The classic route to HR director level takes five career steps over a period of 20 years, according to CIPD research, but that's where the formula ends. Those who have reached the top in HR say that it's as much about authenticity and curiosity, and being aware of your transferable skills, as it is about how many years were served in talent management or reward departments.
"Becoming an HR director is about your willingness to learn about the business and asking what you can do that will add value. You have to continually review yourself," says Tom Nicholls, HR director of London and Quadrant Housing Trust. Nicholls joined London and Quadrant as an HR manager, after a career in employee relations with Railtrack and electronics firm Racal.
"I was able to use my transferable skills in a different sector," he says. Nicholls enjoys the pace and variety of his job, and helping employees to grow with the trust. He believes that it is important to engage: "I would hope that people see that I support others and support joint goals."
Staying at the top
Former-HR-director-turned-consultant Kevin Ball at the West Corporation is a specialist in effective business communication. Here he provides five top tips on reaching the top and staying there:
"It's the economy, stupid"
Senior management is at least partly about finance. Don't let your specialism be an excuse for ignoring the numbers.
Be the expert
Never let anyone forget that you are the expert on people.
Develop strong capability beneath you
Make sure you have the support to do your job so that you can also do that bit extra.
Get out from behind your desk
Business takes place where the customers are. Be there as often as you can and never let anyone accuse you of living in an ivory tower.
Look outside the business
Being a director means being able to at least guess what the future looks like. You'll never know that by only speaking to people inside the firm. Networking is part of a senior manager's job, so never feel guilty about doing it.
The beauty of an HR career is that it allows its exponents to enter and leave at different points, and to move between generalist and specialist posts. And it is possible to get to the top without having a textbook career progression in the discipline.
For example, HR director Angus Macgregor trained and worked as a lawyer in his before taking on HR responsibilities at Deutsche Bank and Barclays. He is now HR director at international law firm Eversheds, where he admits that he "absolutely understands the internal customers" and that the strands of his career have meshed well.
He developed transferable skills, particularly in employee relations and negotiations, and has drawn on skills from his legal training such as being delivery-focused and comfortable in dealing with senior people.
"HR is an easy target and you have to present professionally," he says. However, he remains open to updating his skills too, in areas such as talent, coaching and IT. "Lawyers are good at detail and I enjoy learning in depth," he says.
But no matter where you are in your HR career, keep tending to your personal development, says Brad McCaw, a principal at consultants Mercer. McCaw's concern comes from the HR Transformation survey he co-authored which looks at HR's endeavours to strategically reinvent itself, and anticipate business growth while transforming itself into a more valued business partner.
It showed that only 15% of activities carried out by HR departments across Europe, the Middle-East and Africa are related to pure strategic interventions, even though 65% of HR departments perceive themselves as a strategic partner to the business.
He advises that both existing and aspiring HR directors need to focus on the need for the function to understand business, and can draw on statistics on supplier management, cost-management skills and data analysis.
He says that they must also help business leaders understand and address the people implications of business decisions and ensure that business strategies are supported with suitable HR programmes to provide competitive advantage. "HR directors need to be able to pull the story together," he says.