· 11 min read · Features

HR v Marketing

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Forget Noel, Angelina and Brad: let’s hear it for Paul Gallagher, James Jolie and Julie Pitt. Placed beside marketing, HR feels like the less famous sibling. Marketing is sexier, more famous, more creative and definitely more out there.

Marketing is sexier, more famous, more creative and definitely more out there. The paparazzi love it. Various surveys, including our very own HR magazine one, seem to underline the message.

The discipline of marketing is full of people with high energy, great communication skills, high adaptability and proven strategic ability. Their understanding of brand and customer/consumer is innate. Marketers have the ear of the CEO and board - indeed, they have a good chance of being on that board.


HR at the top:

Do boards need people people?

The agile leadership paradox

HR expertise at the very top: Does it matter?


Even Wikipedia rubs it in. Marketing is "the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large".

Human resources, meanwhile, is "the name of the function within an organisation charged with the overall responsibility for implementing strategies and policies relating to the management of individuals".

No wonder, then, that organisations are increasingly looking to marketers to head their HR strategy. The discipline is one of a number identified by global executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles as a career path to the chief HR officer role.

"Instead of turning to career HR practitioners, companies are filling the CHRO role with leaders from functions on the business side, such as operations, marketing or corporate law," the company says in a report, The New Path to the C-Suite, which made cover story of the Harvard Business Review for March 2011.

It's the same old story: HR is still struggling to gain clout in the C-suite, despite widespread acknowledgment that talent is integral to competitiveness.

As the Heidrick study says: "The HR role has long been viewed as largely administrative, except in the most forward-thinking companies and its leaders have mostly been relegated to managing policies and cultural initiatives.

"If companies continue to award top HR jobs to non-HR executives, the CHROs of the future will be more likely to have an understanding of commercial models, as well as experience with change management and finding pragmatic solutions to complex issues."

Sainsbury's customer service and colleague director Gwyn Burr is one head of HR who knows the benefits a background in marketing can bring.

Before taking on her newly created role in July 2010, she was reponsible for marketing, customer service, own-label brand strategy, internal and external communications and store space and design. As head of colleague and customer service, she retains the customer service, PR/corporate communications, CSR and sponsorship roles, now adding the people agenda.

"There is massive synergy," she told HR magazine last year. "I have always said Sainsbury's is an experiential brand that is exclusively delivered through our 155,000 colleagues. It is about how to ensure colleagues are absolutely aligned to the bigger strategic growth plans."

The combination of roles and her marketing background has enabled the retailer to remove traditional silos and better align employees to its growth plans, Burr says. "We are focusing on skill sets, rather than people moving within specialist departments."

A good example of bringing marketing and HR together is Sainsbury's sponsorship of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Sainsbury's is the first ever tier-one sponsor for the games. Burr is linking individual paralympians and their sports to the store estate, ensuring staff as well as customers are actively involved.

According to the company's chief executive Justin King, this has generated the most excitement among employees of any single activity in the past five years. More than 3,000 colleagues applied for the 150 volunteer jobs at the Paralympics.

Similarly, Mags Thomas, HR manager at IT and office equipment supplier Toshiba TEC, does not have a background in marketing, but says the relationship between marketing and HR has to become closer (see box).

"Too few organisations have active policies to build on the intrinsic link between people and brand," she says. "How often does the HR department give serious consideration to competitive differentiation when designing a strategic HR plan?"

So are marketers better placed to take on people strategy in a business? Do they exhibit skills and qualities that make them more suited to representing people on the board than their HR siblings?

HR magazine thought it would find out by repeating an exercise we conducted two years ago into what makes a great HR leader. At the time, we asked 20 members of the HR Leaders Club, our exclusive network of high-level HR directors, to confidentially fill in the Profiles XT assessment. Employee assessment company Profiles International then analysed the results to discover the qualities HR superstars have in common (see box, 'What makes an HR superstar?').

With the help this time of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the UK's international body for marketing and business development, we have repeated the exercise with 20 top marketers. They filled in the same psychometric exercise. Profiles International then analysed the results to discover what marketing directors bring to HR - and where common links between HR and marketing are to be found.

So do the two disciplines live up to their stereotypes? Surprisingly, the profiles for HR directors and marketing directors are remarkably similar. Both take a strategic view. To undertake either profession successfully, one needs to have a high level of learning and information-processing ability. Top people in both are highly skilled in both verbal and numerical communication.

