogy based systems to do foundational HR work), centers of expertise with specialists, and embedded HR with generalists. Some have argued that this structure changes the centralize vs. decentralize debate by doing both; and others have argued that it does not work well. Our view is simple: the HR organi­zation should match the business organiza­tion. If a business organization is centralized (single focus on business, organization, and processes), the HR department should be centralized with a head of staffing, training, compensation, benefits, etc., for the entire organization. If a business organization is a holding company with multiple businesses operating independently, the HR organization should be completely embedded in each of the separate businesses. If the business organiza­tion is a matrix or allied diversified company, then the HR shared services model applies. Make sure that the HR organization matches the business organization. We find centralized businesses in about 20% of our clients, holding companies in about 10%, and some form of matrix in about 70%. In these 70% of matrixed organizations, HR should operate as a pro­fessional services firm within the firm. This means have centers of expertise who have unique knowledge and insights and then who transfer that knowledge through embedded HR generalists to the line manager clients.

18. Align, Integrate, And Innovate HR Practices

There seems to be among HR professionals an endless quest for “best practice” in HR. Conferences, workshops, books, articles, and consultants advocate the latest and greatest HR insight. These fads often fade. Effective HR practices should meet three criteria. First, they should be aligned with not only the strategy (strategic HR), but also with customers and investors outside the organization (HR outside in). This means that the criteria for effective HR are around the ways HR delivers value to strat­egy and/or external stakeholders. Second, HR practices should be integrated to shift from best practice to best system. An isolated HR practice may not be replicable because it is embedded in a system. Third, HR practices and systems should be innovative. We should constantly be looking for new ways to solve old problems.

19. Competencies of HR Professionals Affect Both Perception of HR Effectiveness and Business Results

For over 25 years, my colleagues and I have studied the competencies of HR profession­als. With global data sets every 5 years, using inputs from HR professionals, HR colleagues, and line managers, we have been able to determine the competencies for HR profession­als and how these competencies drive busi­ness success. In our latest research, we have identified six competence domains (factor ana­lyzed from 140 specific behaviors) that impact the perceived effectiveness of HR professionals and their impact on the business. This is sum­marized on the following page in Table 1.1.

20. Shift from Analytics as Data or Information to Insights, Implementation, and Impact…Start with the Decision

In recent years, there has been a clamor for better HR analytics with an emphasis on the cloud and data networks. In our view, HR analytics has often started in the wrong place and with the wrong focus. Analytics starts with data and analysis. We believe that there should be an evolution in HR analytics from data to insight to intervention to impact. Data comes from data bases; insight comes from themes in the data; intervention comes from actions based on themes; impact comes from making changes in an organization that impact desired results. We believe that an information capability starts with impact then moves to data. Impact means examining busi­ness choices and getting clear about decisions that need to be made to make more informed choices. A decision choice logic for analytics requires a business mindset and a clear under­standing of how the business will succeed. The hypotheses that come from this logic can then be tested to improve the quality of deci­sion making.

Ultimately, in the last few decades, I hope these ideas have brought creative insights to the challenges of making organizations more successful, helping leaders make informed choices, and HR professionals deliver value.