This brave new – electronic – world of business calls for a new breed of HR
professional with a new set of skills. Here’s our guide to the qualities that
will set you apart as a top manager
Last summer, when the sudden explosion of the dot.com economy first grabbed
the nation’s attention, management consultants began to remark on a newly paranoid
client base. So quickly did the established ground begin to shift in virtually
every industry sector that bewildered, frightened senior managers began to
approach the consultancies in droves, desperately trying to find out how they
Most did not get the shift to e-commerce at all. "Companies are still
coming to us with the old model in mind. They want a go-faster version of the
old style," says Andersen Consulting partner Paul Cantwell. "We are
still trying to impose the new on the old. It took us 20 years after the
invention of the internal combustion engine before we stopped building
horseless carriages and began designing cars which exploited the engine."
Nearly a year on, few HR professionals will be unaware of the sort of person
needed to drive through these changes. The hunt for business savvy,
entrepreneurially-minded "silver bullet" managers – capable of
bringing strategic aims to bear quickly in the middle echelons of organisations
– has never been so aggressively pursued.
Companies are prepared to pay a premium for these thrusting middle-rankers,
with the result that strange things are happening to the prevailing status quo.
There is already evidence that some "new wave" managers can command
more than junior board members when it comes to remuneration, and they are
certainly exerting far more influence on the future shape of the organisation.
The network generation
What is the typical mindset of this desirable new breed? According to
thinkers such as US business strategist and change agent Don Tapscott, it bears
an uncanny resemblance to the sort of agile, flexible cultures we have seen
adopted in some of the more successful new operations emerging. He has dubbed
it the network generation – N-Gen – mentality.
"The N-Gen mind is ideally suited for wealth creation in the new
economy. This generation is exceptionally curious, self-reliant, contrarian. It
is smart, focused, able to adapt, high in self-esteem and has a global
orientation. It will create huge pressure for radical change in existing
companies," he says.
Tapscott notes that the process is already well underway in some more
forward-thinking organisations. At household goods manufacturer Proctor &
Gamble, for instance, a new reverse mentoring programme has been introduced in
which seasoned managers are taken in hand by more youthful mentors and
instructed in the ways of new business. Some of the assessments made by the
latter group make for interesting reading: "People don’t know how to work
in virtual teams", they observed. "They don’t know how to build a
culture of sharing, they don’t trust computers and networks. It is impossible
to get these people out of their comfort zones."
HR managers might already have identified similar problems in their
companies, and even taken steps to put them right. But how good are they at
applying the new criteria to their own working lives?
As Linda Holbeche, director of research and HR strategy at Roffey Park
argues, the evidence is not good. Indeed, the new training programme (with a
pronounced business focus) she has devised for HR people came into being
precisely because the profession and its practitioners were held in such low
esteem. "One thing that stood out was that HR was considered to be, at
best, just about earning its keep and at worst an irrelevance.
"When line managers are asked for their opinion, she says, "There
is almost a universal snigger or sneer when it comes to any mention of
Even worse, self-criticism is also rife. "HR people think their
profession as a whole lacks credibility," says Holbeche "They
recognise they are not plugged into the real issues of what businesses are
trying to achieve and how HR can contribute to these goals." And yet this
is supposed to be the profession of the motivator. It is impossible to avoid
the prescription – physician heal thyself.
With the prevailing wind of corporate fashion stressing a more holistic
approach to management – in which "soft" issues such as people
management, employee fulfilment and the harnessing of intellectual capital are
being shown to have an important impact on the bottom line – there has never
been a better time for HR managers to make an impact.
The following seven-point guide to the skills and qualities most likely to
set you apart as a manager going places has been compiled with the help of
academics and management experts. Embracing all the elements of change might
seem a tall order for those enmeshed in the daily nitty-gritty, but in the
current environment even the ability to nod at some of these qualities will pay
Senior managers are desperately casting around for people who can define new
roles to best exploit the changing nature of the market and – critically – for
those who can make these revised working relationships successful, it is a huge
vacuum that needs filling. "CEOs want the ability to read where the
organisation is going," concludes Holbeche. "They instinctively know
that people are important to performance but they don’t know what to do about
it." If HR managers aren’t in a position to tell them, who is?
