The remit of senior HR people is widening along with their job titles, and a new breed of HR director is emerging. Jo Sellwood asks whether this is a good thing and what the impact will be.
The global credit crunch may have thrown financial markets into turmoil but skills shortages and the need to recruit and retain the best and brightest people continues. This war for talent is just as fierce in HR as it is in any other function.
HR has become more critical to the business and more strategic, as it has worked closely with management to help boost profit margins, increase productivity, improve retention and enhance employee engagement. To help achieve this, HR directors are increasingly playing a much broader role within their organisations.
This trend has also produced an increasingly sought-after breed of HR director – someone who can do the technical HR remit but who also has the competence to act strategically and work in partnership with general management and the line.
We are talking about individuals who can combine functional expertise with softer skills around effective influencing, communication and teamwork to deliver to business targets. This is true not just of the UK, but globally. Multinational companies are re-organising HR to become a global function capable of operating across the world in defined and virtual teams.
Sometimes, the enhanced HR role is the result of combining two or more functional departments under a single management. In other instances, firms link with communications or combine the role with marketing.
This diversification is reflected in a spate of new job titles which reflect these responsibilities. We have seen ‘directors of people and organisational efficiency’, ‘strategic director of HR’, and ‘directors of people and policy’.
But this is not about title inflation. These new jobs reflect the reality of combining business-critical functions and roles around employee engagement and talent management – such as internal communications – under the HR umbrella.
HR managers and executives with an ambition to reach these senior strategic roles need to carefully plan their own career development within the organisation. Importantly, they need to develop crucial softer influencing skills, learn the language of business and actively contribute to the bottom-line.
We are increasingly asked to find HR professionals with the experience and gravitas to take on this strategic HR role.
So what is the ideal candidate for the job? An individual who can combine the softer skills of influencing and teamwork yet has the competence to act strategically and deliver to business targets. These behavioral skills and competencies are often best developed through business exposure and having an inherent commercial awareness and interest.
Some strategic HR posts are also being filled by senior managers who transfer their skills over from other functional areas of the business. These people already have experience, excellent leadership and people skills and can operate operationally and strategically and therefore head up a specialism or generalist role with HR technical specialists reporting to them or in their team. Therefore we are seeing other functional managers and directors moving into heads of learning and also HR director positions.
The HR director’s role over the next five years
Globalisation has of course added to HR’s strategic role where it also has an important unifying role to play. This is an area that will continue to grow as multinational companies expand into the emerging BRIC countries Brazil, Russia, India and China. Whilst English is still often the international language of business, HR managers with a foreign language will be an asset in the future.
The war for talent in HR is global and the UK HR talent market is not immune to poaching. US companies in particular are talent spotting in the UK.
Another trend that we are seeing is HR managers from the private sector crossing over to the public sector to gain the strategic experience within a different sector to aid career development.
Again, this is evident internationally where in Australasia, for example, the gap between salaries and responsibilities in the public and private sector is narrowing.
As a broader role emerges for HR and it grows closer to the organisation, HR managers will increasingly become business managers first and foremost but with a functional HR hat on. And as tough times force organisations to be more people-focused, we can also expect to see HR professionals moving across function and even into MD and chief executives roles.
Jo Sellwood is managing director at HR recruitment firm Strategi Search and Selection.