I work every day with experienced HR directors who are genuinely enthused by what they do, and as a result make a real difference to their organisations. Regardless of the scope of responsibilities or geographical remit, the most impressive HRDs appear to have certain qualities in common. Here are some of my personal observations on what makes them stand out:
Positive strategic direction
They recognise that their value rests in providing positive strategic direction for the business, not troubleshooting. To have the time and space to focus on this they set strong foundations. This means instilling a culture aligned with the strategy and values of the business. It is difficult to make meaningful progress if you spend a disproportionate amount of time managing employee relations issues. Grievances, poor performance and disciplinary processes are energy-sapping and can slow the impetus for progressing an organisation’s long-term goals.
Deeper knowledge and commercial awareness
They have a deep knowledge of the business plan, the priorities of the management team, and how the business generates profit. They work closely and collaboratively with senior colleagues across all business functions.
This degree of commercial awareness brings with it an understanding that HR is increasingly viewed as a gatekeeper in managing wider commercial and reputational risk. For example, tackling cybercrime is not seen as the sole responsibility of the IT department. Similarly, social media brings great opportunities for businesses seeking new audiences and markets but reputational risks if it is used inappropriately by employees.
Encouraging others to take responsibility
As part of their overarching strategy, they will demand that managers at all levels have (or acquire) the necessary skills to take responsibility for their own teams. HR directors should not be making disciplinary decisions or stepping into difficult conversations that managers would rather shy away from. They encourage and support good managerial practice, but make it clear that the HR department is not there to hide behind.
Champions of diversity
They are genuine champions of diversity. The best HR directors actively promote a level playing field for those seeking career advancement – regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or disability.
They will engage in initiatives aimed at rooting out hidden talent among those from under-privileged backgrounds, whose determination to overcome social barriers is often a good indicator of future success.
Future world of work
They constantly think about the long-term future of the business. This goes beyond the usual succession planning and involves serious engagement with the future world of work. Rapid advances in technology and increased automation will revolutionise the workplace of tomorrow.
The best talent may be able to adapt, but will need retaining and retraining. Older employees may wish to delay recruitment, reflecting ever-improving standards of health and longevity and ever-decreasing returns on pensions.
At the other end of the career cycle, recruitment processes will need streamlining (perhaps with the aid of HR tech) to cope with increased numbers of highly-qualified candidates emerging from our education system.
The best HRDs are also open-minded about different models of engagement. Future generations may be attracted to a portfolio career rather than devoting themselves to one employer.
Balancing these competing requirements is not an easy task. The pace of change makes long-term personnel planning an imprecise science. The most innovative HR directors will not have all of the answers (and will not try to). However, they will keep the discussion high on the agenda among senior decision-makers.
Dominic Holmes is an employment law partner at international law firm Taylor Vinters