1. Business strategist
Although HR people have been talking for years about taking on a more
strategic and proactive role, observers note that there has been little hard
change to justify the verbiage. "The whole thing has been largely vacuous.
Every HR department says it has to be strategic. But the question they are not
answering is what do they need to do become so?" says John Purcell,
professor of human resources management at the University of Bath School of
As a preliminary step, it is critical to get on equal terms with peers in
other departments. "HR people need to be able to analyse the business. If
they don’t understand the business as well as everyone else, they are not in
the game," says Paul Kearns, senior partner with HR specialist Personnel
So find out as much about the business, its standing in the market, and the
direction of change in that market as you can. What are the existing channels
to market? What customers is it aiming to attract? How do external commentators
rate its chances? What are rivals doing differently? Form your own opinion on
where you think the company should be going. How wide is the gap between that
and the present reality?
Be aware of the main preoccupations of other departments. Become financially
and IT literate. The broader the breadth of knowledge you can bring, the
greater your chances of being taken seriously. Holbeche at Roffey Park even
advises a tactical career break: "To see the other side, be prepared to step
outside the personnel profession if necessary, do something else, and then come
Bone up on the latest trends in management theory: if you cannot walk the
walk, you will at least be able to talk the talk. Those in the vanguard, says,
Valerie Anderson, a senior lecturer at Westminster University Business School,
"will be people who look to the future rather than being over-concerned
with the present: much more strategic thinkers and doers".
2. Organisational anatomist
To implement strategy effectively, HR managers need a detailed understanding
of how the organisation works internally – the dynamics between different
departments, political allegiances, where the real power base lies, who holds
the key knowledge, and so on. "Then they need to ask what the blocks to
change are," says Kearns at Personnel Works. How can the company best
restructure its working relationships, remuneration policies and organisation
to exploit the talent of individuals? "Why the hell should people share
knowledge if they stand to gain nothing from it?" Kearns asks. "The
big challenge for HR people is to get rid of blame cultures."
Holbeche also advises a more proactive approach: "Challenge the status
quo, get thinking about the consequences of HR for business and vice versa.
Help managers see what a decision they have taken will mean in terms of
3. Measurement expert
Opinion is split on the issue of measuring performance. On the one hand,
commentators stress the importance of being able to prove to senior management
that people-centred strategies do have an important impact on the bottom line.
On the other, they warn against becoming too bogged down in pointless
bureaucracy and process.
"HR people spend far too much time on assessing competencies and
appraisal systems and not enough time getting to the nub of the whole thing,
namely what makes for talent?" says Gallup European vice-president Graeme
Buckingham. "And many of these measures are too subjective. When I ask
organisations who their best performing people are and whether they can define
that objectively, the answer is they can’t. Companies are using very limited
measurement criteria by which to assess people."
Kearns adds, "Building the whole edifice on competencies is common, but
it is a pack of cards. These measures have done nothing to bring the business
forward. Performance measurement is the one thing HR people should be up to
speed on, and they’re not."
He recommends getting a better grip of some of the generic measurement
matrixes such as Total Quality Management and the Balanced Business Scorecard.
If your company is listed on the stock market, a working knowledge of value
measurement matrixes such as EVA is also critical. "At the moment EVA
analysis is dominated by the accountants’ way of doing things. HR needs to
bring something else."
Be prepared to argue the corner for any persuasive measurement matrix you
might have uncovered.
4. Solution provider
One of the key criticisms levelled at the HR function is its seeming
inability to get tangible results. "Learn to identify the key things that
will make a difference to the bottom line, and focus on them. HR can win a lot
of favours if it makes a difference. Are there recurring problems in the
business which could be solved? Are there areas which should be strengthened.
Be inquiring, be focused and deliver something which solves those problems,"
says Holbeche. At the very least make sure you can offer a viable plan.
If there is a high profile change management project in the offing, sign up
for it, if only because those who can demonstrate success in this area are
considered big catches in the current environment. Make sure you can back up
these skills with good project management.
