· 11 min read · Features

HR directors: What makes an HR leader?


In a bid to discover what defines leadership in HR, we asked leading HR directors to complete the Profiles XT psychometric survey. The results are highly revealing, writes Sian Harrington.

Strategic in outlook, self-assured, keen to set the agenda, highly numerate and with an unusually high ability to make quick, well-considered decisions: these are qualities you would expect to see in any captain of industry. But this is not a description of Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Terry Leahy. Instead it is the profile of an HR leader and it shows the gap is narrowing between top HR directors and chief executives.

In fact, the psychometric profile created from an extensive survey of members of HR's Leaders Club could easily have been that of a CEO, says Martin Goodwill, MD of Profiles International which conducted the research for HR. "If we didn't know it was a profile of HR directors, we might have convinced ourselves that we were looking at a group of CEOs," he comments.

Leadership is top of the business agenda - and never more so than in a tough economic climate. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers' (PwC) 11th annual CEO survey, the ability to lead and develop others is in short supply. Meanwhile, the Chartered Management Institute predicts a leadership vacuum with many organisations failing to develop the next generation of senior executives.

The vast majority of CEOs surveyed by PwC say the people agenda is one of their top priorities (89%) while eight in 10 also think their leadership team can direct change initiatives. Rupert Stadler, chairman of the board of management at Audi, says: "When you talk about a credit crisis - or any other crisis for that matter - the common factor is people. It always has to do with the actions and judgments of people."

The bad news for HR is that only 43% of CEOs believe their HR functions possess the right qualities to motivate and develop people effectively. Says PwC: "This suggests that many HR organisations need to align themselves more closely with their companies' strategic direction in order to increase the value they provide."

Leading HR directors, such as those in our Most Influential list (p27-32), are already doing this so we decided to discover what it is about these people that marks them out as leaders. HR asked 20 members of its HR Leaders Club to confidentially fill in the Profiles XT assessment and then Profiles International analysed what it found.

According to the results, the members of our group will always have been strategic and will have needed to suppress some of their strategic instincts to 'fit in' at that lower level until they got the chance to shine. More junior HR roles tend towards the need for compliance. HR leaders will have recognised this as an essential part of their role and acted accordingly but must, at times, have been frustrated at the lack of opportunity to think and act outside the box.

The CEO and senior directors should find HR leaders easy to work with, says Goodwill. They are assets to their organisations, provided those organisations capitalise on their talents and use them strategically, not as traffic police.

Marianne Huggett, associate director at The Work Foundation, says: "In a sense, the key attributes of an HR leader come across as a list of what you might want in a normal, well-rounded human being. Some may see the people orientation as a barrier; increasingly, though, the argument is stronger the other way. The future is all about the marshalling of intangible assets, skills, knowledge and communication - the areas HR people should excel at."


- Verbal and numerical skills

The first analysis looked at how HR leaders process information and communicate in day-to-day situations. Unsurprisingly the benchmark on this scale ran from high average to well above average - showing that these are people who can process large volumes of verbal and numerical information fast and impart such information quickly and efficiently.

Of particular note were the verbal scales. The Verbal Reasoning scale measures the degree to which a person makes sense of situations, 'reads between the lines' and squeezes the most subtle nuances of meaning from enormous amounts of information. All our HR leaders scored 8-10, indicating exceptional verbal reasoning.

They were also all at the higher end of the Verbal Ability scale, which measures the ability to communicate effectively in a variety of settings and to assimilate complex instructions easily.

But is not just verbal dexterity that marks out an HR leader. They are highly numerate, with the majority showing a great ability to quickly analyse and make sense of numerical information.

- Personality and behaviour

When it comes to personality and behaviour, there are a number of important scales in the Profiles XT assessment. Its energy level measures restlessness, drive, and deals with time utilisation and efficiency. Those who score 8-10 favour extremely fast-moving situations, like to be under deadline pressure and are happy to deal with multiple tasks. They like novelty and new situations and are unafraid of taking a risk. Utterly impatient, they want everything right now, and will find it difficult to appreciate people who have any other perspective. Their openness to taking on many more tasks than the majority of people around them can make them poor finishers (there's simply not enough time), and can mean that they have difficulty with efficient use and management of time.

At the other end of the scale is a quite different behaviour - being patient and methodical. These people prefer to work on one task at a time, finishing it well before moving on to the next. To their colleagues at the other end of the scale, they can appear to be excessively laid back; while the high-energy people appear to them as haphazard, scatty, disorganised, and a little 'all over the place'.

