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Nick Holley

Henley Business School

Director of Centre For HR Excellence

Read more about Nick Holley

Five considerations for carving out a successful HR career


Our research identified five important questions for HR professionals:

  1. What is your company looking for?
  2. What are the table stakes?
  3. What stage is your career at, so what do you need to focus on today?
  4. What do you need to develop for tomorrow?
  5. How do you build depth and breadth?
1. What is your company looking for?
In interviews with over 40 organisations and an online survey of 170 more, 60% of respondents had a written definition of what they’re looking for from HR that drives their assessment of potential and decisions on promotions. It’s just as important to understand this when you’re looking to build your own career.

It’s not enough to be ‘good’ where it matters – decision makers have to see that you are. At the most senior levels, decision makers will be from outside HR. Ensure you’re visible in management and leadership teams, not as the representative of HR but as an equal member of the team, demonstrating broader leadership strengths beyond HR.

Reflection: Do you know what decision-makers are looking for and are you building your capability and reputation against this? 

2. What are the table stakes?
While it’s become fashionable to focus on being strategic, CEOs in our survey valued operational excellence above strategic skills. While HR skills were the fifth most important skill in the eyes of HR, they were second in the view of line managers, with judgment being first for both.
As an example, if you aspire to be HRD of a quoted company, you’ll need experience in comp and bens because your role with the compensation committee will be of critical importance to your organisation. Many experienced senior HRDs were surprised how much of their time this took and how it was assumed they would be able to do it. 

Reflection: Before you focus on developing your strategic skills, build a reputation for delivering the basics. Have you got the balance right?

3. What stage is your career at?
Different stages in your career require a focus on different skills. The research showed that in the formative years, you need to demonstrate mastery in the basics and, as data becomes more central and more omnipresent, strong analytical skills.

Between six and 10 years you must show an understanding of the business and change, and have the ability to build personal credibility.

Beyond that, it’s about shaping the future, understanding the people and organisational implications of your company’s vision and strategy and translating this into a people plan that mobilises not only HR but the whole business.

Reflection: What stage are you at and are you developing and demonstrating the right things?

4. What do you need to develop for tomorrow?
The research identified some common buckets of capability that HR people need to fill:
  1. Consulting: This is about managing your stakeholders, using your political savvy to navigate the organisation. One headhunter said: “There isn’t one search I have done which has not required stakeholder management and relationship building skills…not so much the technical skills.”
  2. Delivery: Project management, follow-through, discipline, delivering rather than overpromising in a desire to impress. As one CEO said: “A differentiating factor is credibility ‘when you say you are going to do something you do it.’ ”
  3. Commercial: This goes beyond commercial acumen to driving HR activity out of your business’ needs. In the current environment, it’s increasingly about operating in the short-term productivity and efficiency space while still working in the long-term capability building space. One senior HRD noted: “As I’ve got older I’ve noticed two groups, those who went into HR because it paid better than social work, and those who have a more commercial outlook.” He was clear which pool he looked to recruit from.
  4. Thinking: Judgment, dealing with ambiguity, pragmatism, and the ability to helicopter up and down into the detail while retaining a strategic overview. A CEO noted: “In our business it’s all about pace and shades of grey.”
  5. Toughness: You have to have self-confidence and understand that HR is a tough arena to operate in. One HRD said: “If you’re looking for recognition, this is the wrong place to work.” Senior HR people require loads of resilience because credibility and being liked don’t necessarily go together. Another HRD commented: “If you’re not hated by at least 10 people you’re not making those difficult decisions.”
Reflection: Where are you weak and where are you strong? What is developable and what is innate in who you are?
5. How can you build depth & breadth?
In the past, traditional HR generalists developed both depth and breadth. In the new three-box model of HR, business partners develop breadth but have no chance to build depth, while people in Centres of Excellence build depth but have little opportunity to build breadth. HR directors need both. 

As you build your career you must build in variety. The research highlighted that one of the most effective ways to develop HRDs is to spend time in a line role, yet it was one of the least used ways to develop HR talent.

Reflection: How are you avoiding a siloed career so you can develop both depth and breadth, spending time in different parts of HR but also getting experience in line roles?

Stepping up to the challenge
HR has promised a lot but in many cases still fails to deliver. HR either needs to step up to the plate and deliver, or stop promising what it can’t deliver. Stepping up to the challenge depends on many things but above all it depends on the capability of the people in the function at every level to deliver individually and collectively.

Oscar Wilde once said: “Be yourself – everyone else is taken.” As you plan your next career steps, focus on your strengths. The research has some great pointers for success but you are who you are so be the best you can be.  Is it better to have a good career than to crash and burn because, like Icarus, you tried to fly too high?


Nick Holley is director of Henley Business School’s Centre for HR Excellence.

This article was first published by our partner, online jobs board Changeboard.

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Nick Holley

Director of Centre For HR Excellence

Read more from Nick Holley

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