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How do you get to the top in HR?

Our research into HR careers has revealed numerous twists, turns and hurdles. So what do you need to succeed?

Have you been a generalist and a specialist (preferably in reward)? Have you worked internationally and spent time working in business outside of HR? Do you focus on your personal development, having completed an MBA? If you answered yes to all of these questions then congratulations: you might just come close to being the perfect HR director.

HR magazine’s recent career survey set out to explore what key experiences have got HRDs to where they are today, and to look a few levels down at the HRDs of tomorrow. We also wanted to explore the skills shortages many of you have told us you’re experiencing. Almost 500 HR professionals took part, and you’ll find the illuminating results over the following pages. But (as all good pieces of research do) it throws up as many questions as it answers about how the HR profession is evolving and even whether we can – and should – consider it a profession at all.

Getting to the top in HR

But before we get into an existential crisis let’s explore what a HR career path looks like. For starters it tends to be varied, but there are some common themes. Those who have reached HR director level are most likely to have been HR generalists, but many have also spent time developing deep knowledge in a few specialist areas. Recruitment, L&D and OD are the most common specialist areas. There is also an acknowledgement that comp and bens can be particularly useful in helping HRDs to hone their numerical skills, in preparation for gaining credibility at board and exec level further down the line.

Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth, HR director at the BBC, credits an early mentor who told her “that if I wanted to be a successful HR director I wouldn’t get there by just doing generalist roles and that I needed to have two or three in-depth specialisms”. “I wasn’t totally convinced at the time,” she admits, “but he was absolutely right”.

Hughes-D’Aeth spent time specialising in recruitment, comp and bens and running shared services. “Without these and other specialisms I don’t think I would have the confidence or credibility needed in the boardroom,” she adds.

However, Karen Beaven, HR director at River Island, has only ever worked in generalist roles, and doesn’t feel it has ever held her back. “As an HRD it’s important to understand each of the areas you look after and that this doesn’t necessarily mean it just has to be surface knowledge. I think sometimes people underestimate the depth of knowledge ‘generalists’ actually have in each HR discipline,” she says.

Half (50%) of the HRDs who took part in our survey have worked internationally. As a general rule the larger the role, the more likely someone is to have international experience. According to a 2013 Korn Ferry report, gaining international experience is critical for ambitious HR professionals in multinational firms. “Early exposure to the challenges and complexities of working in a different culture is excellent preparation for the sensitivities required when managing a diverse multinational workforce,” it states.

Breadth of experience is also important, with 72% of our HRD respondents working outside HR at some point in their careers (mostly in operations and a surprisingly high number in finance). Those who have done so feel it gives them a recognition of the business-critical issues faced by managers, and helps get past the ‘HR doesn’t understand the business’ criticisms.

“I started my career in operations and sales – having an ability to sell is the biggest thing that’s got me forward in HR because we are selling ideas,” says Andy Stephenson, group HR director of FTSE 250 car dealership Lookers. “I see far too many things being imposed on operators by HR. We have all these career HR people who haven’t been out in the business.”

“It’s crucial to get experience outside of HR,” agrees SSE HR director John Stewart, who has held senior roles in other functions. “It helps ground you; makes you realise that HR isn’t always the centre of the universe and allows you to get into the mindset of a busy line manager or commercial leader. Being able to get into others’ shoes makes you more relevant and rounded.”

However, taking that wider business-focused view doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work outside HR, believes retirement housing builder McCarthy and Stone’s HR director Paula Jordan – it’s more of a mindset issue. “I’ve always been in HR, but I’ve always tried to get as close to the business as possible. Some people are a bit shy of it,” she says.

Continued professional development is another common trait, with 70% of HRDs completing some form of further study. Of these, 11% hold an MBA (something HRDs on our HR Most Influential lists tend to have in common) and 35% have a Masters degree in strategic HRM or similar. However, that still leaves 30% who have got to senior level without completing any further study beyond becoming CIPD qualified – and 26% are not CIPD qualified in the first place. Does this suggest a lack of commitment to CPD among some in the profession? The saying ‘the cobbler’s children have no shoes’ comes to mind.

