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Andrew Leigh

Maynard Leigh Associates


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How to be a great HR director


All leaders want it, many aspire to possess it, and without it, few succeed. Having courage is vital if you want to be a successful HR director, says Andrew Leigh.

Recently, Battalia Winston International, an organisation that employs over 5,000 people worldwide, wanted to appoint a human resources director. If you had fancied the job, you would need to have been: "Candid and open, with personal courage to take a stand on controversial issues."
HR directors are being appointed all the time. Right now for example, according to, there are over 180 HR director posts looking for someone to fill them. Each new decision will be made on numerous boring, yet entirely sensible, criteria, such as knowledge of HR practices, industry or global experience, awareness of client service level agreements, familiarity with legal requirements and operational best practice and so on.
Yet courage, the one attribute that separates the potentially good HR director from someone who could be a great HR director, has little directly to do with HR at all. This attribute is core to being a successful leader. Without it few leaders succeed in either inspiring their followers or making a real difference to their organisation.
Courage often fascinates leaders who know they should possess it, wish that they did, and occasionally strive to demonstrate it. On the principle that you teach or write about what you need to learn (me included) Gordon Brown chose to write a book about it, called ‘Courage: Eight Portraits’, and so did President Kennedy. Yet, paradoxically, for many people this is the one attribute in terms of decision making and being inspiring that Brown truly lacks and has been commented on at length in the media.

Settling in the boardroom

Five signs you are a courageous HR director:

1. Are known to fight hard to present the people side of the business in every part of the organisation and outside it

2. Relentlessly pursue people-based initiatives even when they cannot always be shown to have an immediate financial return to the business

3. Speak up loud and clear about the values of the organisation and are willing to draw attention to where these are not being acted upon and to demand action

4. Challenge senior managers and leaders on behaviour that you see as disrespectful or demeaning of anyone else in the organisation

5. Champion diversity and the importance of issues such as transparency, the organisational benefits of openness, and the company culture

As more and more HR professionals are reaching the boardroom, increasingly they are becoming aware of how difficult it can be to stay there, particularly if their appointment coincides with that of a new CEO. In the past, head of HR was one of the most settled of senior corporate positions, but this is no longer the case due to internal barriers, outsourcing of the HR function, or simply work-life balance issues.
But also critical is the ability to do more than just run an effective HR support service. It is the ability to challenge and help transform how the organisation sees itself and how it goes about its business. This demands more than just cerebral capability. It demands a degree of courage in pursuing goals that may sometimes cause waves and even conflict with those chosen by others for themselves; for instance, when their own professional values and organisational expediency requirements come into conflict.
As specialists recruitment experts Hays put it: "We frequently meet HR professionals who have been employed with a very clear brief and yet when it comes to the execution of their task they find that, beyond the ‘quick wins’, the support and backing promised at interview is simply not there."
Faced with a lack of support it takes considerable courage to pursue important change goals despite the difficult climate. Yet this is what leadership is about, and HR directors need it if they are to rise above the pedestrian. For example, on becoming chair of the US based Society for Human Resource Management in 2005, Johnny C. Taylor commented: "I strongly believe that we need more aggressive leadership in the HR profession. We need more of those courageous leaders who step up and take responsibility and show that HR has an important leadership role in today’s workplace."
Graham White, head of HR and organisational development, corporate services in Surrey County Council, put the issue slightly differently a while back: "Without courage, managers take little risk, defend what they have, and mistrust intentions. Minor niggles become major issues. Courage helps managers look outwards, lack of it takes the focus inwards. My HR department wants to give courage to our line managers. Our role is to inspire growth within management." So an important part of being an above-average HR director is almost certainly both having courage themselves and being able to help others show it too.
Another aspect of ‘HR director courage’ is being able to move ahead with people-based initiatives that defy a stringent ROI analysis. There is often an unfair and disproportionate demand on HR to ‘prove it’ before an initiative can proceed, while other departments frequently move forward on projects without ROI information because they know it’s the right thing to do. (See, for example, this recent document on making sense of the return on investment from developing people).
It can be lonely championing causes that don’t appear on the front page of the financial section of the newspaper; but no one ever said it would be easy. The good news is that it is often well worth the fight.

Andrew Leigh is a founding director of Maynard Leigh Associates.

2 Responses

  1. Courage and…
    I agree that courage is vital, especially to challenge and debate the important issues.
    Over many years I have observed that the HR Directors who stand out as great HR Directors, both internally and externally, also understand the commercial realities of business (i.e. financial, business and commercial acumen) It seems that being able to think and talk like the CEO and board certainly elevates HR Directors credibility especially when skillfully blended with courage.

    Gyffard Yates
    Business Smart International

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