Aspire to be an HR exec? Grab a parachute.

I was flicking through my AHRI magazine earlier this week and noticed the profiles of some prominent HR leaders. Despite coming from various industries and backgrounds, all three profiles had one thing in common…

‘I just fell into HR...’

And I have seriously mixed feelings about that.

Part of my brain says ‘career paths aren’t linear, I get it’. You start somewhere and find a love for something else along the way.

Another part of my brain screams ‘NOOOO’. There are people who have studied and worked so damn hard to be HR professionals, yet rarely have I seen those people rise to the very top.

When I reflected on it further, I realised that the majority of the Exec HR folk I’ve worked with have come from non-HR backgrounds. Aaaaand it hasn’t been a fabulous experience on the whole.

As a HR professional, trying to get buy in on initiatives has an added layer of complexity when you have to spend hours explaining concepts and models to someone who has limited understanding (and sometimes interest). Often they come out of meetings with outcomes that make your jaw drop that are now, scarily, your responsibility for operationalising.

It’s also hard to aspire to leadership or receive meaningful mentorship when the majority of people you see in the roles you aspire to have a career path that is completely different to your own.

So I got to questioning why this happens so frequently in HR. I mean it would be really weird for someone who has worked in HR for the majority of their career to just pop along and start running the finance team as CFO wouldn’t it? Or to step in and lead a business unit with 0% technical experience. Yet it happens in the reverse fairly commonly.

So what is it that makes CFOs or other executives more appropriate HR Execs than people with actual HR experience?

HR has long been criticised for not being commercially minded, for not understanding the business or for being too soft. Is it for these reasons that more ‘legitimate’ leaders step across into HR to act as a buffer between the ‘fluffy’ HR folk and the ‘real’ business people at the Board table?

Interestingly when I searched for articles articulating what organisations require from HR leaders and what CEOs expect from their Chief People People, the recent results were overwhelmingly centred on deliverables that appear to require specialist HR knowledge;

  • Aligning talent with organisational strategy

  • Attracting and retaining top talent

  • Help to embed company culture

  • Create quality employee experiences

  • Future proof capability within a business

  • Develop strong leadership skills in others

  • Drive digital transformation

  • Deliver effective change management

The only reference I could find that closely to echoed the be ‘less HR-ish and more businessy’ chant I’ve heard throughout my career was in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article which stated;

‘When more is expected of HR, a higher quality of HR professional must be found. Companies need people who know the business, understand the theory and practice of HR, can manage culture and make change happen, and have personal credibility. Sometimes, such individuals already exist within the HR function but need additional training. Other times, they have to be brought in from other parts of the company… If HR is to effect real change, it must be made up of people who have the skills they need to work from a base of confidence and earn what too often it lacks—respect.’

Which begs the question that if that mentality is so outdated (2 decades in fact), why is it still fairly common for HR leaders to be plucked from other business units rather than from within the HR team itself?

I have (fairly recently) encountered a number of HR leaders who almost gleefully state ‘ohh I’m NOT a ‘people’ person, I’m a ‘results’ person’… like the results just magic themselves into existence?

I find that disappointing. HR people ARE results focused people! They just clearly see that results are created by actual human beings and that the better treated they are, the more results they produce.

In 2006, Entrepreneur magazine published an article titled ‘4 things CEOs want from HR Leadership’. The article starts by stating ‘The head of HR is frequently, at least in the CEO’s eyes, seen as the low man (or woman) on the executive totem pole. This occurs despite the fact that people are the biggest item on almost every company’s budget, and that CEOs consistently list talent as a top concern.’

So even when HR leaders make it to the top table, they aren’t always playing in the same league as their Executive counterparts. I’d be interested to know if there are differences in CEO perception and respect when a ‘real business person’ is leading a HR function versus a ‘HR person’.

My reflections on what may be holding HR professionals back from attaining HR leadership roles are these:

1. HR owns ‘professional development’ but rarely benefits from it. We administrate the learning platform, we write stacks of the content within it and we allocate training budgets to other teams; but professional development for HR professionals within organisations is rare. If professional development occurs, it tends to be very technically focused.

2. HR can’t be trusted with ‘real’ work. The negative perceptions held by some about HR means they are often excluded from contributing full value because they have incomplete access to data and information, they are brought it at the end stages of projects to push things out or completely excluded from strategic discussions. It's challenging to be seen a successful when there are so many roadblocks in the way.

3. Lack of investment in reporting. Finance rocks up to the Exec meeting with a heavy tome full of graphs and charts. Marketing turns up with a fancy presentation full of Net Promoter Scores and website traffic data. And HR turns up with the excel based headcount report extracted with significant pain from the HRIS… It’s hard to articulate the value of HR initiatives when there is no meaningful data to analyse. But measuring the stuff that matters is expensive and many organisations baulk at investing funds in ‘assessing how happy people are’ (note: people analytics are SO much deeper and cooler than that!)

4. HR are generally terrible at HRing themselves. The old adage of ‘carpenters and their own houses’ rings true in HR. We are masters of do as we say, not as we do. It can partly be explained by HR teams often being resourced lean (gotta limit that ‘cost to the business’ right?) so the time isn’t always available, but a lot comes from complacency and the rest from a misguided sense of service. People in HR tend to be ‘helpers’ and often give far too much of themselves to others. They generally also feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end of support. I couldn’t count the amount of times I’ve heard colleagues groan and say ‘ech, don’t try and HR me…’.

5. The ‘why’ gets lost (or diluted). As I mentioned above, many HR professionals are driven by a desire to help and improve the experience of employees within organisations. The higher up the HR tree you climb, the further the distance between you and the actual helping becomes. I think that’s why many senior HR professionals struggle to let go of operational stuff. There is something so satisfying about solving a dilemma, resolving a crisis or creating a breakthrough. I mentioned in a recent blog post that I was told by a recruiter earlier this year that my personal value of helping others meant I wasn’t ideal leadership material. I disagree with that completely. You simply need to reframe your helping from immediate individual level helping to long term organisational helping. But without data and without respect, finding the intrinsic rewards at senior HR levels can be more challenging.

I do believe that the COVID situation and the BlackLivesMatter movement have both put pressure on organisations to focus their lens on their people. It feels as if there has been a change in energy; where before people felt compelled to put and shut up in a job, they will do so no longer.

The war for talent will be now waged on battlegrounds of genuine inclusion, flexible working and employee experience. Throwing money at employees, buying ping pong tables or having an on-site chef will mean nothing if your all-white straight cis-male Board members expect employees to be in the office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week or decide to, you know, blow up sacred Indigenous sites during Reconciliation Week.

I can’t see this shift do anything except demonstrate how critical quality people-centred HR leadership is to business success. But as a profession we need to pause and consider what we need to do to now to support those within our ranks who want to take these exceptional opportunities on.

Our knowledge and expertise is too significant to not be represented at the upper most levels of organisations, especially now.

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