Leadership Matters
HR Professional
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By Joel Kranc


What does it take to become an HR leader?

There are few careers in the corporate world that get as wide a workplace perspective as a vice president of human resources. From working directly with C-suite executives to speaking with frontline workers, VPs of HR see all aspects of the business, from many angles and perspectives. Getting to that point in an HR leader’s career is no easy feat and takes years of hard work, along with skills and knowledge (and patience) to get there.


In summer 2014, Hays Canada, a global recruitment firm, conducted a survey that focused on the “DNA of a VP of Human Resources” and interviewed more than 100 HR leaders with a title of VP or higher. Rather than a single path or direction taken by HR leaders, what emerged from the data is that getting to the highest levels of HR leadership takes varied approaches, routes, educational backgrounds and experiences, with no one approach being correct or incorrect.


One theme to come from the report, and this may be true for all HR professionals but especially at high levels, is the importance of building strategic partnerships.


HR leaders must form partnerships with other executives within their organizations. Rowan O’Grady, president of Hays Canada, says that companies like to promote a “people first” approach to doing business, but don’t always make HR the main part of that function within the organization.


“It becomes up to the HR leader within the organization to be able to make that happen on a proactive basis,” he said. “HR leaders see that people should be a fundamental part of an organizational strategy, and I think it’s up to the HR leader to actually make that happen.”


You are here
Forming strategic partnerships takes a certain view of one’s self and how to work within the executive ranks. It is, therefore, important to know what sets you apart from other high level management at your organization.


“Both my role and the CFO role are the only roles that can go anywhere within the organization,” said Suanne Nielsen, senior VP and chief talent officer with Foresters in Toronto. “If I believe we have a people-related issue, I can insert myself into it and it’s unusual by that nature.”


She says, however, that HR VP roles are also unusual in relation to other C-suite executives because they act as a coach to the CEO in full support of the CEO’s mandate.


“There [aren’t many places internally that a] CEO can go to talk about concerns around people,” said Nielsen. “The CEO will need a confidential executive with whom to speak with about peer-related issues.”

She recently supported a new CEO that was brought in from the U.S. by getting him up to speed and helped refresh his business strategy.


Megan Paterson, director of human resources with Kinaxis in Ottawa, agrees that HR is a partnered advisor to CEOs.


“They’ve got concerns and questions and stress, and they need to be able to trust me and share it with me. So you have that insight as well,” she said. Paterson also says that HR has a more difficult time showing direct value, since on paper, HR initiatives cost money. “I have to work harder to show my value. I can support the company, its goals and objectives; I can help us make more money, but I’m not going to directly do that [on paper].”


And because of that, she says, HR VPs must be creative when coming up with programs that add value. New programs must be “sold” by the HR leader to the CEO and CFO, and so HR leaders need the ability to convince other executives of the value of different initiatives.


Back to school
Does relationship building and organizational support come with a certain educational background? According to the study, there isn’t one particular educational path to HR leadership. Paterson, who received a B.A. in psychology, says it was not part of a larger strategy to get to HR.


“It’s sort of related but it was never part of my plan,” she said. Later in her career, Paterson received a certificate from the Rotman School of Business in Executive Management for HR. She’s also earned her Certified Human Resources Leader (CHRL) designation.


While she says she was not even aware of specifically designed HR programs when she was in school, she thinks it’s a good idea to explore those areas of study to see if HR is the right for the individual.


“[Success in HR] depends on the person more than their education,” said Paterson. “I’ve worked with people that don't have a formal education, so I think the person is what makes you great at HR as opposed to how you got there.”


From HR professional to HR leader
In addition to various educational paths, experience really plays a strong role in the success of an HR leader, according to the survey.


“I strongly believe in the ‘70-20-10’ philosophy of learning,” said Nielsen. She says that 70 per cent of what HR professionals do comes through experience, 20 per cent through mentors or peers and 10 per cent from education.


It’s well-rounded knowledge that takes HR professionals to the higher levels and makes them great. The survey reports that a broad range of experiences and exposure to different aspects of the business is important. Almost 50 per cent of HR leaders surveyed say their past experiences played a role in securing their next job, more than credentials and personality fit. O’Grady says that being adaptive, collaborative, confident and able to communicate well are essential abilities.


“It’s not about being a safe pair of hands,” he said. “It’s having the characteristics of being a credible business partner and manager within the organization.”


Paterson says without key business knowledge, one cannot be a great HR leader.


“If you have that [knowledge], then every program you put in place is going to be supporting that,” she said.


She also says that when hiring, technical skills like understanding compensation and global benefits, for example, can be learned. It’s the softer skills of dealing with people and the enthusiasm for the job that she looks for and would expect from someone looking to move up the ranks.


In many ways, the road of an HR professional moving towards the executive ranks is uphill.


“Some companies struggle to differentiate between the fundamental basic role of human resources versus what human resources could actually bring to the achievement of the long-term strategy of the organization,” said O’Grady. “That’s why it’s difficult.”

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