Anatomy of a future HR leader

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HR magazine convened current and former HRDs to determine the skills future HR leaders will need, where they excel, and where there's room for improvement

What should the HR leader of tomorrow look like? A seemingly simple question… The answer though is a much more complex – or perhaps alarmingly short and unilluminating – ‘we just don’t know’.

Which applies to the whole gamut of functional heads, not just HR. The challenge? Our fast-changing operating climate. And it’s not just the private sector, or specifically the British high street, being rocked by Brexit and radically disruptive industry-changing technologies. The public sector, thanks to the instability of recent governments, more extreme political movements, and of course Brexit, has also become a place of constant flux.

And it’s safe to say that tomorrow’s world will be even more difficult to forecast moment to moment. Which means predicting the exact technical skills HR professionals will need – in a future characterised by continual reskilling and ‘agile learning’ for all parts of the workforce – will become an increasingly fraught endeavour.

Expect the unexpected

The one thing we do know, however, is that to survive and thrive in the future world of work – particularly when it comes to leadership positions – professionals will need to be able to stay resilient, positive, open-minded and strategically-savvy in the face of sudden dramatic changes of direction. This was the conclusion a panel of top current and former HRDs (representing the public, private and third sectors) came to when they met towards the end of last year to discuss the topic with HR magazine; and to help compile an assessment, in partnership with psychometrics firm Great People Inside (GPI), to see whether those on track to be HR leaders have what it takes.

Our panel chose nine dimensions (see box below), selecting for each where HR business partners (HRBPs) should sit along a sliding scale of one to 10 to have HR leadership potential. Stress and resilience, engagement, curiosity and self-awareness, and a VUCA approach were qualities our panel decided the HR leader of the future should possess in particularly strong amounts (i.e. the more resilient, engaged, curious and VUCA-ready the better).

Others of our nine dimensions were slightly more complicated. For example teamwork and respect, which our panel agreed future HRDs should sit somewhere between four and seven on, given the need as an HR leader to stand back from the consensus and team sometimes to constructively challenge and impart difficult news.

“You have to deliver the hard messages,” confirms chief people officer at Metro Bank Danny Harmer, one of our HRD panellists. “So be curious about people, fascinated by them, love to see them grow and develop. But love people and want to be liked? Wrong career.” “Resilience isn’t perhaps the most important one to have, but if you don’t have it you’re going to struggle with everything else,” she adds.

“Most of your working day you have to live in ambiguity now; you just don’t know what’s coming up,” comments co-panellist Caroline Nugent, HR director at the Financial Ombudsman Service. She adds the critical importance of curiosity not just for future or current HRDs but for current HRBPs too.

“I’m nosey and want to find out what’s going on right across the business. You have to push yourself into situations. So if there’s something happening you think ‘where’s HR in that?’ and invite yourself along,” she says. She adds that this potential to access and challenge all areas of the organisation as an HRBP is why this particular pool of HR professionals should, in theory, be the most on track to become the HRDs of tomorrow.

“That’s definitely the right community for HR leadership positions; because where the role works well you do develop people who are engaged with business, curious, and have an appetite for improving the business,” agrees Richard Goff, chair of learning and networking organisations The People Director Partnership and The Partnering Partnership, which recently produced – in conjunction with its HRBP members – a new HRBP capability model. “Strategy is also a big part of the role so, if done well, it should be the perfect education for an HRD,” he adds.

“I think HRBPs should already have all those attributes, otherwise they’re probably not acting as true business partners,” agrees chair of Advanced Boardroom Excellence Helen Pitcher, adding: “Those [VUCA] conditions are already here, and if HRBPs are not looking at how they’re ready for tomorrow then frankly they’re stagnating in the job. The differentiators for the future HRD are strategy first, then objectivity, and stress and resilience.”

A worrying picture

But this unfortunately wasn’t quite the picture to emerge from the results of HR magazine and GPI’s survey. The lowest matches were seen in stress and resilience where only 27% of HRBP respondents matched the required range, strategic thinking (only 35%), and curiosity and self-awareness (only 39%; see below).

Certainly a sample size of 212 can’t be claimed as unequivocally representative of the profession as a whole, concedes GPI’s CEO Martin Goodwill. But the results provide a sobering warning potentially, and should be harnessed as an opportunity to revisit debates around HR skillsets and professional development.

“It’s important to caveat we don’t know if this is a representative sample,” Goodwill says. “But the time to worry is now if it is. Then we need to ask what are we teaching this community? What are we looking for when we recruit them?”

