Blog Post

After COVID: Self-Leadership and the modern HR leader

Laurie Ruettimann (she/her)

Founder of "Punk Rock HR"

Do you realize how amazing you are? HR professionals like you took on self-leadership postions and were unflappable during the darkest days of the pandemic. Whether collaborating with IT to develop effective work-from-home protocols or partnering with facilities management teams to keep essential workers safe on the job, human resources teams worldwide proved their worth.

Great job, my friends, but it's not over.

Now that vaccination rates are rising and infections are falling in the U.S., companies need HR's help to reopen the economy. Workers are predicted to start returning to the office during the summer. School starts in the fall. And companies will need to create policies on masks and vaccines, indoor social distancing requirements and PTO requests for employees who haven't had a vacation in over a year.

HR must be front-and-center to guide their organizations back to normal. But what does that even look like? And how can you, as a human resources leader yourself, make sure you're fully rested and ready to tackle these new responsibilities? I have some ideas.

It all starts with self-leadership

In my new book, Betting On You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career, I make the case that the number one skill that all workers need to develop is self-leadership — the art and science of individual accountability. That includes HR.

Self-leaders demonstrate a solid and consistent work ethic and believe in the adage, "A job worth doing is a job worth doing well." They're confident in their abilities and aren't afraid of taking risks. And when the chips are down, which happens during a pandemic or just on a random Tuesday afternoon, they demonstrate flexibility and look for alternative ideas and solutions.

Self-leaders know who they are, what they stand for, and what they stand against. They choose their attitude, accomplish their duties and tasks without being micromanaged, and believe in the traditional idea of praising in public and criticizing in private.

Finally, self-leaders know that a job is only one part of their lives. They also spend time developing their personal lives and have hobbies and interests outside of the office so that they can bring all of those exciting and positive experiences back to work.

Self-leaders will help organizations around the world reopen quickly. More importantly, I believe that HR is full of self-leaders. Here are some of my friends and colleagues who prove it.

Self-leaders put themselves first

Katie Augsburger is a Portland-based founding partner of Future Work Design, where she shares her expertise as an Employee Experience Strategist with clients who are rethinking the world of work. Katie is also a mother and a professional speaker.

During the pandemic, it was tempting for Katie to double down on her job. When asked about the most important lessons learned from COVID-19, she said: "I learned that even when it's hard to do so, rest and joy are critical to showing up my best at work."

It's easy for human resources leaders to think that a program or policy will change the entire landscape of a company. Sometimes, HR makes the most significant difference at work by fixing its relationship with work. Are you getting enough sleep to show up at work feeling energized? Do you enjoy what you're doing? Is the work meaningful, challenging and engaging? And are you able to take a break and enjoy the fruits of your labor?

Luckily, Katie is energized and ready to help employers create fair and meaningful relationships with workers. I asked her what she was most excited about coming out of the pandemic. She said, "I will always say yes to projects or events where folks are willing to get a little uncomfy."

That begs the question: What will she turn down?

"I will always say no to wearing heels — on stage or off. Thank you, pandemic, for the gift of embracing arch support."

HR leaders know who they are

Andy Storch is an Orlando-based talent development strategist, podcaster, and author of the new book, Own Your Career Own Your Life: Stop Drifting and Take Control of Your Future.

While everybody else was surviving the pandemic, Andy managed a flourishing business that helps learning and training professionals come together as a community, while launching a new book and getting a cancer diagnosis. When I asked him what he learned about himself from this experience, he said, "In the past year, I learned that I am strong, resilient, optimistic and that with the right mindset and mentors, I can pivot and handle just about anything."

Andy added, "I've also learned that I have the power to create value for people and build a business out of nothing as well as the power to help and inspire many people."

When you know your values, you are in a better position to fight for what's right. When I asked how Andy emerged changed from the pandemic, he said, "I will always say yes to love, gratitude, and helping good friends and family. From now on, I will always try new and scary things. I've discovered my love of podcast interviews and Clubhouse. But I will always say no to political debates on social media, spending time with negative people, and paying attention to people who are just trying to take advantage of me."

He also added, "Oh, and I will always say yes to Laurie Ruettimann. I forgot that!"

Andy is a smart man who prioritizes requests from his friends. When was the last time you said yes to one of your friends outside of work? Maybe it's time to start.

