What does ‘good’ look like when it comes to HR professionals?

What makes a good HR professional? As the demands on HR increase, this question is becoming critical – not just for HR, but for business, too. At the request of the organisations that are members of Henley’s HR Centre of Excellence, Henley College carried out research looking at what makes successful HR professionals through the eyes not only of HR, but also its business partners and HR headhunters.

This is a time of huge opportunity for HR. Even during the current market turbulence we’ve seen, the business press continues to highlight a number of issues that our members have been aware of. The value of intangibles on the balance sheet has increased from about 35% to more than 80% over the past two decades as investors have recognised the long-term importance of brands, knowledge, talent, leadership and other factors related to the people in an organisation.

What does good look like?

In this environment, the business’s need for HR talent is greater than ever, but our research suggests that not enough HR professionals have what it takes to meet the challenge. So what do they need?

Our study shows that the best HR people bring a highly commercial outlook, combined with deep HR expertise and an unusual quantum of emotional intelligence (EQ).

Commercial acumen is the sine qua non. The language of the boardroom is finance, so if HR wants to have influence, it must be able to clearly articulate the business challenges in the language of the business, focusing not on what HR does, but on the value it brings. The worrying insight from the research was that “the majority of senior HR people cannot enumerate the value they bring”. Indeed, one headhunter noted that the CVs of senior HR professionals are often the worst CVs they see, as they focus on activity, not value added.


Finance does not get credibility from knowing about the business alone. It gets credibility from its deep understanding of the numbers. While HR must understand the business, it adds value through its deep understanding of people and how they react and behave. Once again, we noted how few HR directors have a deep experience and understanding of HR models and theory, or spend time philosophising about HR.

The final element that differentiates great HR directors is a combination of integrity, political savvy and courage. They develop deep, trusting relationships with the business so people confide in them, knowing that they will use that information for the benefit of the business, not their own careers. They know how to influence the chief executive and board, and say what needs to be said.


The second question we sought to answer was if we know what a good one looks like, how do we find and develop them? Once again, the research showed only a minority of organisations are practising talent management in the function. HR needs to consider how it will attract good candidates into the profession and provide them not only with deep HR expertise, but also with commercial experience. By the time they become an HR director, they need to have an intuitive understanding of what business is about and how they can contribute to it.

Having attracted and developed this HR talent, the final question is how to retain it. Here we noted a worrying trend. HR appears to be losing good people in their late 20s to early 30s. As organisations give them line experience to develop their business skills, many choose to stay in the line, or join consultancies where they see greater opportunities. In other cases, people are making personal lifestyle decisions to leave business as organisations, despite the rhetoric, don’t provide real work-life balance.

HR needs to have a real debate about what good HR people look like and where we’ll find them, but also how we’ll attract, develop and retain them. We talk about this to the business, but let’s not be cobbler’s children.

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