The profile for our top HR people is almost straight down the middle, tipping just slightly into the above average level. These are people who deliver a very positive combination of high and low energy - they have a sufficient sense of urgency to work on multiple tasks and get things done at a good pace - but have enough balance to be able to finish what they do. They can work effectively with people at either end of this scale, which makes them extremely effective in such a people-centric role.

Our top performers were also down the centre of the assertiveness scale. High scorers speak their minds openly, take control and lead in all situations, like to have the last word and may be seen by lower scorers as 'pushy'. Those at the low end feel no need to be in charge, are tactful and diplomatic and feel no need to have the last word.

None of our HR superstars scored any higher than 7 on this scale - with most scores slap bang in the middle.

"It is easy to see how such a balanced assertiveness level is a positive boon to someone in a position where they will meet all kinds of personalities in the course of a day," says Goodwill. "They are assertive enough to take control and drive their points home when there is a need to do so. They are the leaders of their groups, but these people can nonetheless take a step back and allow those with a more assertive nature to be themselves without feeling even slightly threatened by such behaviour. They are true chameleons when it comes to assertiveness."

Optimism is also a defining characteristic of the HR leader. Even the very lowest score in this group was inside the average range - with the majority of participants much more optimistic than average. This mirrors recent surveys of CEOs. Research by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) found 80% of business leaders were optimistic about their business prospects, but also identified a positive outlook from their management teams as one of the top three characteristics they needed to get through the current tough climate. Penny de Valk, chief executive of ILM, says: "The CEOs we spoke to highlight how important it is for managers to have a leadership mindset and the findings emphasise the need to continue focusing on leadership and management development, even in a downturn, when budgets are tight."

Meanwhile, the PwC CEO survey shows CEOs who are 'very confident' about the potential for short-term growth display traits often associated with success: namely, adaptability, willingness to collaborate and faith in people. Some 67% of those CEOs who were 'very confident' about the short- term outlook were also 'very confident' about the prospects for growth in the next three years. These CEOs draw the best out of people by devoting a greater proportion of their time to endorsing their senior management and human resources organisations.

However, when it comes to HR's sociability the scales tip the other way. People high on sociability crave the company of others and will not be happy working for protracted periods without a 'fix' of people contact. Their low sociability colleagues meanwhile are happy to work for long periods devoid of company. While the high scorers will be chatty and have lots of 'small talk' at their disposal, the lower scorers tend to prefer to skip the small talk and get straight to business.

There were one or two highly sociable people in this group but most tended to be average or lower than average in sociability. "This may seem counter-intuitive to those who do not understand the workings of HR," says Goodwill, "but there is no doubt that this more reserved style, where the majority of these executives have no great need to be 'best buddies' with their co-workers, could be a real asset in situations where they need to deal with the more difficult situations that characterise the HR function."

- Independence and decisiveness

Another measure in the test is independence. The left hand side of this scale measures a preference for established structure, a desire to be strongly managed, a cautious approach and a desire to have support close at hand - all of which our group was not. HR leaders are self-assured, opinionated people with clear ideas on how things should be done and have an attitude that others should get out of their way and let them get on with it. They prefer to set the agenda for themselves, to set the direction of their departments. They hate to be micro-managed and are slow to follow others, preferring instead to lead.

Overall our group also tended to display an intuitive judgement, but when you look behind the numbers you find scores distributed all the way from 1 to 9. "What is clear is that different people will bring their different judgment strengths to their workplaces - with some excelling because they have an ability to use their gut feelings, and other succeeding specifically because they have no such ability," says Goodwill. "Indeed, how this group makes their decisions seems not to be as important as the fact that they make them in a timely manner - as indicated by the profile for decisiveness."

Carefully analysing every decision, and collecting as much information as possible before making the decision, is the approach that those who score at the 1-3 end of this scale find most comfortable. Their approach reduces risk but also dramatically slows down the decision-making process - and by some standards may render them 'indecisive'.

The profile for decisiveness with our group is quite different to this, running from the centre of the scale into the 8-10 range. This suggests that they make considered but quick decisions.

- What motivates them?

