Five Signs That Your HR Chief is Trouble

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Dangersign With a shout out to the folks at SmartBrief on Leadership for pointing it out, I recommend to you a deeply reported article in Fortune magazine about how and why Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler was pushed out of his job last year.  It’s an excellent, real life case study in the “Why Smart Leaders Fail,” genre.

Some of the usual culprits show up in the Kindler story.  He micro managed, was indecisive, ignored voices of experience, acted like a prosecutor in meetings and lost his temper with executive staff and even board members. 

In spite of all that, perhaps the biggest reason for Kindler’s downfall was that he trusted the wrong person. He hired his head of human resources, Mary McLeod, in 2007 just three years after she had been fired for cause at Charles Schwab. It only took her another three years to play a major role in helping to bring her new CEO down.

Here’s how she did it.  They’re five signs that your HR chief is trouble and they’re not just unique to this particular situation at Pfizer:

Not Focused on Execution:  The first responsibility of an HR exec is to make sure that the trains run on time. It’s one of those functions where if you don’t get the basics rights, everybody suffers and everybody notices. McLeod reduced the headcount in Pfizer HR but paid little to no attention to the day to day execution of the basics of the function. Your credibility takes a hit when you don’t get the basics of your job right. If it goes on too long, your boss’s credibility will suffer as a result.

Remote from the People:  The story reports that McLeod was unavailable to her own staff and others throughout the organization. She communicated by email and webcasts. If your HR exec is not connecting with the actual human resources in your organization, you’ve got a problem.

Terrible Optics:  McLeod was so highly compensated that she almost made it into the list of the top five highest paid execs in Pfizer’s 10-K report. She regularly commuted to New York from her home in Delaware via a company helicopter. It doesn’t take long for the buzz on that kind of perk abuse to get around. Terrible optics are a sign of an executive who’s creating trouble.

Inducing Paranoia:  No doubt aligning themselves with the culture McLeod was creating, an HR staffer attempted to force an external consultant to turn over confidential 360 degree assessments that were to have been used only for the purpose of top executive development.  (Kudos to the consultant for refusing.) In the environment of mistrust that was developing at Pfizer, moves like this only raised the level of paranoia.

Playing the Consigliere:  One thing that those in the know at Pfizer agreed on is that McLeod did an excellent job of positioning herself as the chief consigliere to Kindler.  She fed him back channel information and opinions, controlled access to him and delivered tough messages for him.  If you’re a CEO and you find yourself spending inordinate amounts of time with one lieutenant, you probably need to step back and reassess what you’re hearing and not hearing.

So, as they say in the drug commercials on TV, “If you notice any of these symptoms, call your doctor immediately.”  If you notice all five of these at once, call an ambulance and tell them to bring a crash cart as you’re going to need emergency assistance.

Of course, these signs of trouble are not necessarily limited to HR executives.  They could apply to anyone in a top position.  What else, in your experience, are the warning signs that a senior executive is steering you towards trouble? 

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