So the million-dollar question is: does the picture painted by our research match people’s anecdotal experience? At least for some of our dimensions the answer was a disquieting yes. Apparent lack of curiosity is the area Goff reports being “most worried about”. “I think there are plenty of HRBPs who do have lots of curiosity, but across the board this [research] does seem pretty accurate,” he concedes. “It’s a worry; because that’s absolutely critical.”

Siobhan Sheridan, civilian human resources director at the Ministry of Defence, reports that curiosity is the attribute she’s “been saying for a long time now” is most crucial, and one still in alarmingly short supply. “If ever I’m asked what I recruit for my answer is always ‘curiosity’, because I think if you have that it will help you develop anything else,” she says.

“Curiosity is so fundamental because it’s that lifelong ability to be able to challenge yourself on whether what you thought you knew continues to be true – combined with the humility to acknowledge, when better evidence emerges, that you’re going to shift your position. Those things combined are critically important in a world that’s moving faster.”

“One of the big reasons we need people to be more curious is the data stuff,” adds Nugent. “If you’re curious about the data it opens up lots of questions. HR in the past has never been overly strong on data, because we haven’t been curious enough.”

For others, relatively-low strategic-thinking ability among HR professionals is the biggest concern. Group organisational development director at Total Produce David Frost recounts one instance of being among a group of highly-qualified ambitious practitioners, but discovering no-one could answer the question of what impact their strategies were having on the business’ commercial performance.

“They were really impressive individuals… the majority had done at least one Masters and were really passionate about their discipline,” remembers Frost. “But if the starting point for an HR professional isn’t the business and strategy then you have a problem.”

It’s no wonder given HR professionals so often concentrate solely on their own “pet projects” in isolation – and on defending these to the rest of the business in the wrong terms – that resilience is also so apparently low, Frost points out.

“If members of the HR team are working on areas of real value, and getting positive feedback, and feeling very aligned and not battling then they’re feeling far more rewarded for what they’re delivering to the business,” he says. “Too often I’ve seen this pitching against the business and saying ‘they just don’t get it’. The anxiety that then builds up is huge.”

Though by no means one of the lowest-scoring attributes (at a 51% match) another cause for concern for several was the respect dimension, where the vast majority of those not hitting the five to seven mark scored between eight to 10 (43%) (see below). This indicates a tendency to be too considerate and in agreement with those around them – the exact tendency our panel warned about when deciding where on this dimension future HR leaders should sit.

Nature or nurture?

So what needs to be done? The question boils down to whether we’re perhaps hiring the wrong sorts of people into supposedly strategic HR roles, or whether it’s a case of insufficient professional development. Which unavoidably gets into that highly complex and divisive debate of whether such attributes are entirely innate or can be developed to at least some degree.

Goodwill explains that the point of deploying psychometric tools is to discover what someone’s natural tendencies might be on a given range of organisation-critical dimensions. That way organisations can ensure they’re not hiring, promoting or deploying someone into a new area or role who is fundamentally unsuited to this (for leading the HR function of the future for instance…)

“We all adapt to fit the circumstances we find ourselves in. But what we can’t do is adapt to such a huge degree that every day of our lives we put ourselves outside of our comfort zone,” he says.

He explains that if someone fails to match the right profile on two or more areas, the effort to adapt each day intensifies to such an extent that it’s highly likely they’ll revert to their default position.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, confirms that the pre-determined part of someone’s character and personal attributes is strong: “We know that the innate part is maybe only 40%, but another 40% happens before the age of 10 so actually 80% is going to be there already. It’s the baseline for your potential.”

The problem within HR circles, he explains, is that nowhere near enough HR departments test for such critical attributes in the hiring process. Rather than testing for ‘baseline’ behavioural qualities that will always stand the individual in good stead no matter what their job throws at them, the emphasis is still very much on the technical skills they’ll need for the here and now.

“It’s paradoxical because it’s HR that’s driving the use of assessment elsewhere sometimes but doesn’t necessarily apply it at home. There’s still far too much emphasis on the skills, their résumé, technical credentials, and on past achievement – which is mostly not that relevant.”

Chamorro-Premuzic adds that to his mind there’s an issue of HR teams feeling in some way ‘above’ proper assessment processes. “I think fundamentally hiring managers in HR like to trust their instincts more than data and tools – maybe even more so than other hiring managers – because they say ‘I know this field and I know a good person when I see them,’” he says.

He adds that HR hirers need look no further than “the age-old [and function-agnostic] combination” of screening out based on past performance credentials, followed by “a good psychometric” before the interview, and then “a structured interview where every candidate goes through the same standardised process”.

