How to become an HR director of distinction


HR people have taken something of an ear-bashing of late. A lack of in-depth business understanding and poor financial nous have been among the criticisms levelled at them in surveys and from conference platforms over the past few months.

Added on 27 February 2013 by Erika Lucas

How to become an HR director of distinction

HR people have taken something of an ear-bashing of late. A lack of in-depth business understanding and poor financial nous have been among the criticisms levelled at them in surveys and from conference platforms over the past few months. The consensus of opinion (in the media anyway) appears to be that HR people have been slow to react to changes in the world of work and do not command the respect of their senior colleagues.

Now there are of course some sweeping generalisations amongst all the flak that’s being thrown at HR people. There are many practitioners out there who are breaking boundaries and finding new and exciting ways to meet the challenges presented by today’s commercial realities. The profession does however have some work to do if it is to restore its reputation with senior colleagues and get its voice heard in the upper echelons of the organisation.

So what exactly do HR people have to do to raise both their standing and their practice and make themselves stand out from the crowd? Gerry Miles leader of the Ashridge Strategic Human Resource Management programme offers ten suggestions:

1. Live in the future

HR people are typically good at dealing with the here and now – but often less switched on to the practical realities of their vision. Talent management is a prime example. The skills organisations need today are not necessarily those they will need tomorrow. Yet talent and succession activities often fail to take account of the changing needs of the business or the different expectations of Gen Y employees now entering the workforce. The trick for HR people is to start living in the future and encouraging others to do the same – while not losing sight of the day-to-day operational necessities.

2. Don’t just talk act

HR are typically seen (and indeed often see themselves) as facilitators within the business. They discuss issues in-depth and at length gather the views of others and try to build consensus and keep everyone happy. This is particularly valuable at times of change when HR can often be found trying to rally line managers behind the cause. Consulting with people and building consensus is of course important – but there comes a time when you just have to act. Having a sound strategy is all very well – but the HR people who stand out are those who are brave and able to turn their strategies into action.

3. Get the simple stuff right

Sometimes HRDs can get the strategy bug to such an extent that they overlook some of the basic but vital responsibilities of their role. It’s easy for example to take your eye off day-to-day processes like performance management or payroll in favour of the more ‘interesting’ strategic stuff. Of course while HRDs won’t be involved in the practical implementation detail of these processes they do need to keep a watching brief on what is happening. If people aren’t getting paid the right amount at the right time or poor performance is allowed to continue unchecked the buck will eventually stop at the HRD’s door – causing untold damage to their reputation and possibly even leading to their dismissal.

4. Become an HR star

The spotlight is an uncomfortable place for many HR people. But if you insist on being a backroom shrinking violet your voice certainly won’t get heard. HR people who want to stand out from the crowd need to be sharing their views and expertise on conference platforms in the pages of the HR and business press and via social networking sites. This does require a degree of confidence and communication skills that many HR people simply don’t have – but it is an area of personal development worth investing in for those who really want to make their mark.

5. Learn to love people again

HR used to be the ‘soul keepers’ of the business. Recent events have demonstrated that many organisations have lost their soul – and HR has a part to play in helping them find it again. There has been so much emphasis in recent times on HR becoming more strategic that the function is in danger of becoming completely impersonal. The stand-out HR people of the future will help the business learn how to like and understand its people again. Juggling tough commercial decisions with care and concern for employees is a difficult balancing act – but those who get it right will reap the dividends for their organisations in terms of improved engagement productivity and ability to hang on to talented people.

6. Demonstrate industry knowledge

The best HR people are able to demonstrate sound and up-to-date knowledge not just of HR practice but also of the sector they are operating in. Stepping outside the confines of the HR department and networking widely is the best way to acquire this kind of up-to-the-minute expertise but senior HR people often think they ‘don’t have time’ to do this. There are huge advantages (and much kudos) to be gained from being able to talk authoritatively about topical industry issues in the boardroom and to demonstrate knowledge of how other organisations are tackling challenging HR issues. Developing strong networking skills – and being prepared to spend time developing relationships with customers industry and professional peers – can give ambitious HR people a real edge.

7. Cultivate peer status in the boardroom

HR people are often a bit of an ‘also ran’ in the boardroom. They are seen as somehow less authoritative than their peers and only able to make a contribution on the ‘soft’ stuff. If HR directors want to be on an equal standing with their peers they need two things – a willingness to get involved in areas outside of their professional expertise and a good command of the numbers. An HRD in a food business for example needs to get involved in discussions about supply chain and quality assurance as well as talent and succession planning if they are truly to get underneath the skin of the business. Financial savvy is also vital. If the CFO CEO and fellow board members can see their HRD understands what the numbers really mean they are much more likely to give them respect and listen to their point of view.

8. Focus on service delivery

Making sure HR services are delivered to leaders and managers in a timely efficient and cost effective way and that people-related data is managed professionally is a key task for the HR team. Developments in technology over recent years have the potential to revolutionise the way services are delivered and the best HRDs are looking at how these technologies can help them make improvements and efficiencies. Service delivery is at the heart of any performance scorecard. However it is a subject that is rarely talked about in the boardroom. There’s a tendency to think that it’s not ‘strategic’ enough to warrant attention – whereas in fact it is the backbone to the entire HR operation. HRDs need to talk about service delivery and how best to meet the needs of internal customers with their own team – but also make sure there is awareness at senior level of the bottom line benefits of an innovative approach to delivery.

9. Exploit technology

How many HR people do you know who are using technology confidently and comfortably? Sophisticated software capable of putting a wealth of people-related data at HR’s fingertips has been around for some time although maximum use of these analytics is still slow to take off. A whole new generation of social media tools with the potential to revolutionise the way organisations communicate with people internally has recently emerged. These internal platforms can do much to promote knowledge-sharing encourage collaboration and improve engagement across the business. Yet many HR people are still locked in a mindset of trying to ‘control’ internal communication and have not yet appreciated the benefits a more open and inclusive culture can bring. Keeping up-to-speed with developments in HR and communication technology and maximising its potential should be a key HR team development priority.

10. Develop self awareness

Plain and simple fear often gets in the way of HR people developing a strong personal presence and commanding the respect of their senior leaders. There are many highly proficient HR people who fail to fulfil their potential because they just don’t look or sound confident. Others hide behind a veneer of confidence – but inside feel vulnerable and exposed in their roles. HR people need to get more comfortable in their own skin. They need to develop a better understanding of themselves and the impact they have on others and to improve their ability to remain resilient in the face of pressure and adversity.

Gerry Miles leads Ashridge’s five day Strategic Human Resource Management Programme which is designed to help HR leaders improve their impact and influence and get results for their organisation.