Self-leaders have an artist's mindset

Elena Valentine is a Chicago-based entrepreneur and founder of Skill Scout, a film production company that partners with HR and recruiting teams to create employer branding videos and turn job descriptions into compelling videos for your career website.

Elena's background is in organizational research and design, but she is passionate about the power of film to change the entire landscape of work. When I asked her to describe her ultimate goals, she said, "I want to be the Studs Terkel of my generation and tell work stories."

How many HR professionals see themselves as coaches, advisors, artists, and changemakers? Not enough. Elena has audacious goals, but she's just like you and me — trying to stay healthy, managing the complex demands of leadership while being present with her family when she's not working.

When I asked Elena what she learned about herself during the pandemic, she said, "I need to hone, cherish and celebrate my inner artist. I continue to be moved by the Toni Morrison quote that in moments of dread and uncertainty, that's when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal."

Elena added, "Last year when I felt my role as a business owner in flux, the one identity that no event or situation could take from me was an artist. I realized that I could always control my mindset. And in doing so, it did wonders for me. When my mindset was right, I could think quicker on my feet and develop more innovative ideas to push creativity within myself and my organization. That was a blessing and an important lesson."

I asked Elena what she'll always say yes to after the pandemic, and she gave me a list:

  • Taking walks with no end in mind
  • Mini chocolate Dove bars
  • Tacos. All kinds of tacos.
  • Drinking water as soon as I wake up (there is some science to this!)
  • Taking breaks during the day when I need them -- and not feeling bad about it

Having ME time. I've never craved having more ME time than ever before. There is a big difference between aloneness and loneliness. Loneliness is when you sense a lack of something or someone. Aloneness, on the other hand, is recognizing that I am enough.

It's not easy to set boundaries when you're a founder, CEO, and working woman with multiple people demanding time and attention. So I asked Elena what she would say no to in the future. She said, "Business travel unless necessary. And, at this point, it has little to do with the pandemic. Traveling takes a lot out of me physically and mentally. I'm saying yes to simply being present, especially with and for myself. And no to the things that drain me."

Elena has her list of absolute yesses and nos. Do you have your list?

Self-leaders take their PTO

My friend Jeff Miller is a California-based chief learning officer and vice president of organizational effectiveness at Cornerstone. He's also a husband, a father, and someone who can speak to the toll that business travel takes on the soul. (EDITOR'S NOTE: And he's an author.)

When I asked Jeff what he discovered about himself during the pandemic, he said, "As a father and someone passionate about my work, I downgraded my personal life and pushed a lot of dear friends to the side. My default friend group became work-focused, and I never got any separation between work and life. COVID-19 taught me that I need to reconnect with former friends and expand my friendship groups to meet new people."

He added, "I've worn overworking as a badge of honor for far too long. Work can go on without me. Like everybody else, I've discovered that I need to take my PTO."

Time away from work is vital for self-leaders to pause, reflect, reconnect, and restore balance in their lives. When you constantly push yourself to achieve more, you hit the law of diminishing returns, where the harder you work, the smaller the profits and benefits are derived from your efforts.

Jeff also learned something about himself personally. "I also discovered that I'm more introverted than I knew. It's great to be home — especially when you have a great relationship with your family. I have an adult daughter, and having your kids become friends with you is fun."

I asked Jeff to tell me what he'll always say yes to after COVID, and he told me, "I will always say yes to live music, plays, and other live experiences. You never know when you're going to go back into lockdown."

What about his list of nos? He said, "I will never work myself into the ground meeting other's distress without taking care of mine first."

That's the kind of meaningful statement about boundaries that comes from a self-leader who has taken time off and given himself space and grace to think about work. Have you done that for yourself?

Self-leadership reopens work

It might seem counterintuitive for human resources professionals to focus on themselves to serve their organizations better, but it's true. Future-focused HR teams will shift their focus in the next twelve months to:

  • Help employees step into the mode of self-leadership to own their career journeys and become active participants in skill-building development.
  • Create cultures of learning and agility to help the organization recover and move forward.
  • Enable workers to lean into a company's innovation agenda by taking more risks.

But human resources teams can't help the world reopen for business unless they've done the hard work of developing themselves. That work, my friends, begins now. Thankfully, we have so many people around us who are leading the way. Can you be a self-leader and model that behavior for others in your organization? That’s my challenge for you today.

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