Goodwill says that where HR teams are deploying psychometrics the focus is often far too immediate. “So at the moment people might look at teamwork but grade it at a different level… they might look at sociability, energy… that’s all fine when you understand today’s job really well. But it’s a bit of a one-dimensional approach. You need to build in flexibility for the future.”

He adds: “It’s rampant short-termism: we need someone to fill a gap now and what they’re capable of doing in five to 10 years we don’t care about, or it ‘won’t be my problem’. But it should be. Measure twice [for present and future capability] and cut, or recruit, once.”

Searching further afield

Which might have people musing on the imperative to attract ‘a different type’ of person to the function: the type who wouldn’t previously have considered working in HR. “As a profession we need to be prepared to look at people coming in at partner level who don’t necessarily have an HR background,” feels Harmer, saying that this comes back to how HR brands itself as somewhere where those “fascinated by people, capability and the changing world” will thrive.

“The point is you can learn the technical HR stuff. It’s a bit of a pain but you can learn it,” she adds. “And it can be liberating because you’re not entrenched in one way of doing things.”

Harmer emphasises though that a big part of the issue here is a developmental one, not one of needing to hire a whole new sort of HRBP.

Even curiosity can be taught, she asserts: “I see people get brilliant in my team at thinking about what questions they should be asking… I think you can help people with curiosity. Because if they don’t start demonstrating that they find they’re being asked questions they haven’t thought of. And I think people learn pretty quickly from that.”

Sheridan muses that this is perhaps a wider business issue of creating cultures that don’t drum curiosity out of people. “If you look at any child I think you’ve got to believe curiosity is innate,” she says, referencing her recent Masters research into the ways people psychologically protect themselves and how that affects curiosity, compassion and creativity.

“We spend a long time socialising people out of that in a variety of ways; whether that’s through school or models of leadership, which for a long time have been predicated on the leader knowing the answer.”

Strategic thinking is an attribute that can also be developed to some extent, concedes Chamorro-Premuzic. “That’s a bit more of a developable competency because it’s almost a way of working,” he says. “People with more curiosity and imagination will do this more naturally, but it’s more developable than others.”

“I think we’ve just got to give HRBPs the opportunity to develop that strategic muscle,” agrees Nugent. “There’s a risk of people saying ‘why are two or three HR people in the room?’ But we need to do more shadowing. So if as an HRD you can’t attend a meeting who are you sending along so that they’re learning?”

Former head of HR and organisational development at Warwickshire County Council and director of Sevans Refreshing People, Sue Evans, says the best way of developing this is to ensure HRBPs are thrown in at the deep end. “I used to be really wary of answering questions that should have been directed at the business partner,” she says. “I used to say ‘what does your HRBP say?’ The business will say ‘we need the HRD to talk to about this’ but actually they don’t.”

Developing strategically is also about getting to work in a range of business areas – not just through partnering with them but by being seconded out – Goodwill and Frost agree. “We should be developing them through different functions in the organisation before they even get to HR,” says Frost. “Then they have experience of what those leaders face every day.”

Cobbler’s children

Unfortunately, as with hiring for HR positions, there exists something of a cobbler’s-children irony at the heart of personal development within the HR profession – with HR surprisingly bad at doing for itself what it does for others.

“I think part of all this is lack of attention to continuous professional development,” muses Sheridan. “Development gets done at the very early stages, but part of the challenge is ongoing development.

“I think needing a stronger partnership with OD [organisational development] could be a part of this,” she adds. “Because OD does entail more awareness and reflective practice.”

“Everyone who comes through the ranks has to go through that stage of dealing with the basics. The CIPD isn’t wrong to teach them that. But I think it stops there and presupposes that you suddenly metamorphasise into an HR director,” agrees Goodwill.

HR – and the CIPD – has had a “procedurally-focused history”, concedes David D’Souza, membership director at the body. But he adds that the organisation’s new Profession Map, launched in November, features much more emphasis on the more behaviours-based competencies HRBPs and HR leaders need going forwards.

“What we’re now focusing on with the new map is this outcome-driven work,” he says. “We’re also highlighting systems thinking; not just what’s going on inside the system but the challenge you need to work in very complex fast-moving environments.”

Another disconnect that needs urgently addressing exists between what HR functions typically do around stress management and resilience-building for others, and how this is applied internally (as explored by HR magazine last month in a piece on HR’s own mental health).