HR leaders are suited to fast-moving, information-rich environments where they have to apply their cognitive faculties to analyse fast-changing environments and chart a course for their teams and organisations. However, another thing that tends to define those who are conspicuously successful is that they tend to be doing work they enjoy. There were no surprises in what the Profile XT uncovered as the greatest motivator for our HR leaders - they like to help people. The People Service theme came out as the top shared interest of the group. Nothing made them happier than helping people be all that they can be.

The Creative scale came in second. In seeking to help people, our HR leaders are most motivated by an environment in which they are allowed to exercise their creativity in coming up with new ways of serving both their employees and their organisation.

- What turns them off?

The Technical and Mechanical scales show HR leaders have no need to know how things work, and take advantage of technology without the need to know what goes on 'under the bonnet'.

The Financial/Administration scale suggests they also have significantly less interest in the financial workings of the organisation that they do in the people aspects. However, all HR professionals will have to assimilate a new level of financial fluency to ensure that the massive contributions they will be required to make to their organisations over the next few years are presented to the board in a language they understand.

Says Work Foundation's Huggett: "While their strategic outlook is a clear strength, strategy, reduced to its bare bones, is about the decisions you make about the future, which requires profound knowledge of the internal mechanics of organisations. HRDs do not seem to be the types to take a detailed interest in what is going on under the bonnet nor its financial structures. This could count against them.

"It may simply come across as not understanding the business or the financial model underpinning it and if they oversee organisational development then change may not be sufficiently connected to the reality at the front line. Not needing to know how things work may also make them susceptible to the latest fad - 'empowerment' and, dare we say, 'engagement'."

It is clear HR leaders display the range of characteristics that enable them to take their place at the right hand side of the CEO. So what is stopping them becoming CEOs themselves? Partly the very role of HR director appears to be a hindrance - the jump from this position to chief executive is not typical. But, says Goodwill, if any of our group of leaders aspires to the CEO role "they have the core personality traits and cognitive abilities to succeed".

If the future is about intangible assets then HR should rightfully be able to demonstrate its entitlement to be at the top table. But to get there it needs to work harder on detailed financial understanding. Our profile finds HR leaders to be innovative and creative but, as Huggett says: "It may help HR directors capitalise on these strengths if they can supplement them with analytical and evidential capabilities: a greater stress on the evidence base around people management and human resources may help them exert influence and get ahead."

And as she points out: "The links and sense of fit between personality, organisation and job role are very complex. It takes all sorts to make it in HR, just as it does for those in managing director or chief executive positions."

For details of methodology and to see how you can get a free test to benchmark yourself against our leaders, please go to www.hrmagazine.co.uk

What makes an HR superstar?

- Strategic in outlook, the leader has managed to survive and prosper in the early years of a career that required him/her to be involved in routine tactical issues, more related to compliance than strategy

- Self-assured and assertive, keen to set the agenda and to lead, but not obsessed with the need to take control of every situation

- High level of verbal skills; able to communicate effectively and to assimilate complex instructions easily

- Highly numerate; able to quickly analyse and interpret numerical information

- Well-balanced in terms of energy; possessing sufficient sense of urgency to work at a good pace but with enough patience to complete tasks thoroughly

- A workplace 'chameleon'; able to work effectively with diverse groups of colleagues

- Optimistic, with a confident expectation of resolving situations satisfactorily

- Reserved in terms of sociability, able to maintain a professional distance where necessary

- Unusually high ability to make quick, yet well-considered, decisions

- Motivated by the need to help people rather than by financial performance

- Keen to be innovative and creative in working methods


"OK, maybe not... but by comparing Human Resources editor Sian Harrington with our HR leaders we can see she has much of what it takes to do the job.

An 85% overall match against the profile created by our pioneers suggests that when Haymarket appointed her, it knew what it was doing. She'll certainly be able to empathise with HRDs from across the industry sectors.

Sian failed to meet the profile in only three areas. First, she is more sociable than our group of guinea pigs. Second, she is even more likely to be a team player than the top HRDs. Finally, she is just a little less resourceful, although she will not have problems making decisions on her own.

So, is the Profile XT saying that Sian should be applying for HR jobs? Sadly not, but it is saying she has all of the core traits to be successful in the role, and would be successful if she had the hard skills to support her. The Profile XT is only ever part of the equation, giving a very accurate prediction of how successful someone will be provided they present themselves in the right way today and the have the past experience to support their underlying traits.

As it is, Sian will just have to settle for interviewing them and wondering what might have been if only she'd got a proper job."

Martin Goodwill, MD Profiles International