Eight qualities that make a great HRD

Great HRDs communicate well and are sincere about what they have to say.

As the competition heats up again for HR director of the year in the Personnel Today Awards, former CIPD deputy and experienced HRD Susannah Clements shares her tips for standing out at the top of the HR function.

I have been an HR director or group HRD in a number of organisations. Now I spend my time seeking out exceptional HR talent for leading organisations. So, how do you know if you are a great HRD – or have the capacity to become one?

They know who you are

This may seem a bit basic, but it is really easy for an HRD to get tied up in corporate stuff and rarely get out and about into the organisation.

Ithaca expands into HRD search

Susannah Clements now heads up the HR director search practice at executive search firm Ithaca Partners, expanding on the company’s existing expertise in corporate affairs and investor relations directors.

Speaking of her new role, Clements said: “I have a real passion for building outstanding HR leadership.

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to apply my own experiences as a group HR director and from my time at the CIPD to finding the best current and future HR leaders and placing them in the organisations that need them to thrive.”

Ithaca Partners’ clients have included British Airways, Deutsche Bank and the John Lewis Partnership.

You need to be more than just a name on an org chart or a head-and-shoulders shot on the intranet.

Great HRDs know what is going on and what the current issues are for the people in the organisation. So you need to be properly visible, out and about in the organisation – talking and more importantly listening. Not just popping up on a platform on “broadcast mode” every now and again.

You’re above “us and them”

It is too easy, sometimes, for the HRD to become the apologist for senior management and always take their side. Protecting the organisation is not the same as protecting senior managers.

Great directors remember the wise words of Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams from “Shame” – “There’s three versions of this story: mine, yours and then the truth”.

They are objective about what happens in organisations. Sometimes the problem can be the senior manager, sometimes not. It is important to always be seen to be impartial, and on the side of the organisation, not of any individual.

You make stuff happen

Are things genuinely getting better because you are there? Budgetary constraints, recalcitrant managers and bureaucracy can stop things happening. The best HRDs will always find a way.

Look around you – is the organisation doing the same things over and over – at best slightly better, but not actually changing? Or can you truly say you are part of a team that is actually delivering the kind of constant innovation the organisation needs to not just survive, but thrive?

You communicate well

Great HRDs make complex things simple and can talk the language of every department in the business.

You have to be sincere in what you say, too – it is no good just mouthing words that the communications team have prepared.

You do not have to be a powerfully charismatic orator, just able to ensure everyone has a real sense of who you are, what you are doing and why.

You’re still an HR professional

This is another seemingly obvious one, but some HRDs can “go native”, believing a place on the senior team means 100% strategy; that they no longer need to worry about the day-to-day HR stuff.

But when something goes wrong, you will get tripped up. The art of being an HRD involves understanding the detail, but not getting bogged down in it, and being able to marry together the day-to-day and the strategic.

You are a cultural role model

I am not talking “star of stage and screen” here – but can people in the organisation look at you and see the culture you are charged with building and embedding?

There are few things more galling than to go on a leadership programme and learn about the organisation’s competence framework, then look at the senior HR leader and realise they wrote the book, they talk the talk, but they are not actually living the story.

Take a long hard look at the organisation’s values, and then ask yourself, am I putting my money where my mouth is?

Other departments respect you

You need to stay true to HR. But do not get bogged down in HR theory. You are just excellent at applying it for the good of the organisation, so other departments see you as someone who facilitates change – not stops it happening or wraps it up in red tape.

You are still human

Aside from all the dos and don’ts, and the other issues that govern your working life, you are still down-to-earth, thoughtful, and the sort of person someone can approach and talk to naturally. For me, it is critical a senior HR executive has, and is seen to have, empathy.

In short, it boils down to this: Be known. Be objective. Do things. Communicate. Do detail – to a point. Be a role model. Command respect in the business.

If you can do all that, you will make a great HRD – if you are not one already.

This year’s Personnel Today Awards will take place on 30 November 2015 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. Enter this year’s awards here

Susannah Clements

About Susannah Clements

Susannah Clements leads the executive HR search team at Ithaca Partners. She was deputy chief executive of the CIPD from 2013 to 2015, having previously held senior HR posts at Care UK, Anglian Water and Whitbread.
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