However, while the HR directors tend to have a higher level of ability in verbal reasoning (using words to reason and problem-solve), the marketers have stronger skills in the use of numerical data to visualise trends - a benefit when presenting at board level.

Marketing leaders also tend to be higher on the energy level scale.

"This indicates a greater capacity for multitasking, more of an 'always on' approach, with a faster pace of working," says Martin Goodwill, managing director of Profiles International.

"While they will excel more than our HR group in fast-moving situations that require them to deal with multiple competing priorities, they are likely to be less inclined to finish everything they start to the same extent as the top HR people."

Interestingly, and flying in the face of stereotypes, the marketers are moderately less assertive than the HR people and feel less of a need to be in control or to have the last word.

"This could be particularly useful in ensuring that consensus is reached on key ideas - finding a message that is acceptable to the greatest number of people," says Goodwill.

"The entire population of our sample appeared in exactly the same area of the graph for this attribute, by far the tightest consensus we achieved in this study. There is no doubt that, to be a top marketer, your score needs to be in this segment of the scale."

As one might expect, marketers are a more sociable group who gravitate towards the need for constant social interaction and have an ability to be comfortable in intense social situations. Most of the HR people we surveyed in 2009 tended to have a lower social inclination, which Goodwill puts down to their need to remain detached, to a degree, from the people around them.

The attitude scale in the Profile XT measures stability and poise - the way that an individual looks at the world and the people in it. This ranges from 'optimistic and trusting' to 'suspicious' and, potentially, 'critical' of other people.

The profiles indicate that marketers are less optimistic and trusting than their counterparts in HR, although a small minority of the sample were firmly fixed at the optimistic end of the scale.

Another area where a substantial gap exists is on the accommodating scale, which measures a person's willingness to consider the needs of others in the workplace.

People at the high end of this scale are cooperative, harmonious and likeable. At the other end, someone may appear to be too firm and will not typically 'go along to get along'. In this area, marketers are less likely to be accommodating than HR leaders. So, while marketers are generally more sociable, they are also less worried about upsetting people in the pursuit of their goals.

HR leaders span almost the entire range of scores when it comes to objective judgment, but the pattern hides the fact that many of them are nearer the upper objective, rational, 'just the facts' end of the scale.

However, a good percentage of them are still on the subjective, 'gut feel' end of things.

"It is clear that either style can be made to work - with each having its own particular benefits," explains Goodwill. "The high scorers can cut through the human side of things and more easily make objective, facts-based decisions, while the lower scorers will excel in interpersonal situations where the ability to intuit how another feels is critical."

The spread in the marketing group is not hugely different - although there are fewer in the 8-10 range. These means a tendency to be less fact-orientated and more inclined to use their intuition in decision-making.

So far, the personalities and skills displayed by both HR and marketing leaders are similar, but the big difference comes in the area of motivation.

While HR leaders are highly motivated by the need to serve people, the marketers simply are not. And it is this that may explain the crucial difference between why marketers have the ear of the CEO and board and are stealthily knocking career HR personnel off the people-agenda perch. For marketers are highly motivated by the nuts and bolts of business. They are driven by enterprising and financial themes.

The key drivers for marketers are the need for an environment in which they can creatively express themselves in the solutions they develop. They are motivated by a number of areas of business, from the creating and marketing/selling of concepts through to the focus on the bottom line.

Given similar abilities and largely similar behavioural styles, HR and marketing leaders make it to the top of their respective fields because they are doing what really turns them on, the study suggests. And the conclusion is that business generally motivates marketers more than HR people.

This is obviously an asset when it comes to influencing the top table. HR still needs to shift from an internally focused function to one with the business agenda at its core. While marketing is used to following an outside/in approach, this is taking time to bed into HR.

As Dave Ulrich, professor of business administration at Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, says: "HR from the outside/in is a seismic shift in how HR thinks and acts."

While HR leaders will argue they are already doing this, it appears they are not, on the whole, gaining traction with the board. Indeed, according to a 2009 report by financial services company Deloitte, few departments are equipped to adapt to this strategic role (Shaping Up: Evolving the HR function for the 21st century).

Meanwhile, a study by Mercer has found that while HR may perceive itself as a strategic partner, this is not the case in reality. Its research with 500 HR directors across 40 countries (Mercer's HR Transformation Survey, published January 2011) reveals that only 15% of activies carried out by HR departments are related to pure strategic interventions.

