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Leading Through Disruption

Julia Zdrahal-Urbanek

A Key Role For HR Leaders: To Spar With Their Colleagues In The C-Suite

January 3, 2023

Julia Zdrahal-Urbanek, managing partner of AltoPartners Executive Search Austria and board director at Gebrüder Ulmer, shares key leadership lessons with Anastassia Lauterbach and Adam Bryant in this “Leading Through Disruption” interview.

Lauterbach: What are the key lessons you’ve learned as a director, coming from executive search?

Zdrahal-Urbanek: Everyone who joins a board should be clear about their role on the board and understand who the main contributors and who the main stakeholders are. Also, what are the expectations? What is the added value that you are expected to bring to the business?

The second thing is, make sure you’re aligned with everyone else in the boardroom. Make sure you have all the information that you need. Because people may not be giving you all the information that you do need.

Bryant: How do you think about private boards, including boards of family enterprises. What is the difference between them and public companies?

Zdrahal-Urbanek: The stakeholder situation is completely different, and there are specific skillsets for the CEOs that become less important, since they don’t have to interact with the capital markets. Mostly though, you have to consider different values. Family businesses often have a very long-term perspective for decision-making, including long-term succession-planning.

Lauterbach: What are the key skills that board directors need?

Zdrahal-Urbanek: You need to be able to challenge your senior executives. You have to know what your own values and your own targets are. And it’s not about putting yourself at the center of the conversation. You need to listen in many directions.

You have to know what your own values and your own targets are.

The same is true if you are a C-suite member. You need to be able to reflect a lot, to listen, to understand what is going on around you in order to lead in an effective way. You need to get the right people, but you also need to create an environment in which you can keep the best talent. Because “A” players want to be challenged, and not patronized.

Bryant: How do you see the role of the CHRO evolving?

Zdrahal-Urbanek: It has transformed from a more administrative role to where HR has a bigger impact in guiding the company. But there needs to be more understanding of what kind of added value HR can bring to the organization. HR, in my view, should always be part of the C-suite team.

One of the most important roles of the CHRO is to be a sparring partner to the CEO. It’s about being involved in all strategic and operational management topics, in order to be able to contribute to all business matters. They should also play the role of sparring partner with the rest of the senior management team, to help them reach their targets.

Although heads of HR play a big role in talent management, CEOs should be aware that one of their most important responsibilities is to hire senior management. This is not something a CEO can delegate anymore. This is something a great CHRO should support and should manage. But the selection process should be done by the CEO.

Lauterbach: What are the key leadership lessons you’ve learned in your career?

Zdrahal-Urbanek: I’m someone who really learned leadership by watching others. I have been fortunate to be always surrounded by people I could learn from, and who had more experience than me. And I always had people with experience who supported me and challenged me, and who I could always go to with questions.

Executive search is one of the best industries to learn about leadership, because you observe so many types of leadership. You see many positive examples, and also negative ones. The information is there. You just need to be reflective and decide what to do with this information.

I think you really need to respect others and appreciate others. Listen to them and understand what you need to do in order to help them be successful. But also let them watch and let them learn. Give them the environment they need, which differs from person to person, of course. Be flexible. But also have the courage to give feedback if someone needs development.