For many HR magazine spoke to about our future leader research this was the dimension most ripe for improvement through better supporting the people HR already has (rather than dismissing them as ‘not naturally resilient enough’ and looking elsewhere…)

Sheridan’s Masters work gave her particular insight into this disconnect, she says. “I do think we underestimate in our profession the impact of the type of work that we do. In social work – in fact every other profession where we’re dealing with difficult human reactions – there’s a recognition that it has an impact on our own emotional state. But we’re not recognising that in what we do. When I give talks on this sometimes I have seven or eight people come up at the end of the session saying ‘you’ve finally helped me understand it’s not my fault I’m feeling this’.”

“I think it’s very dangerous to talk about resilience in isolation of the environment,” agrees D’Souza. “Because it’s very easy for organisations to become more stressful places to work and tell their employees they’re not resilient enough… And the HR job is now more complex, more demanding and more multi-faceted than it’s ever been. So I do think that, while there’s always room for people to improve their personal resilience, the best way of responding to this is as an HR community not as individuals.”

The Ulrich model

Another element to improving the future HR leadership pipeline concerns the very HR business models future leadership talent finds itself in. Many of the above issues with HRBP capability involve perennial debates around the HRBP role itself, and whether the model is working quite as Ulrich intended.

“The HRBP role is, or should be, a critical role for all organisations but we recruit at the wrong level. We need to recruit much more strategic thinkers; people who can have a real impact and influence,” says Evans. “A lot of people have been relabelled as HRBPs but given no development.”

“Everyone is an HRBP now – that’s been the move,” agrees Anna Penfold, consultant at executive search firm Russell Reynolds. “But just because your title’s changed doesn’t mean you’re automatically operating strategically… So now we have a whole population for whom access is counted as responding when stuff happens – and the legalities and employment law side of things.”

Penfold adds the encouragement, however, that there are some pockets of great practice when it comes to savvy future-focused recruitment, succession planning and professional development within HR. Contrary to what some might expect these are in her experience often in the public sector: “That’s quite a shift from the past. It’s happened because austerity means everyone’s working in a leaner creative manner.”

She adds that the imperative to develop change-ready strategic behaviours in HRBPs is only going to become more pronounced because of increased demand for HR expertise on boards and for NED positions. “That means HR directors are moving to portfolio careers much earlier, which creates a trickle-down effect. So you’ll see people having to step up more quickly than ever before,” she says. “On a positive note that means those developmental experiences should come thick and fast for prospective HR leaders.”

Encouraging signs

And there are certainly other things to be encouraged by when it comes to the HRBP future- and leadership-readiness debate. (Though there’s perhaps a question mark over whether 35% of HRBP respondents not matching on ‘VUCA approach’ is a positive sign; similarly with the objectivity dimension, where 36% didn’t match [see below].)

Regarding whether HR magazine’s 212-strong snapshot is an accurate reflection of the profession, teamwork – despite receiving a 61% match rate – was one dimension that those we spoke to felt came out lower than in their anecdotal experience.

“Teamwork was a big surprise to me; I’ve certainly seen much higher levels in my experience in different HR teams,” comments Frost. “I do think we have people who are really clever and good at forming relationships, working within different teams they can then influence… and I think strong teamwork is where you can play to your strength of challenge.”

“I know some very high-quality HRBPs,” adds Evans, regarding the positive state overall of HR leadership potential. “It’s just giving them the feedback that allows them to recognise how good they are.”

And it must be stressed, says GPI’s Goodwill, that the results don’t show HR in any more of a negative light than other functions in his experience.

“I don’t think lack of ability to bring our curiosity to bear, for example, is just an HR issue,” agrees Sheridan, reiterating her sense that most organisational cultures and leadership models currently discourage this attribute in employees across the board.

But HR has an arguably much more important role in modelling such critical behaviours, and the kinds of hiring and development processes that will engender them, points out Goodwill.

“These are the people helping the rest of the business recruit so it goes a lot deeper than just themselves,” he says. “If you didn’t have a future-proof marketing department for instance it wouldn’t be great, but the rest of the business could probably carry on.”

So the opportunity to improve the rest of the organisation through getting this right within HR is vast and exciting. “I think this is a very uplifting agenda because I think people have all of this. Our challenge as senior leaders in the profession is to create the environments in which people can bring it,” says Sheridan. “And the things we’re talking about are us at our most human; the things that can’t be replaced by AI and robots.”

“I’m really positive about the state of the profession right now,” adds the CIPD’s D’Souza. “I speak to bright intelligent people making a difference at every layer of the profession. We’ll all need to change our attitudes and approaches over the coming years. But I think, rather than a daunting agenda, it will be exciting and fulfilling.”

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