Looking at the pipeline

But what about the next level down? How do up-and-coming HR professionals feel about their futures? They aren’t short of ambition: 57% of respondents below HRD level aspire to get there one day. But our data suggests a potential mismatch of what more junior HR professionals believe it means to succeed in HR, and what HRDs are looking for in their teams.

It’s perhaps no surprise given the prevalence of the Ulrich model that most junior HR professionals have only ever worked as generalists (61%). And despite comp and bens being the specialist area most HR directors say they are struggling to find skills in, only 36% of more junior HR professionals who have specialised have worked in this area. Recruitment, employee relations, talent and L&D were much more popular. Jacqueline Davies, HR director of the FCA and master of the HR Guild, sums up the issue succinctly: “Right now you get generalists who are too generalist and specialists who are removed from new thinking.”

Just under half (48%) have worked outside of HR, but 28% say they never have and never will, which could present a potential problem for HRDs looking for diversity of perspective, business understanding and breadth of experience. However, encouragingly critical thinking and commercial nous are seen as crucial skills for progressing in HR by more junior professionals.

On skills shortages, 44% of HRDs said they found it hard or very hard to find talent for their HR teams, which reflects the findings from HR magazine’s Future of HR report with DAC Beachcroft earlier this year, in which 39% said a lack of HR capability was holding their function back from adding value to their organisation. General areas where HRDs are struggling to find the skills they need include general commercial nous, analytical skills and digital skills, with comp and bens the most challenging technical area.

This lack of reward talent is down to a perception issue, says Deborah Rees, director of reward at Innecto Reward Consulting. “Reward is seen less as a ‘people job’ and more of a ‘spreadsheet’ job,” she says. “We need to change that because the reality is reward is all about people. It’s about what motivates and engages them in the business – but what is really interesting is how strategic it is.”

Stephen Moir, chief people officer at NHS England and head of profession in the NHS, says what he struggles to find among the HR talent base is “analytical capability and people who can build and use an evidence base”. “It’s not about having lots of metrics, but connecting that to business outcomes,” he adds. “HR people shy away from numbers, so I’ve transplanted some analysts into the HR team. They bring a different perspective.”

Ronnie Clawson, group corporate services director at social housing provider Riverside, echoes the issues many have in finding business partners who can operate at a high enough level. “We end up bringing people in with technical knowledge who have had a career in HR, are CIPD qualified, but can’t operate as effective business partners,” he says. “There’s a tendency for HRBPs to work at a very operational level – almost as glorified case workers. They are more comfortable with that than bringing clear, strategic insight.”

Plugging the gap

The HR directors we surveyed had myriad suggestions for improving the quality of the HR talent pool. But where does responsibility lie for doing so? Stephenson believes many HR leaders may not be practising what they preach when it comes to talent development in their own teams. “It’s down to us as leaders to build pipelines of people,” he says. “I move [HR] people out into the business, even if that means we lose them for six months. [Moving people and career planning] is what we encourage the business to do so how open are we to it?”

Stewart agrees HR can often be the “poor relation” when it comes to development. But this is counterproductive. “For HR to be credible you have to be seen to take your own medicine,” he says. “Development and effectiveness has to start at home. Would you go to a dentist who has bad teeth?” In other words, why should the business trust HR to train people if its own team’s development is being neglected?

Then there’s the thorny issue of HR qualifications. In both groups surveyed roughly a quarter of respondents were not CIPD qualified, with a feeling among more senior people that while useful at the start of a career the professional body doesn’t add enough value at senior levels. Moir, who used to sit on the CIPD board, feels that CIPD qualifications do not adequately reflect the role of HR today, with many survey respondents also questioning why the CIPD doesn’t connect learning more to business. “The CIPD curriculum is too focused on technical knowledge, with not enough on behaviour and skills,” says Moir, who also thinks there is a lack of numerical and analytical training available for HR professionals more generally.

