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Have you got what it takes to be great at HR?


Its difficult to define the perfect HR leader but Adam Leyland succeeds in identifying some distinct types of HR practitioner at work today. Do you recognise yourself?

HR has grown up. It has had to. In the new business world, lumbering giants have been found out and HR has had to adapt, streamline and, above all, smarten up in order to survive and prosper.

Like business itself, of course, the process of change within the HR hegemony is work-in-progress. But while the skills of the HR professional are evolving, its possible to identify some distinct types of HR practitioner at work in HR departments today. So weve devised a test which seeks to define what type of HR leader you are.

But this is also an opportunity to fantasise, an opportunity to define the perfect HR leader. What exactly should we be looking for from the truly exceptional practitioner of this science?

Great HR is a bit like pornography, says one veteran of the HR world. Its hard to define but you know it when you see it. Part of the problem is that we find a certain frivolousness and schizophrenia in some circles about what constitutes a great HR leader. The classical definition is that HR administers the personnel policies, programmes and practices for an enterprise. Its the pay and rations mob. And HR as a function is often still uneasy with the contribution that it makes to the business as a whole. But lets stick our necks out here and say thats now old hat. And here below is our vision of a new world order.

The business partner

In the modern way of thinking, the glorious isolationism of the past is quite simply not acceptable. Great HR leaders must be commercial and pragmatic in their approach to the role, and involved in all aspects of the business in order to be effective and relevant. For this reason, the emphasis today is on HR as a business management role rather than a functional position.

The modern HR leader is a generalist, and many of the skills required are not dissimilar to those of other management domains. Probably for the first time, its widely considered that generic leadership skills now account for a greater percentage of the mix than HR skills, and experience outside the HR function is now considered a highly valuable asset. HR skills can be brought in; leadership is much harder to teach.

So what does it mean to be a business manager? In one sense, its a question of relevance: distilling the people strategies from business imperatives, and creating an organisational culture that enables people to fulfil business needs. As a business partner, the HR professional is required to be more accountable for business-related outcomes instead of simply being happy to administer and facilitate.

Great HR leaders will also relish being centre stage on business strategies. They will drive change management programmes, and if the programme is being managed by a big consultancy, they will be the key point of liaison.

Great HR leaders must be able to articulate and argue their case convincingly to the board on HR issues. But gaining the credibility and the ear of top executives is not easy. One of the keys is the ability to contribute to business strategy in general. This can only come about by understanding the business as a whole, being interested in and involved in its workings, and aware of the industry sector context. In addition, they will prove their usefulness if they demonstrate an understanding of new trends of a more general nature whether IT, consumer, demographic or social and especially if they are then able to extract HR applications from their observations.

Mentor to the top team

As is becoming apparent, the best HR leaders make themselves useful in all sorts of ways. One example is to operate as a form of coach or mentor to the top team: the CEO, chairman, executive committee/board members.

Gaining access to the top team, earning their respect and trust, and establishing the right lines of communication are essential if HR is to establish the foundations for doing the best job possible. This may not mean a seat on the board, although there is little doubt that being on the board is the clearest signal that you have power and status. But it could involve a position on the executive committee, or a close partnership with the chairman or CEO.

One of the most hazardous roles for an HR leader is that of corporate conscience. Nevertheless, a great HR leader should not shy away from standing up to senior managers and executives in the right circumstances. Obviously, first loyalty must lie with the CEO and the company but if HR leaders fail to take account of the needs, interests and motivation of the talent within their organisation, they are negligent of their position and their responsibility. They need to build a sense of equity, figuring out a balance between the needs of an individual and the corporation. That could show up as empathy, or trustworthiness, so people confide in them and know they will be discreet.

Just as theres a moral tightrope, its equally true that every business decision is a balancing act. The best HR leaders will possess the ability to know when to adjust and change things and equally when its best to leave them alone. Among the myriad changes to systems and procedures and practices, a great manager will always be able to identify a small number of critical interventions. In the case of HR professionals, they will be focused on attracting, developing, deploying and rewarding talent.

Again, as with every manager, great HR leaders must be skilled in the gentle art of persuasion. And they must be able to do it with a range of different audiences, whether its in discussions at board level, enrolling the support of other departmental managers in HR initiatives, or inspiring the loyalty and application of their own team. In every leadership role, the most effective players are those whose persuasive skills enable them to lead.

Taking care of the basics

But lets not forget the basics. It almost goes without saying, but a great leader must have the ability to set up and staff an HR function that runs itself, so that the basics are taken care of. Its all very well offering strategic help but not if payroll is screwed up, or the company is being sued by employees. Equally, while certain technical skills can be brought in or outsourced, the best modern HR leader must have up-to-date and detailed knowledge of all aspects of HR, both tactical and strategic for example, law, IT, unions and management of people. Great HR leaders will also take tough decisions based on a firm grasp of whats right for the function as much as for the business, so that it is structured not as a personal fiefdom but in a way that protects elements of HR responsibility such as recruitment policies which remain an area of core competitive advantage.

