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HR directors warned not to be 'lackeys in silos'

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Those who rise up the ranks in the HR function are struggling to gain clout in the C-suite, with non-HR professionals taking the top people-management roles, as CEOS seek out ‘metrics-driven leaders.

Despite broad acceptance that talent is integral to business competitiveness, research by executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles (H&S) for the Harvard Business Review found the HR role is viewed as largely administrative, except in the most 'forward-thinking' of companies - with HR directors or chief people officers relegated to managing policies and cultural initiatives.

Based on qualitative interviews with global business leaders H&S works with, the study found that, instead of turning to career HR practitioners, many companies worldwide are increasingly filling the HR director role with leaders from functions such as operations, marketing or legal.

The report shows the fault lies with CEOs in some cases, when they fail to define what they expect from their HR directors. HR has a PR problem in business, it suggests, appearing to react to, rather than shape, changes in the business world.

Bryan MacDonald, regional managing partner at Heidrick & Struggles (pictured), said: "HR is more humble in its function than, for example, sales and marketing.

"In many cases, HR staff are seen as 'the lackey'. It is difficult to quantify the value that HR adds. Those who are taking the top HR positions may indeed by metrics-driven leaders - but in many cases, they are not passing their skills along to the next level.

"HR people need to take the business forward and they need to predict the future trends of the business - and some are indeed capable of doing this. The problem is some operate in an HR silo, where they are happy and comfortable. It is not the line manager's job to solve talent and leadership problems - but they need to be out in the business."

If employers continue to award top HR jobs to non-HR executives, HR directors of the future will be likely to have an understanding of commercial problems and be looking for pragmatic solutions, says the report. They will put extra pressure on HR specialists in various functions such as talent management to focus on actual business management.

In general, because of changing workforce demographics across the world, HR executives need to be comfortable managing a staff that is increasingly more diverse. They will need to adeptly juggle the needs and contributions both of changing demographics at work, including professionals from emerging economies.

MacDonald said: "In Europe, HR professionals tend to report into individual business units, while in the US there is more centralised command and control. Global HR directors have to work around these cultural nuances" (see article, page 54).

The report concludes that attracting and developing 'top talent' is the most important job of the CEO and the HR director should, in partnership with business heads, lead the charge.

"HR people need to focus on mapping talent issues as credible activists, have a grasp of the business world, look beyond being the executor of operations, have a high level of understanding of their own practice, of course - but also have the capability to lead cultural change throughout their business," added MacDonald.