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Changing spots? Will closer working with line managers open the way to the top for HR?


Contributed by Niall FitzGerald of HR search and selection firm Courtenay, this article looks at the changing relationship between HR professionals and line managers.

According to David Ulrich, professor of business at the University of Michigan at a London seminar, HR managers can make a real contribution to a company by seeing themselves as “architects” with a responsibility for guiding their line managers.

These changes reflect the way that line managers are starting to view the HR role including the recognition of its full potential. Most crucially this shift will help HR make a quantum leap from being process oriented to a position with maximum responsibility.

Naturally, in some circumstances the changing role of the HR director can be perceived as a threat. This occurs when both sides do not work in partnership and managers feel that they are forced to accept change.

One reason why the relationship between HR professionals and line managers is changing is that each side is increasingly involved in areas which used to be the preserve of the other. HR professionals are now more involved in performance management, quality orientation and leadership coaching. For their part, line managers are becoming more involved in recruitment, remuneration and training.

One key area which brings HR expertise and managers together is leadership coaching. The HR function has an active role to play in both identifying leadership capability and helping to benchmark good leadership skills and their impact on the bottom line.

But what are the challenges for this emerging partnership and what are the benefits for the HR professional?

From the perspective of the line manager it’s about recognising their responsibilities to their people. Some managers have natural people skills whilst others only like good news – handing out bonuses or giving positive feedback in an appraisal.

For the HR professional it is the question of whether the skills and competencies traditionally associated with the HR function will need to evolve to mirror this new partnership? The likely answer is yes. Already we are seeing more HR people asking for a secondment position in an operational role. In this way, they are equipped with additional credibility when they step back into their previous roles.

A report by London Human Resources Group shows that although HR managers usually share a set of common goals with their peers in line management, the language both groups use to communicate these aims is quite different. Thus, improved communication skills will have a positive impact on HR professionals’ own career development and their strategic input at Board level.

Another significant development is that there are now more senior HR people who do not necessarily have a traditional background. They are likely to have transferable skills such as the ability to communicate well, planning and crucially an overall understanding of the business needs in the wider market place. These HR professionals are usually promoted internally – rather than head-hunted in the first instance. Once they have proved themselves in the HR function they may be headhunted to another organisation.

In human resources, who will be the likely winners and which HR professionals may lose out? There is no black and white answer. Certain areas of specialism within HR, such as compensation and benefits, are very complex and increasingly being recognized as skills in themselves. However, tomorrow’s HR professional needs to be able to step into a role where there are more measurable deliverables. So, perhaps the biggest challenge yet for HR will be how to measurable the effectiveness of the discipline. This needs to be done over time and holistically.

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