Probably echoing the thoughts of many HRDs, Mandy Coalter, people director at United Learning, believes the CIPD needs to be “more rigorous and have a higher barrier to entry”. “It should be involving HRDs in delivering programmes,” she adds. “It needs to improve or risks becoming irrelevant.”

“We’ve got work to do as a professional body to get the right balance between knowledge and skills in accreditation,” acknowledges CIPD director of people and strategy Laura Harrison, adding that the CIPD is currently working on developing its ‘Profession for the future’ programme. “We are working on strengthening our analytics muscle,” she says. “At heart we are trying to help the profession shift from being rules- and policy-based to being principles-based.”

But she also turns the lens back onto HR directors, calling on them to become more involved with their professional body: “I would encourage any senior HRD to reflect on the difference between being a functional leader and being a professional. Professionalising the HR function isn’t about sending people on a business acumen course, it’s about the long-term sustainability of your business. Don’t moan about the talent gap if you aren’t prepared to be brave and lead by example. You might be part of the problem.”

Regardless of whether re-engineering CIPD qualifications to better encompass the business-focused and behavioural skills HR professionals need will help plug the talent gap, many HRDs are looking outside the function for people. Moir is hiring analysts, while Davies is looking at marketing and professional services. “We should be more welcoming to candidates who have a strong functional background in others areas and who can bring new skills and insight to help reinvigorate HR,” believes Beaven.

Stephenson is passionate about “recruiting for attitude and training for skill” within his own function, another area where he feels “HR doesn’t always practise what it preaches”. Clawson looks to the line and sees value in “cross fertilisation” of skills across the organisation. “I’ve seen organisations that say you have to be CIPD qualified even for the most junior roles, and the technical requirement is put above all else, but if you’ve got the right aptitude and attitude you can train the rest,” he says.

There’s also a piece around better marketing what working in HR can offer, feels Coalter. “HR still isn’t a career of choice; like most people I ‘fell’ into HR,” she says. “That’s still often the case, or the people who are choosing it are doing so for the wrong reasons, because they ‘like people’ or think it’s ‘nice and cuddly’. It doesn’t attract business-minded and ambitious people. There’s so much more we can do to market the profession in a different way.”

Is the HRD an HR person?

This trend of looking for people with more rounded business experience and bringing them into HR is replicated at senior levels. As editor of HR magazine I often meet with CEOs who say that because HR is so important to them they brought in someone from outside (often a skilled people manager with no technical HR experience) to run it. To quote Jonathan Trevor, associate professor of management practice at Oxford Saïd Business School: “It speaks to the trend that HR is too important to be left to HR.”

Trevor, who lectures in people and organisational effectiveness, has witnessed a counterintuitive trend in the type of people electing to do courses in strategic HRM. What he sees is a decline in people “actually wanting a career in HR”, while the interest in HR from general business leaders is increasing.

“The people requirement of businesses has never been greater, but the people function has never been weaker,” he believes. “That’s the paradox at the heart of HR.” Echoing Coalter, he adds: “Ambitious people can’t afford to work in HR. The number of times I’ve heard: ‘I’d love to work in HR but…’” (However, there could be an argument here that, as getting to the top in HR might be easier than in other functions, ambitious people should head directly for HR.)

Overall, Trevor believes as the technical aspects of HR are outsourced or automated “the idea of needing to come through a specialism is being eroded”. “It’s rare to find someone who has spent their entire career in HR,” he adds.

However, as Andy Newall, group HR director at Imperial Brands points out, this is a “two-way street”. “I’ve worked with people who have been parachuted from other functions into the top HR job,” he says. “They get lost and don’t know how to take the function forward. Unless you have some technical knowledge you can’t challenge; you’re just a gifted amateur.”

Beaven agrees that while getting HRDs from outside HR could bring valuable commercial insight and fresh passion, the new appointment would have to “commit to learning about their new function to get the most from the role and to effectively support their team and the business”. She adds that she would welcome the chance as an HR director to “exchange roles” with another functional director for a period.

Frank Douglas, CEO of Caerus Executive and former HRD of TfL, questions whether letting people without HR experience run HR “undermines the concept of HR as a profession”. “It has the unintended consequence of saying ‘anyone can do HR’,” he says. “It is a question to be debated.”