While nearly four in 10 HR directors believe their HR department is a strategic partner and fully participates in strategy decisions, the reality is that the largest proportion (71%) of HR time is spent delivering HR services (27%), compliance/auditing (12%), transactions and record-keeping (18%) and designing HR programmes or systems (14%).

If this is the case, then it is no surprise that the business is looking elsewhere for the strategic people input. But if marketing is one fertile ground, what are the implications for business?

According to Goodwill, what motivates a successful marketing person will not, necessarily, work well for them in an HR context. There is every possibility that they will be bored by a role that doesn't use their creative skills to the full.

The corollary to that, however, is that they might try to be creative in the HR context in an inappropriate way. There are very few rules in marketing. In HR, relatively few things are unregulated.

"This is not to say there is no scope for creativity in the HR function," Goodwill adds. "The top HR leaders in our survey were very strategic and willing to embrace change. However, blue sky thinking without the experience and knowledge to know what is possible (and legal) could be unproductive and potentially risky.

"There is also the possibility that decision-making will be quicker, but less consistent than in the past. Gut-feel has always been a vital characteristic of the marketing high-flier, who might feel slightly uncomfortable when shackled by the need for increased caution in HR."

Certainly, however, many of the qualities needed to become a chief human resource officer today are displayed by marketers.

An examination of various research identifying the characteristics of great HR leaders shows that prerequisites include: mindset, influence and credibility, skills at marketing the discipline to the rest of the organisation, global and inter-company mobility - and curiosity. All of these are to be found in marketers.

Marketers also have one other thing in their favour. While HR is often regarded as a cost centre, marketing is generally seen as a profit centre. Bringing that mindset to the people agenda will be welcomed by CEOs.

The Heidrick & Struggles research found the one consistent element once people reach the C-suite is the fact that technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals. It is clear that HR still needs to work hard in these areas if it is to prevent the march of the marketers.

Viewpoint: Mags Thomas

People are the brand

Look inside many organisations and you will hear two conflicting mantras: 'Our people are our biggest asset' from one group, versus 'Our brand is our biggest asset' from another.

There is usually little doubt about where each of these mantras originates. Marketing people extol the dominance of brand. People are the province of HR. And rarely the twain shall meet.

I, for one, find this puzzling.

As an HR director addressing the HR community, odds will be short on where my sympathies lie, but the bookies would be wrong. Instead, I would like to address this with all the independence I can muster by calling a truce on the competing claims. People or brand? Brand or people? Rather than declaring the equal validity of both, let's look at it from the perspective that people are the brand.

Too few organisations have active policies to build on the intrinsic link between people and brand. Consider how brands are treated internally. Responsibility for developing and 'policing' the brand rests solely with a marketing department which protects it ferociously. After all, they will say, the brand is valuable; a fortune has been spent building it and it can fall apart very quickly. This is the 'biggest asset' argument.

Yet the brand experience is delivered by people and it is this reality that makes it essential that HR teams work closely with their marketing colleagues.

If HR's only involvement is to make sure we hire 'fun' people for a 'fun' brand, or empathetic, patient people for a busy call centre, it's a sad waste. Performance metrics, career development plans and succession planning should all be brand-related; the competitive differentiation of the business depends on it.

Yet how often does the HR department give serious consideration to competitive differentiation when designing a strategic HR plan?

In these complex times, brand differentiation is tremendously difficult - but people policies could play a pivotal role. Toshiba TEC's office equipment business, for example, operates in a hugely commoditised space.

While one could argue that we are differentiated through the quality of our people - and we hire and train people at all levels in line with our brand values - we also recognise that experienced personnel are generally found in competing firms too; after all, that's what makes them experienced people. It is the same in almost all sectors.

Most leading firms have great products, invest in R&D and attempt to deliver great customer service. And as people move about from firms within the industry, even the people are the same. It makes differentiation almost impossible.

Only when HR and marketing work closely together can this conundrum be cracked. Yes, we must hire people who fit the brand and its values. But we must measure and develop them in the right way. It makes no sense to set unrealistic customer visits for a service engineer, for example, if the brand is all about putting in time and effort to solve customers' problems.

It is no use launching an initiative in your TV commercials unless you have not just shared it with employees but also actively worked with them to ensure the brand experience will match the promise. This is more than internal communications - often the limit of marketing and HR cooperation. Instead, success rests on entwining brand and people seamlessly. People are the brand. In the end, the twain must meet.

Mags Thomas is HR manager at Toshiba TEC

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

Source: HR Leaders Club survey, 2009