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HR leadership elite series: what does HR leadership offer you?

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Paul Kearns

In his second series for HR Zone, Paul Kearns an outspoken critic of HR practices that cannot clearly demonstrate the value they add to organisations, looks at leadership and asks why do we need HR leaders and what’s in it for professionals in the field?


The best leaders have a vision of a future that does not currently exist. They tend to show little respect for conventional thinking and are prepared to break rules and re-draw the boundaries. Unfortunately, though, not all ‘leadership’ is good. So what might better leadership in HR mean for you? Here are some possible ideas to provide a flavour of how the enormous scale of change now required in HR might be addressed by better leadership.

It is likely that HR departments will no longer exist, as we currently know them. If you like personnel administration you could find that you fall back into a purely administrative function that might not even report into HR. Administration is a cost that might be best managed by the finance team.

On the other hand, if you like adding value then the newly created ‘people performance team’ (or whatever other title, manifestation or configuration HR comes under) will have plenty to keep you busy and you will find yourself alongside colleagues who have never worked in HR before.

These might include systems analysts who have a bent for the interaction and relationship between systems and behaviour. Or you might meet an unusual animal called an HR business metric specialist – someone who can analyse a P&L and come to some useful conclusions about the way people are performing.

In fact there will be quite a few new disciplines that you might wish to consider for your own career development. The most obvious one will be the Human Capital Manager but there is also likely to be a role for an Organisation Designer whose thinking has already moved way beyond silo structures and even matrix organisations.

One job for the chop is the industrial relations specialist. If HR leadership is to mean anything it means getting the best, maximum value out of people and that is impossible in a unionised environment. Instead there will certainly be a vacancy for someone who can develop organisational trust and this is a job for the very long term.

There may be other jobs that need to be replaced as well. Heads of diversity, for example, will either have cracked the conundrum of achieving simultaneous improvements in both diversity and business performance or they will find themselves consigned to the legion of ‘well-meaning but ineffective’ HR practitioners of yesteryear.

It is inevitable though that HR people working for the best HR leaders will attract significantly higher salaries. The best will match the best paid to all other functions.

Whatever role you play it will certainly be challenging. The initiatives and rigid frameworks (competencies and job evaluation spring to mind) of today will be replaced by a living, breathing HR function that is alive to all the contextual issues.

The generic HR approaches that have traditionally ridden so roughshod over organisational culture will be a thing of the past. You will have to think long and hard about everything you plan. The rewards will come though in much higher levels of job satisfaction and personal development.

Now, if you are already ‘leading’ the HR profession then maybe you could share some of your own ideas with readers as well to help us all think outside the present HR box?

Other articles in this series

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Please tell us what you think of the HR elite series – by posting your comment below.

One Response

  1. Disappearing HR roles
    Paul is as thought provoking as ever. There was one teeny line that I did think needed a second thought. He said that the role of Industrial Relations would disappear particularly in non unionised environments. The trouble is that a title is not always helpful in describing what the role does, and indeed ascribing a premature demise might not be that accurate an inspection of the crystal ball.

    Take Southwest Airlines for example. Just recently they posted their 32 consecutive year of profits. A huge achievement in a really battered airline industry. Are they unionised – yep, you bet (to use an Americanism), but Southwest has managed to develop relationships with the union and the employees directly that has created the kinds of conditions that make it a great place to work. Is the Union tough? Absolutely. Does management liaise in a constructive and meaningful way with them? Absolutely.

    So where does this leave our IR person? In the UK union memebership has been declining drastically since the 1980’s. We have seen huge union mergers. Does this mean that employee relations in really have improved so much that fewer people need to be members? I don’t think so. Despite the fantastic improvements in organisational culture we have seen in the UK (take a look at the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For survey) and the great efforts to create a engaged and committed work environment, we can all name several business sectors that could do a whole lot better.

    The role of the IR person will evolve. Apart from someone with an eye to the plethora of regulation and legislation, there will always be a need for some one to act as a conduit to communicate and negotiate with employee associations of one type or another. The real decline in major industrial disputes in the last decade may be seen as a testament to the bettering of relationships between the employer and employee representation, but I think the lowly IR person should perhaps be given some of the tactical credit too. What would be really great is if there was a fundamental shift in management and leadership thinking. One in which from top management down, a mindset existed that said, HR is far too important to be left to HR. That little idea has yet a long way to go. Until such time that it exists fully in reality, we will have many of the HR and/or Personnel role we have today. What we might have is different delivery mechanisms. But that my friends is another story.

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