Six top tips to move from HR director to group HR director

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The vast majority of high-flying HR careers plateau at executive committee level. Jo Sweetland, partner and head of HR practice at Green Park Interim & Executive Search, suggests how the ambitious HR director (HRD) can climb the final rung on the HR career ladder to the sought-after position of group HRD.

There are still organisations where a group HRD does not hold a boardroom position. Equally, there are organisations where the HRD sits on the board. However, a key difference between the two roles is that the strategic influence of a group HRD will be more far-reaching than that of an HRD.

For example, while the role of an HRD will be strategic, the primary focus is on day-to-day HR issues and projects over a shorter time frame. In contrast, a group HRD’s key focus is to develop a strategic human capital plan that ensures that talent, capability and culture management are all aligned with the company’s longer-term strategic objectives and goals.

The increased level of responsibility of a group HRD – or the chief HR officer, chief people officer, chief personnel officer, executive or senior vice president of HR – is reflected in a generous salary package, which starts at £180k, in contrast to the position of HRD, which typically starts at around £80k.

Top tips on becoming a group HRD

1. Be fluent in the language of business

Understand what the board and the business needs. It is essential for a group HRD to be able to analyse key financial documents and establish metrics that measure the business performance of HR initiatives. A group HRD needs to prove demonstrable experience of improving the bottom line – growing earnings and reducing costs. It can be helpful to have at least one role where expertise is gained from a specialist function outside HR.

2. Gain international experience

It is not necessary to have worked internationally, but a group HRD must be comfortable navigating complex international workforces. It is especially important for business growth strategies to be able to help companies expand into emerging markets. Also key is the ability to preserve a company’s core culture while developing HR policies to suit different countries and regions.

3. Demonstrate a mix of organisational design, transformational change and talent management experience

Knowing your talent is key – a group HRD must have the ability to move talent across lines to meet business needs through enterprise-wide workforce strategies. Today’s workforces are highly specialist, and the HRD must be able to help companies introduce and integrate better systems to compete for and retain scarce, high-skilled workers. The ability to create strong talent pipelines to both enhance organisational decision-making and secure future growth is also essential.

4. Demonstrate exceptional stakeholder trust and influence

A board seeking a group HRD in today’s business environment will place high priority on individuals with credibility and strength of character to influence key decision makers. They must have the courage to speak their mind on critical and contentious issues and have the confidence and credibility necessary to develop and maintain productive CEO and board relationships. Enhanced communication skills are also required for a role that is more customer and investor facing than that of an HR director.

5. Be comfortable with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity

The ability to deal with the new normal business landscape is essential, as is experience of managing risk and dealing with crisis situations. Unassailable judgement under pressure is therefore a top priority at this level. Be prepared to help the board to understand how strategic and sustainable human capital policies will help the organisation to navigate these complex times.

6. Extend your network and find sponsors outside your organisation who can champion your career

Increase your visibility among your peers by networking outside your organisation and sector. Build relationships with head-hunters, professional associations, business-led network groups and industry-mixer events. You will have to differentiate yourself, demonstrate strategic thinking, be creative and open-minded as well as consistently exhibit the highest level of performance to get noticed.

Jo Sweetland is partner and head of HR practice at Green Park Interim & Executive Search

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