CHROs should demand more investment in HR talent

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Have you ever known someone who constantly complains about their condition, yet seems to do nothing to actually change it? They remind me of HR leaders who constantly complain about the lack of talent in HR, but seem to do nothing about it.

Consider the following results of recent studies of CHROs. According to the HR@Moore surveys of chief HR officers, the number of CHRO positions being filled from inside has dropped from 38% in 2010 to 34% in 2014, while those hired from outside have increased from 42% to 60% during the same period. The survey also revealed that CHROs report the biggest obstacle to achieving the CEO’s mandate for HR is HR competency – or lack thereof.

I believe that the time has come to get serious about developing HR for two reasons, both focused on the credibility of the function. First, HR must have the talent necessary to truly impact the business in a positive way. Second, if those outside the function see it failing to develop its own people, then how can they put any faith in solutions for developing talent that arose from HR?

My strategy is simple but difficult, and will require investment in terms of time and money.

First, attract the right talent. We have all discussed how the competencies required of HR professionals have changed. The problem is that these are not the kinds of skills inherent in the majority of those hired from traditional HR sources such as Masters programmes. Thus we need to think differently about sourcing HR talent from alternative pipelines such as management consulting firms, MBA programmes, and line leaders within our firms.

This requires presenting a compelling case for a career in HR, both from the standpoint of impact and career earnings. As long as HR is the lowest paid function, it will continue to bring in the lowest quality talent and feed the stereotype that HR people just can’t compete with the rest of the business.

Second, develop that talent. I joke that I can always tell when the economy is improving by how many firms start inquiring about developing their high potential HR professionals. However, if we continue to develop our HR top talent in the fifth or sixth year of a business cycle, with the programmes eliminated in the ninth year when the economy goes south again, we will never create a sustained upgrade in HR talent. 

New CHROs should ask for a considerable internal development budget upon taking the role, and existing CHROs should demand that as much investment go into HR talent as into talent elsewhere in the business. However, this is not a monetary investment alone, but a commitment to spend wisely with an accountability for results.

Finally, manage out the wrong talent. HR functions will never upgrade their collective talent without exiting those at the bottom to make room. This need not be a heartless exercise in downsizing, but rather helping those who cannot make the talent journey to find roles, companies, or retirement options that will be more fulfilling than failing under the new requirements. 

It’s time to quit complaining and get serious about building the talent pool required in HR. I do not suggest it will be easy or cheap. It will take a sustained commitment of time, energy, thought, and money. But if done successfully, the effort will pay off for our businesses and our employees.

Patrick Wright is Thomas C Vandiver Bicentennial chair in the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina. He is ranked number 14 on HR magazine’s Most Influential International Thinkers list

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