Above all, and in summary, a great HR leader has characteristics that are similar to all great managers: an ability to recruit and nurture the best talent, to select and devise the most appropriate strategies, and drive through the vision with energy and passion.

If you can achieve all that, to bastardise Rudyard Kipling, you shall inherit the earth, my friend or at least do a damn fine job. Indeed there is a strong case for suggesting that an HR leader who possesses all these skills has all the hallmarks not just of a great leader, but should have aspirations for the job of CEO. The very best of luck.

1. Your organisation has made financial losses this year and needs to reduce costs. The CEO has indicated that headcount costs have to be cut by 30%. What are your first thoughts?

i You need to consider the latest legal guidance in terms of consultation and negotiation and review the organisations position in the light of this.

ii To enable you to review this issue holistically, you need to see how it fits as part of a wider project plan.

iii Is there another way of improving efficiency and effectiveness other than headcount reductions?

iv Does the organisation need to be more decisive and make bigger headcount cuts in order to sustain the benefits of reduction? Why not 40%?

2. Your organisation has achieved lower profits than expected this financial year, yet employee expectations of salary increases and bonus payments remain high. Which of the following is your most likely approach?

i Send out a communication reinforcing messages about the nature of your organisations incentives. Employees share in both the good and the bad times of your organisations financial success this is a bad time.

ii Understand that there is an immediate need to remodel the bonus scheme payment system prior to the review period.

iii Do whatever is necessary to retain the top performers by meeting their expectations.

iv Realise that there is a need to demonstrate transparency and show that the scheme is first and foremost fair and equitable. Employees who are good performers will be rewarded.

3. Your CEO informs you of plans to acquire a small subsidiary and wants your thoughts in terms of priorities. Which of the following do you address first?

i How to maximise the synergies achievable from the two businesses, perhaps in terms of cost.

ii How the subsidiary will be integrated into the business, including consideration of organisational culture and values.

iii See it as an opportunity to reshuffle the leadership team and develop new leaders.

iv Review employee contracts and consider the harmonisation of terms and conditions across the businesses.

4. Your organisation needs to make a large amount of redundancies. For the organisation to survive, you need to carry them out without time for statutory consultation. What is your approach in managing the redundancies?

i Focus on getting a communication out to employees explaining the situation and that the company has to act immediately in order to save more jobs in the future.

ii Focus on undertaking the exercise as quickly as possible in order to save pain well make it right later.

iii Assess the risk to the organisation of non-consultation and use good practice wherever possible.

iv Focus on what consultation can take place in the time available involve the unions and try to get them on board with your plans.

5. Bonus payments linked to the share scheme plans for your company directors have been leaked to the press, including adverse comments about the generous awards made. What immediate advice do you give to your CEO on hearing the news?

i Suggest the organisation benchmarks payment figures against its competitors.

ii Suggest the performance management system is reviewed to see whether or not the organisation is getting value for money from its remuneration schemes.

iii Suggest that a report is prepared for the board to justify the payments made.

iv Suggest the CEO does not react to the press comments the organisation is getting good value from its scheme.

6. Your organisations key suppliers have recently attracted adverse press comment by using child labour in a Far East operation. How would you respond?

i By looking more closely at the suppliers your company uses and assessing the impact of continuing to do so in terms of benefit and risk to both the internal and external brand.

ii By seeing this as an opportunity to roll out your organisations values across all your suppliers and customers.

iii By using where possible your own organisational processes and practices in order to help your suppliers improve theirs.

iv By viewing it as a learning experience and reviewing all the terms of contract and policies in place to ensure it doesnt happen again.

To score, allocate letters to answers as follows


Question 1C

Question 2A

Question 3D

Question 4A

Question 5B

Question 6D


Question 1B

Question 2C

Question 3B

Question 4D

Question 5D

Question 6A


Question 1A

Question 2D

Question 3A

Question 4C

Question 5C

Question 6B


Question 1D

Question 2B

Question 3C

Question 4B

Question 5A

Question 6C

See below to find out your leadership style:

Mostly As: Mr Creative

You are a transformational HR leader who likes to focus on big change, and are more likely to do things differently than to settle for minor improvements. This is a great style to have when things need shaking up but will be less than popular and less effective when the business is growing steadily or consolidating.

Mostly Bs: Mr Solid

You are a more transactional HR leader and like to improve things and build on established strengths. Yours is a popular and helpful style but you should always be ready to challenge the rules when the business needs more than a slight change of direction.

Mostly Cs: Ms Mechanic

Yours is a specialist leadership style that focuses on accountability and responsibility. Your specialist approach will be valued by HR colleagues and will probably stand the organisation in good stead from an HR perspective you may even be seen as the conscience of the organisation. However, there is always a risk that other managers will see HR as tangential to their business.

Mostly Ds: Mrs Big Picture

With your strong interest in serving the needs of the business first and foremost, the board will recognise and value your business appreciation and clarity. You are a business-focused HR director who fits in comfortably at senior levels but you will need to balance your own commercial instincts with colleagues who can provide specialist input.

This quiz was compiled with the help of Kevin Delany from PricewaterhouseCoopers Human Resource Consulting