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Are HR directors lacking in international experience?

Why are HR directors so lacking in international experience when compared with their FD peers? We look for an answer and explore the myriad benefits being missed out on by so many.

When Mark Freebairn led a recent workshop on careers for FDs, the head of executive search firm Odgers Berndtson’s financial management practice warned them: “The expectation is that you will have visited all your divisions to get multicultural experience. If you haven’t, I guarantee that your competition has. You must address the gaps that will hold you back in your career – and, increasingly, they are international.”

His call for a more international outlook might be a blunt one, but it is a view with which more and more executive recruiters agree. Hays’ recently published DNA of a Finance Director report found international experience is growing, with nearly 40% of FDs having worked abroad. Moreover, of these, 93% claim it has boosted their career.

Contrast this with the HR function, however, and it would seem that these conversations are not being had. HR’s awareness of the need for an international dimension is simply not as strong.

“The HR community is not doing enough,” says Chloe Watts, head of HR practice at interim management recruiter Alium Partners. “Ironically, HR directors often show very little personal career management. They move from role to role, often without an eye on what it’s doing for their development.

“This lack of international capability will bar people from top roles. HRDs will only get left behind as more businesses become international in their nature. Yes, effort is required to make things happen, but I suspect there is a better calibre of international experience among interim HRDs than those in permanent roles.”

According to a whitepaper by Korn/Ferry, international experience will be one of six key requirements for HRDs in the future, but Watts insists that failure to acquire such experience is largely “self-imposed”.

Is she right? “While we haven’t done the same research with HRDs as we did with FDs, my gut feeling is that the most ambitious HRDs do realise international is a box they need to tick,” argues Barney Ely, director of Hays Human Resources. He says more HRDs are enquiring about experience in Dubai and Asia, for example.

However, some take a different view – that the lack of international experience reflects a problem with the discipline itself, and it is one that is often out of an HRD’s control. “I don’t think we’re seeing a lack of ambition among HRDs, but almost a lack of opportunity,” says Anna Penfold, senior client partner at Korn/Ferry. “The recession has knocked a lot of HRDs’ careers sideways. For those wishing to develop internationally, there just hasn’t been the opportunity to relocate or travel.”

Even worse, HR has a structural disadvantage, says Anna Marie Detert, a director and talent proposition lead at KPMG. “We still see multinational organisations that prefer to operate with country HR heads,” she says. “Under these circumstances, it’s very difficult for an HRD to put their head above the parapet. HRDs who want more regional expertise are having their efforts curtailed. Aspiration can’t cut through the company structure.”

If you really want overseas work, both Detert and Penfold say the best answer is to take a sideways move and gain the experience needed to then prop up your CV domestically. But commentators accept that ambition – particularly in HR – still gets you only so far.

“FDs might want the international angle because it gets them the CEO job,” says Penfold. “In finance, 10% more skillset buys you 50% more opportunity, but it just isn’t the same for HR – all it will do is get you a better HR job. So, in this respect, I can understand why the same verve for international exposure among HRDs just isn’t there.”

Are the odds so stacked against HR being truly international? Dona-Mirelle Battat, executive director at Digby Morgan, says those HRDs who do show international desire typically share another quality – and it’s not necessarily related to career progression. “These are people who are just hungry to see and experience new things,” she says, adding that, by doing so, they happen to get the sort of top job abroad “that they wouldn’t have got being number two in the HR function at home”.

Inquisitiveness is certainly an attribute shared by HRDs who have gained international experience. “For me, it was about seizing an opportunity,” explains Steve Hewitt, HRD at Lumesse. “International experience is something you have to want, because it’s interesting and gives you a new perspective on life, and not just because you think it’s a smart move for the future. I was mainly driven by curiosity. I think most people in HR want to look at new things.”

Peta Fry, HRD at accountancy firm Monahans, agrees: “One of my first roles was with an American bio-tech organisation, and I simply wanted to experience how business worked because, at the time, HR wasn’t seen as a business discipline. Yes, few HRDs become CEO, but I did it because I thought that HR was in a privileged position, and that it did at least have exposure to all areas of the business.”

Perhaps because international experience often coincides with taking a strategic role, which comes with general experience (and therefore age), it is being missed out on by those with families who do not want to either uproot or be apart. However, some argue that nowadays it is possible to have an international remit while barely leaving head office, so maybe the definition of ‘international’ itself needs changing.

“A head of HR role for the UK and Nordics is generally regarded as an international one, but that person might only have a dotted line to the team on the ground – it’s more virtual management,” says Penfold. She adds that with individual countries clamping down on foreign workers, physical resettlement is getting harder.

“There’s a two-fold benefit to having international experience,” says Battat. “Sometimes it’s not actually about being abroad at all – it’s more that HRDs can show they can do a bigger job. Having international credentials shows something more about a person – that they are someone who has broadened their horizons, taken a risk, stretched themselves.”

There is also the benefit gained from working in different cultures, she adds. “You need different skills in different places. Doing the ‘global-local’ piece is still relevant. HR won’t get anywhere until it has been everywhere.”

Sam Everatt, executive director at employment law group Ius Laboris, says the cultural benefits of working abroad cannot be taken for granted. “There is resistance among HRDs to take on international roles because there is a perception that the world is getting smaller, and that HR law is becoming far more consistent and standardised across territories,” he says. “However, differences between countries are only getting wider. Many companies are becoming much more local in their outlook.”

Everatt believes exposure to international differences could be improved if bodies such as the CIPD incorporated more of the international angle into their professional development study material. Ius Laboris recently partnered with the Vlerick Business School, Grenoble School of Management and ESCP Europe – three leading European business schools – to create a certified Global Reward Management Programme. From this year, HR executives will be able to learn how to maximise the strategic impact of their companies’ reward policies in a global context.

For Prithvi Shergill, chief HR officer at global IT services company HCL Technologies, based in Delhi, the cultural aspect is something HRDs dismiss at their peril. “Cross-cultural competence is fast becoming mission-critical,” he argues.

“I’ve spent half my career in four different territories outside India, and it’s really helped me understand workforce dynamics. Much as you’d like to, you can’t approach everything in the same way. I’ve always moved to where I thought I could learn something. I went to America earlier in my career because that’s where I thought HR was evolving fastest; then I did the same in the Philippines.

"My advice to other HRDs is that they shouldn’t seek international experience for the sake of it, but seek opportunities where they can be critical in their organisation. Then, it may well be that this takes you to other regions.”

The question is whether HR professionals will take this advice and catch up with their peers in the finance department. For some, there is hope.

“What we see happening on the finance side tends to be replicated 10 years down the line in the HR profession,” says Carey Olsen’s HR director Simon Nash, who is based in Jersey and looks after the offshore law firm’s staff in the Cayman Islands, Guernsey and three other jurisdictions.

“Working through different sets of employment law gives you a profound understanding of cross-country differences, and it shows you can do a ‘big job’,” he adds. “You have to keep abreast of cultures. I would encourage anyone in HR to be international.”