In executive search we are often asked simple questions that are hard to answer with precision. One is around what HR directors should do to prepare for the top job. The reason providing a simple answer is problematic is that each HR professional has different experiences, strengths and development areas and each role has different challenges; not just from a business perspective but because of the range of personalities HRDs need to engage with.
However, some generic lessons can be derived from talking to past leaders, not just group HR directors but also those chairing main boards. We carried out this exercise recently, interviewing two chairmen –Peter Gershon (National Grid) and Robert Swannell (Marks & Spencer) – as well as four group HR directors – Elaine Arden (RBS), Tom Maddison (Xerox), Mark Taylor (ex-Burberry, now King.com) and Diana Breeze (Land Securities).
Some themes that emerged are hardy perennials. For example, the ability to act as an effective thought partner, not just to the CEO, but also the exco and the main board. Easy to say, hard to do and frequently talked about. Achieving this requires highly developed listening skills, intellect, emotional intelligence and the ability to deal with the tactical while maintaining a perspective of the bigger picture.
Another area that has been discussed for many years is the need to be an effective leader of change. However, the stress has now moved to a new level of proactivity; helping to identify how an organisation can adapt and evolve to expand strategic options. The best Group HR Directors essentially enable the corporation to become fitter, helping it to achieve new benchmarks in performance and the confidence to push its ambitions to a new level.
Some themes are newer, and a result of more recent changes in the world – for example in the democratisation of communication and the move to a vastly different level of connectivity. The top-down cascaded message from leaders may still have a place, but the level of lateral contact through non-official channels means there is a new challenge. This is not just about how to create the right level of connectivity and community, but also how to maintain a human and authentic touch in an avalanche of electronic noise.
The major take-away from our discussions was that the level of volatility and uncertainty continues to increase. Old certainties cannot be relied on and the pace of change is accelerating. In such an uncertain world some will see threat and retrench. Others will spot opportunity and help their organisations to make the most of the evolving landscape.
So what does that mean for the aspiring leader in HR? Perhaps the most important trait to cultivate is curiosity – the ability to be open-minded, to remove blinkers and have the enthusiasm to learn. This is not just learning about new trends or new markets, but also a willingness to continue to grow your own skills and adapt. The outstanding leaders of the future will not just have the intellect to understand the volatility around them, but also the ability to continue to evolve and grow as individuals.
James Martin is head of the global HR practice at Egon Zehnder UK