Our research identified five important questions for HR professionals:
- What is your company looking for?
- What are the table stakes?
- What stage is your career at, so what do you need to focus on today?
- What do you need to develop for tomorrow?
- How do you build depth and breadth?
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?
Reflection: Before you focus on developing your strategic skills, build a reputation for delivering the basics. Have you got the balance right?
Between six and 10 years you must show an understanding of the business and change, and have the ability to build personal credibility.
Reflection: What stage are you at and are you developing and demonstrating the right things?
- 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.”
- 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.’ ”
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
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?
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.