Are HR management courses preparing students to be the people strategy stars of the future?


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An understanding of finance, sales, marketing, ethics, operations, planning and people, plus a smattering of entrepreneurship and the ability to walk on water – this is the job description of many of today’s CEOs.

OK, the last one is a slight exaggeration, but the rest make up a pretty accurate description of the skills and knowledge an HRD – or any other senior director, for that matter – would have to accumulate to merit the top job. It is a tough challenge and those who aim that high boost their chances by starting to garner the necessary skills and experience well in advance.

"To progress to board level and be successful, senior HR leaders must have a strong commercial focus to be able to add value to a business," says Gareth Smith, senior business manager at global recruitment firm, Hays HR. "Getting more aware of business will help HRDs become more skilled at selling the benefits of the HR function, clever ways of measuring ROI and benefits, for example – 'we have improved engagement, so attrition is down' – and so on. In the past, they might have struggled to do this, but now HRDs are much more savvy about how they represent themselves and HR."

Studying is one way to get the savvy. According to university comparison site,, there are 747 institutions in the UK offering HR management courses, and records 149 universities offering postgraduate HR courses.

But are these institutions doing enough to prepare students hoping to work in the field of people management to be the 'brightest and the best' for the world of strategic business? Smith says he has seen a definite shift in HR graduates' understanding of the necessity of adding wider business experience to academic achievements to progress their careers: "I look at interim HRDs at senior level and, typically, they have a strong mix of business acumen and HR," he says.

"People are coming out of university or business school with an HR qualification and they know they need to gain experience. They are bringing more to the table."

Amy Campbell, HR advisor at B&Q, is typical of this new breed. She has just completed the human resource management and development MA at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, in a concerted effort to get broad management insight and to cover areas such as finance and business strategy.

"I feel I can now go confidently into organisations and know what I am talking about," she says. "I have got wider knowledge and know where HR sits in an organisation and where it can add value. I now want to get the opportunities to put it into practice."

While Campbell is still a few years away from aiming for board level, those who have made it have got additional business expertise. Some have taken on, by design or accident, roles that have exposed them to different functions and viewpoints – sometimes being fast-tracked by far-sighted companies on a deliberate multi-functional career course.

Rachel Woolstone, HR director for restaurant chain Roka/Zuma, moved from operations into HR at Tesco in a structured, fast-track process that involved two years pushing through change-management programmes in floor and regional management roles. She went on to become HRD for Jumeirah hotels and restaurants in Dubai before her current role.

She believes the combination has already given her career more momentum than an equivalent time on an HR-only path would have provided. "I gained commercial skills, learned about profit and loss, revenue and so on – every aspect of improving the business," she says.

"I sat on the board at Jumeirah and looked at PR, strategy, a global approach. It has given me the confidence to speak out and make decisions and the credibility to be listened to. I am better at my job because I know about every element of the business."

MBAs are another way to acquire the all-round business know-how needed at the top and, certainly, general management courses can enable an HR specialist to see how the business whole joins together.

However, say academics, it is just as important to see things the other way round. People insight is becoming increasingly important to an organisation, especially as more businesses become knowledge-based - so there is a growth in courses that enable HR specialists to present their functional expertise in the light of business awareness, to add value to an organisation and communicate this. Nick Holley, director of the Centre for HR Excellence at Henley Business School, agrees. The key to getting HR practitioners to board level, he says, is ensuring HR adds value to a business: "The big debate about whether HR should have a seat at the table frustrates me," he says. "It is utter nonsense. People get it because they deserve it. HR should have a seat, but only if it is adding value. We in HR won't make ourselves credible by trying to be credible, but by making a difference."

And, says Paul Sparrow, director of the Centre for Performance-led HR (CPHR) at Lancaster University Management School, they also have to communicate this value to maximum effect: "You have limited airtime and you have got to ask: 'Am I making telling points?'" He suggests a non-territorial approach: "When operating at board level, you have to leave your function at the door – your HR background is not why you are there."