5. Coalition partner
If HR is to have any real impact in the corporate firmament, its managers
have to get out of their silos and begin some serious networking with other departments.
"HR managers have got to start punching their way. They have to be seen as
relevant to colleagues," says Graeme Buckingham at Gallup.
But at present the tendency is for colleagues to take a completely opposing
view to the function, he says. "Senior line managers in sales and
manufacturing are still complaining about impositions from HR – that they
complain too much about procedure, that they’re not doing enough which is
materially beneficial to the organisation." If you learn nothing else, make
a constant effort to stop whingeing.
Forging closer links with line managers is also vital if HR managers are to
shrug off many of the administrative shackles hindering their move into more
strategic areas. "The key is to get line managers to take on a greater
administrative burden," says Valerie Anderson at Westminster University
At present there is a lot of talk about this but not much action, she
reports. And although line managers and HR are beginning to collaborate in some
areas, they are hardly strategic, typically covering issues such as
recruitment, payment disputes and so on.
What’s required of a good coalition partner is some serious networking,
argues Purcell at Bath School of Management. "HR people have to learn the
power of walking the corridor, they have to start getting invited onto project
6. People champion
However many generic skills and qualities HR professionals chalk up, it is
critical to take full advantage of the department’s unique selling point – its
ability to analyse, empathise with and manage people – and get the best out of
"People are screaming to be recognised as ‘Me, I’m different’. The best
managers think of them as individuals," says Buckingham. "There has
been a great deal of research to show that it is the manager who is the
critical determinant of whether employees are committed, engaged and stay. The
question I would ask HR is what are you doing to encourage that? Forget
everything else if necessary but your main task, which is to find good people
and help retain them."
7. Passionate advocate
"When you study some of the best HR functions, what comes across is a
very strong belief in the importance of HR to the future of the
organisation," says Buckingham. But an element of steel is also needed, he
argues. "These people were advocates of good people, not protectors of the
But, in common with Holbeche, Buckingham believes that self-esteem levels in
the profession are low – as is enthusiasm. "I meet some and I wonder why
they are in HR, because they don’t show any of that passion and concern."
These qualities of coaching, developing and influencing, while considered
"soft" are crucial, agrees Kearns. "A lot of this is about
influencing and persuading and selling ideas, selling the human angle to senior
managers. The brilliant HR person of the future will be very business-literate
but also a consummate networker. They have to be able to talk turkey with the
MD but know the soft issues too."
By Jane Lewis
How to get those skills
It is all very well to wax lyrical about the skills and qualities of the HR
manager extraordinaire but how do you go about acquiring them? The first point
the experts stress is that there are no short cuts. Nothing will ever replace
the need for an in-depth knowledge of your organisation and its people – and
that can only be gained by walking corridors.
Nonetheless, some commentators insist that if they are to be taken
seriously, HR professionals must espouse the same attitude to formal
qualifications as their peers in other departments. Professor John Purcell at
the University of Bath School of Management, for instance, believes an IPD
qualification is a crucial first step. Although some commentators are still
inclined to criticise the IPD for not including enough generic management/new
business content in its courses, the consensus is that it is now moving in the
The real difficulty in selecting the right course comes in hacking through
the myriad of options. With so many organisations offering courses tailored to
HR professionals which should you choose?
Getting this right is likely to be a lengthy research project in its own
right. Valerie Anderson at Westminster University suggests courses which major
on "broadening horizons" are good starting points – in other words
those which will teach you how to go about educating yourself.
Most course providers have already jumped on the bandwagon of offering more
business-centric content, although commentators such as Kearns at Personnel
Works claim few have got the methodologies right yet. At the risk of singling
one out for preferential treatment, most commentators were familiar with – and
grudgingly complimentary about – what is being offered at Roffey Park, a course
generally viewed as the first to feature a strong business emphasis. For
project management, Brighton-based Maxim Training was commended by two of our
But perhaps the most useful tool to HR managers looking to enhance skills is
the Internet. Not only can you gen up on the latest theories – Dave Ulrich’s
on-line analysis of the HR function is recommended by Kearns – you can also
swap course recommendations with other HR professionals and even sign up for
on-line HR courses.