I've spent a long time recruiting HR professionals at every level, and although junior-to-middle HR roles are still a focus for us here at 1-1 Recruitment, we're increasingly being asked to carry out assignments for senior and strategic HR roles.
When interviewing candidates I'm often struck by the qualities that unite the successful ones and how clearly these particular candidates stand out. With the need for senior talent as critical as it has ever been in an uncertain and challenging world, I thought I would share a few of my reflections on the qualities that help people to take the step to the next level.
These are real-world examples, so they may give you some ideas you can put into a personal development plan. If you want to know how you rate for these skills, go out and seek feedback from your manager, stakeholders and peers – which is something else that good candidates do!
1. They speak and listen to other functions
One of the skills I most often see in people who have progressed up the ranks in HR is that they can speak compellingly to everybody from the most junior new starter to the Board, including (for many the most challenging) the CFO.
Although this is a broad point, it all comes down to understanding where HR fits within an organisation. One way to understand the challenges, drivers and areas of pain for other business functions is to get involved at the earliest opportunity in your career with talent planning, pipelining and business structuring – in which case you will spend a lot of time with managers across the business – and to work with other departments where there is an overlap.
Marketing and HR now have plenty of opportunity to work together. Boards today recognise how competitive the market for talent is, and expect HR and Marketing to work together to attract the best candidates. This provides good opportunities for HR to gain an understanding of engagement, branding, social media and brand advocacy. Where once HR was seen as largely administrative it is now involved in retention, creating opportunities for talented staff, coaching and Learning and Development – all offering further opportunity for collaboration.
Several of the more employee-focused organisations I know of have an HRD on the Board, and I'm always encouraged if I see this. It suggests to me that a business is interested in listening to people's attitudes. HR has a role to play in ensuring a business is community-focused, which applies to employees and stakeholders alike. HR now speaks for the employee community – and that means you should be able to listen to it.
2. They think carefully before saying "that's not my job".
Who doesn't appreciate an employee who steps forward with a solution regardless of whether or not it's their "job" to do so?
While they're careful with their time and attention, successful career risers in any business function often earn themselves a reputation for taking things on. I've already discussed how HR has an increasingly cross-functional remit, but this means there are now plenty of opportunities to expand your own job description, as well as gain experience.
I've seen a number of candidates who gained promotion or significant pay rises by increasing the scope of their role until it became obvious that they were doing more than their job description. They simply became indispensable (or at least, less dispensable). More and more today we see people being asked to define their own role, so there's probably never been a better time to do this.
Closely related to this idea is a recognition that comfort zones are always provisional. I recently interviewed a candidate for a Project Management role. Early in her career she had been tasked with moving all the staff of an organisation from three offices into one - not because it was her job but because her manager recognised that she had the aptitude for the task. She spoke passionately about this achievement and felt it was the making of her, despite her nervousness about it at the time.
3. They challenge assumptions because they think about the bigger picture
The sheer pressure on businesses to perform can result in entrepreneurialism and creativity being stifled, with time-stretched individuals adopting a mind-set of getting so many boxes ticked in a day. Yet few businesses really want an army of box-tickers.
Successful candidates often question the status quo, whether that's a system or a process or a set of assumptions, and always seek a better way. They also tend not to accept that a task ends because they've ticked a box. Instead, they think about the implications of what they're doing. As Learning & Development today is focused more on developing individual talent and less on providing broad-brush training, it can be useful to demonstrate that you warrant further attention.
4. They are pragmatic career planners
Successful candidates often think pragmatically about their career and have a plan that means taking the long view. For example, some of the best HR candidates I've interviewed have been willing to take a sideways move at a key stage in their career in order to gain skills they know will be valuable.
I know several organisations who deliberately engineer this broad experience for their HR teams, and I think it's a fantastic idea. I have one client whose HR teams work within a shared service environment fulfilling HR generalist roles, but who are periodically placed on secondment – say, to implement SAP or work with Learning and Development. They then return to the shared services departments with new skills and knowledge.
5. "Tell me about your career" is their favourite question
Many candidates fear the part of an interview where they are asked to summarise their CV, even though they know it's probably coming. The good candidates appear to love it (even if they don't).
This is either because they're like the people I've just discussed, who have planned their career well and can talk about it in a really informed way that shows the drive and purpose behind their choices - or because they've rehearsed it.
Either way, you can gain easy points in an interview by practising beforehand how you describe your own career journey until it becomes second nature. It's an easy "win", although of course it won't guarantee you the job!
6. They get to know an organisation
Longevity not only brings rewards and valuable learning but is also a green flag in any CV. With the obvious exception of those who are too young to have done so, many strong candidates have decent tenure in one or more roles and those career-planners I mentioned above often ensure they get to know the ropes by gaining broad and deep experience in one or two (or a few) good firms.
I have two HRD friends who I've known since they were HR advisors (actually, I found them their jobs!). The continuity they've had with their employers means they know the staff and the company cultures well, and are trusted – crucial in HR. They know the businesses and their people well, and as such each has actively assisted in reducing churn. They've spent time growing with their employers and their deep understanding of company processes and culture is invaluable. As a function, HR is often expected to set the tone for an organisation, which is why longevity in HR staff is a good litmus test for an organisation's health.
7. They future-proof their careers
How best to future-proof your career in HR if you are just starting out? Be committed to studying with the CIPD (join it and network within it if you're not already a member).
While I love small businesses, it can also be a good idea to get into a large organisation at some point in your career. Larger organisations provide training and growth opportunities and are often ahead of the curve in their adoption of technology and processes – all valuable to candidates.
HR plays a crucially forward-looking role. As a function, it can be an employee champion, and should be an agent for people growing with an organisation. To that end, if you're naturally curious about people and can recognise individuals' strengths, you've got a great start.
We're seeing a big demand for generalist HR professionals, which means you really must be willing and able to turn your hand to anything in an increasingly multi-skilled role. Keep learning, stay hungry and above all, if you really want to progress your career – stay in touch!
Helen Floor, MD