And it’s a question that’s likely to be debated with increasing regularity. According to Anna Penfold, a consultant at executive search firm Russell Reynolds, the data shows more HR directors than ever don’t come from a classic HR background. While she welcomes the diversity of thought this brings to HR (some of the HRDs we spoke to expressed concern over the lack of diversity in their teams), it also reflects the shortage of commercial insight and analytical thinking among some in HR. “Diversity of thought is always a good thing,” she says. “We should embrace businesses being more creative around the people function, but it also casts a light on the fact [HR] needs to up [its] game.”

Beaven agrees: “This [CEOs hiring HRDs from outside HR] is another indicator that certain skills are lacking in our current HR qualification framework and accreditation process.”

Coalter feels the HRD position is a fragile one. “The job is only as good as I am in the role,” she explains. “You have to be twice as good to be a board-level HRD. I’ve seen many a rubbish FD clinging onto their seats, and if the CEO gets rid of the FD they never reassess whether finance should be a board-level position like they would with HR. This is a fragile role, but that’s a good thing as it makes you more outcome- and business-focused.”

Is HR a profession?

According to statistics on employment by occupation from the Office for National Statistics, the number of people working in HR is rising (484,000 in 2016 compared to 414,000 in 2013). Compare that to the CIPD’s membership level of 140,000 (and remember this is worldwide now the CIPD has widened its focus to Singapore and the Middle East), and it appears that while there are more people working in HR, they might not be qualified.

Does this undermine the very concept of HR as a profession, as Douglas suggests? And even if it does, does that matter?

Coalter feels this is the wrong question, and could lead to naval gazing. “HR should be a professional job and be of sufficient added value that it can do things others can’t,” she says. But Moir would like to see more done in the area of professional standards. “Professionalism means not only being accredited and having a standard of knowledge, but the behaviours you apply in practice,” he says. “I’d like to see HR almost having a licence to practice, like a doctor. We should have a profession that occupies that space.” He would also like to see recertification of skills, something Harrison says the CIPD is “yet to resolve [its] position on”.

“The challenge is the technical aspects of HR aren’t that well-recognised outside of HR, so it’s difficult to highlight that degree of expertise and why it should be recognised,” feels Clawson.

Stephenson believes that HR has “a choice to make”. “We talk about wanting to be treated like finance, so it should be that you can’t do this job without having a qualification,” he says. “We bang on about professionalism, but then make it easier and easier to get the qualification. The CIPD should be leading the charge and lobbying that you shouldn’t be able to be a senior HRD without being qualified. Done well, HR can be a profession, but it’s not there yet.”

Representing the CIPD, Harrison feels “HR can be a function or it can be a profession”.

“Being a function means you are doing technical delivery,” she says. “An HR person can be professional and work professionally if: you have a threshold level of knowledge, you are working to engage in the idea of professional identity beyond self-interest, you are committed to ongoing learning, involved with the professional body, and you subscribe to a code of conduct and ethical frameworks.

“Professionalism happens when you see the risks associated with something going wrong, and the opportunities that come with getting it right,” she adds. And when put in the context of recent corporate scandals and cases like Mid Staffordshire, the risks and opportunities of HR become all too obvious.

What is clear is that the concept of the HR profession is evolving. As more is outsourced and automated the value-added HR shifts to areas like organisational development, organisational effectiveness, and the need for someone to take a whole systems view of how the business operates and is resourced. HR needs to continue to hold the mirror up to its organisations, but perhaps it also needs to turn the mirror on itself. And that’s not about debating whether it has a seat at the table, but about critically assessing the skills it has and how it is developing those further down. As Moir says: “We [HR] are not very good at role modelling. There’s historic underinvestment in HR but it deserves the same L&D as any other group.”

But what’s also obvious is that many of you who answered our survey clearly feel that to work in HR is to have the best job in the organisation. So let’s shout about it, and ensure we get the kind of people choosing to come into HR at all levels who can continue to drive businesses forward through the strategic value of people.