Lancaster University Management School's CPHR runs executive master classes for senior HR professionals on organisational design, talent management, HR strategy and employee engagement, either as short one-offs or as part of the CPHR executive programme.

Each provides a bespoke package – an overview; insight into current HR thinking and strategy; a case study example; and standalone knowledge – to enable HR professionals to understand, undertake and influence change within their organisation.

Henley Business School has an advanced partner training programme, to make HR "more flexible, pragmatic and commercial", says Holley. The three-day courses aim to enable senior HR professionals to understand how HR can support and enhance their organisation's business imperatives, how to integrate their functional HR strategy into that of their organisation, as well as how to better influence business decisions.

Each day focuses on commercial, HR and political challenges, along with individual coaching. Participants identify their own business's key commercial and strategic challenges beforehand and, at the end, plan how to address these challenges immediately.

"We have a whole day about helping HR people understand the nature of strategic debate in the business and how that leads to value creation and what they need to do to contribute to that," says Holley. "It is not really teaching HR, but how HR can contribute to a business."

Identify what is business-critical – and how HR can enable that to happen

Alex Rickard is head of employee proposition at planning and wealth management company Towry. Her title reflects a broadening of the company's view of HR and her remit encompasses four areas: HR; reward; wellbeing; and learning and development.

"It is fair to say that I have needed experience of business issues outside the HR remit to get where I am. It has been less about formal classroom training though and more about attending conferences or being part of round-table discussions and so on," Rickard said.

"Expertise in the core HR disciplines is a given at this level, so therefore it is more about approach, being able to identify what is business-critical and how HR can enable that to happen. You definitely need both commercial and business appreciation - although you have to bring that without losing engagement of people, because the board will still look to the person responsible for people issues to have that understanding.

"At this level you also need general management skills: the ability to manage teams, to coach others to manage teams and you also need to understand the critical things the business needs to do to be successful. To help acquire these, it is probably true to say that I have gone out of my way sometimes to do things that are not about HR. You can be the most fantastic HR specialist but if what you do is not appropriate to the business, you won't be effective."

Rickard would not necessarily prioritise this sort of business acumen or experience in a candidate for an HR job at a lower rung on the ladder - HR-based professional qualifications, warmth and approachability would come first. However, she admits that having some extra skills, such as project management and presentation, and being "curious and inquisitive" about other opportunities would certainly be a bonus.

Drilling down to a few vital areas

Martin Percival's background includes senior HR roles in the technology sector with Microsoft,, Progress Software and StepStone (now re-named Lumesse) and he has just launched the international HR consultancy, MFP Associates. He has also recently completed an international MBA at Henley Business School and added a three-day Advanced HR Business Partner Programme from Henley's Centre for HR on top.

"After 20 years in HR, I would have described myself as fairly business-savvy," said Percival. "I have been careful about businesses I worked for – I have always been interested in what they do and I have always believed that the HR head must be at least as much of an expert in business – but I wanted to 'round out' my experience.

"The course participants came from a range of organisations and diverse geographical bases, including Egypt, Romania, Poland and Sudan, and it was useful to get such differing viewpoints.

"Over three quite different days, we looked at what a business expects from HR and how it fits into a business plan. One day focused on business acumen and we did exercises based on the TV series, Dragons' Den. We were also introduced to research that effectively built up root-cause analysis of critical questions and issues facing business. In effect, it was a formula that a skilled HR professional would be able to put straight into practice and was probably the most valuable part of the course.

"We spent a day on political intelligence, looking at how to apply the nuances and what to be aware of – you have to make sure you don't fall into traps, and keep steering the business in the right direction.

"After the MBA, I certainly feel more confident in some of the hard skills - management processes, systems and so on. I am now more inclined to challenge rather than accept things at face value. The field trips to Shanghai and Cape Town were real eye-openers and gave me a thirst to be more involved in the Asia-Pacific region.

"I gained a lot of new insights with the HR Business Programme - the approach was really about drilling down to a few vital areas."



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