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Becoming a top HR performer

CEB (now Gartner) analysed the careers of more than 600 HR professionals and focused on the 30% who are the most successful

The role and responsibilities of HR professionals mean they spend a lot of time observing and managing the careers of others. HRDs spend much less time examining their own careers.

To answer the question of what successful HR professionals do to get to where they are we analysed the careers of more than 600 HR professionals, and focused on the 30% who are the most successful. This included those who are both highly-rated on their performance reviews and are influential in shaping decisions with stakeholders. Their success is emphasised by the fact that they get to the next level in their careers 2.6 years faster than their peers.

Here are some of the actions HR professionals can take to become top performers:

Be a creative problem-solver

Successful HR professionals are experts at tackling complex challenges, where the solution involves understanding not just the problem at hand but also its impact on the broader environment. Interestingly, those who are most successful may not have spent the entirety of their career in HR. Compared with the average HR professional they are more likely to have worked in different business units (16%), functions (9%), and geographies (8%). This means that they can draw on their diverse experiences to resolve organisational issues.

HR professionals need to think critically to solve problems creatively. Critical thinking is an increasingly important skill given the scope of HR challenges today, as well as the rising importance of big data in talent management. Those who are successful in HR are twice as likely to have research experience – they are more likely to ask why rather than dismiss a piece of information if it doesn’t align with what they know. Good researchers form hypotheses and test them with a healthy respect for both intuition and numbers. The top HR professionals do the same.

Hone your influencing skills

HR professionals must be able to work with stakeholders and secure their buy-in. The best HR professionals are far more likely than their peers (28% vs. 15%) to acquire this kind of influence through consulting roles that require them to be persuasive, manage personalities, and build consensus. Many also draw on their experience presenting at conferences (51%) and even teaching university-level courses (15%) to better communicate technical ideas to a non-expert audience.

Follow a purpose-driven path

There is no single path to HR success. Rather it is driven by a sense of purpose that intentionally moves HR professionals towards a specific, predefined goal. This is perhaps most evident when it comes to HR certifications. Leading HR employees acquire certifications at the same rate as their peers, but when asked why they decided to become certified they’re 15% more likely to say the certification prepared them for a specific HR position they wanted. Tellingly, they are 24% less likely to say they pursued a certification because it was common in the HR profession. HR workers wishing to get the most out of their career should avoid following the herd, and instead make decisions that align with their specific goals.

The CHRO or HRD can also play an active role in the development of their HR team so the following actions should be considered:

  • Involve HR staff on cross-functional projects that build business acumen and stretch problem-solving skills
  • Bring a junior colleague to a future meeting, or have them own a portion of the discussion, so they can practise influencing stakeholders
  • In future career conversations ask a direct report why they want to take a particular next step, and then help align action items to their short-term goals.

Thomas Handcock is practice leader, HR practice at Gartner