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Jun 16, 2014

Are leadership skills different in HR?

Leadership skills are the same in every area, so why the puzzle?

By Dave Crisp

Whether mastering Big Data, increasing innovation or simply getting a seat at the table, the leadership debate rages on with respect to what works best in HR.

A typical blog piece from the Wall Street Journal insists no one should lead HR without, among other things, previous P&L experience. Need we explain that means profit and loss, running a money-making operation and paying the bills? Apparently some think this is an unknown for HR leaders. Is it more unknown to them than to the average manager who manages to a budget?

The author points to some rather fuzzy examples that suggest HR leaders need experience elsewhere and bringing outside people into HR would raise its credibility. Once again, we hear the refrain that only such individuals know when it’s important to use consultants and engage other managers effectively as opposed to trying to ram theoretical HR programs down the organization’s proverbial throat. It’s an easy stereotype, but do we really think the majority of HR managers had no business training at all and everyone else did?

Part of the problem of many typical blog posts is the need to focus a brief point and do it week after week. Despite this author’s reputation as a world class thinker, I think it helps to have a wider look at the issue — but I understand the pressure to be short, pithy and deliver regularly.

One might better ask why organizations would ever imagine promoting someone who’s spent their entire career in only one single function to a C-level role. Surely any strategic position requires more of an overview as well as less of a one-sided bias. That shouldn’t be news, although we also need to understand there’s more than one way to get "outside" experience. Do we really think it more acceptable for CFOs to move into their roles and on to CEO positions having served entirely in finance or accounting? Or manufacturing vice-presidents to make the jump without any experience other than managing shop floors? I doubt it. What we really think is these people move around more where we perceive HR staff as plodding through a single organization or division. Why is that?

We have plenty of examples of blinkered leaders in other functions — the bank crisis, for one. When Enron collapsed, it was pointed out that many big U.S. corporations had promoted MBAs to their CFO spots because they found chartered accountants too narrowly focused to talk effectively to bankers and investors instead of remaining wedded to technical accounting issues. Sound familiar? But the Enron problem arose specifically because no one was paying enough attention to those technical accounting issues that keep things legal. Sound familiar for HR, too?

The overall problem is there may not be a perfect job history for someone in a C-level role. Such spots require thinking beyond any one box. A focus that is too technical or not technical enough can equally cause problems. Someone who can find a balance and keep things moving forward isn’t easy to find. Add to that leadership is more than knowledge. MBAs are trained to try to look at problems from wide perspectives but, as everyone will tell you, that doesn’t automatically make them leaders.

A better overview of leadership development is this from the other side of the world, The Hindu Business Line. The author, another consultant, at least is refreshingly clear that a single business-school program in leadership won’t do the trick of turning out fully formed C-level players. It’s not a huge cultural leap to apply this to organizations globally. Slight differences in terminology don’t prevent this from being useful for understanding stages of development that most managers must traverse to become effective leaders — up to building strong relationships at the top, however one describes them.

We’ve tended to think every leader at the top has to be able to talk financials. But we’ve not required them to talk people-issues... at least until recently. As a result, many CEOs haven’t looked into HR ranks for advisers as they have looked into finance ranks. They haven’t seen a necessity for including HR executives in every decision, every meeting, every endeavor from planning stages to execution. They haven’t seen the need to rotate all budding executives as much through people-management challenges as financial turnarounds. They haven’t mentored HR people nearly to the same extent as P&L protégés of the moment, so unless an HR person has made a point of serving in a P&L role, chances are they haven’t been exposed to coaching and mentoring from the senior executive level.

We could ask rhetorically if this is because all those CEOs are so much better at people issues they think they don’t need an adviser at their elbow as they do in financial matters? Or they think their P&L leaders will pick up HR management skills by osmosis, but never vice versa. That’s a bit ironic, when first and foremost they want every executive at the top table to be already fully conversant in financials. If that’s the case, why the reliance on money experts joining their meetings? More realistically, isn’t it because they all get together to enjoy speaking a common language of dollars and cents, but would never attempt (or see the need?) to get together and speak a common language of talent management and people leadership as the key to getting the work done?

Who exactly are the blinkered ones? If we really believe HR people need experience in other functions, who’s moving them. Who’s coaching and encouraging them to try other roles? Or do we just assume when you take on an HR role you do so because you have no interest in financials or leadership. And by contrast, who’s mentoring all those P&L budding executives on the people issues they are going to need as organizations undergo continual change and need to innovate far more?

It hardly needs repeating that today’s business world is very different from the environment 10 or 30 or 50 years ago. Without people skills front and center, few organizations can expect to thrive henceforth.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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Getting ahead in the HR profession
Tuesday, June 17, 2014 1:35:00 PM by Dave Crisp
Very insightful comment Brian. Humans are almost always conflicted. People undoubtedly believe their assertions that HR folks need outside experience, but then why, as you correctly note, do they object to applicants who've been outside HR or have studied other subjects - it's a really great question and I've noticed that repeatedly, too.

There's an old saying 'you have to be a specialist to get a job and a generalist to get ahead' - that's probably part of it. How do you seem like a specialist if you've been doing other stuff. I counsel zeroing in on the common denominator skills - selling your ideas, dealing well with people, etc., but for many hiring managers it means just one thing - were you doing yesterday the exact work I want you do do tomorrow? (They hope you just 'hit the ground running' - ignoring that every organization and situation is different anyway, so fit is never assured. In fact I've often said it was harder going from one hospital head of HR job to another hospital than going from classroom teacher to Labour Relations manager. That was in part because I expected the two hospital jobs to be the same and it took a while to see they were very, very different. In the other case I knew I had a steep learning curve and I climbed it as fast as I could.

But I think there is also just plain stupidity involved for many. They just can't see how business and people skills learned in a different environment can apply to theirs. Everyone wants to think their industry is highly unique and only someone with their hands-on experience could every get up to speed in short order. But then they hire consultants who only appear to have some surface acquaintance with their type of work. (But that's OK, since most have no intention of taking the consultant's advice anyway - go figure.) Human nature! It makes us long for the sane individual here or there who sees through the blinkers that seem to affect quite a few.
Getting ahead in the HR profession
Tuesday, June 17, 2014 10:26:00 AM by Brian Kreissl
Excellent blog post Dave! I agree wholeheartedly with what you're saying.

However, I really believe, other than at the seniormost levels in HR, we as HR professionals only really pay lip service to the whole notion of the importance of gaining P&L experience, learning about about business fundamentals or having experience outside HR as strategies to further one's HR career.

After completing two general business management university certificates, I was told my education was "all over the map." I've also known people who left HR for line management roles for a few years who had a heck of a time getting back into a traditional HR role even though they kept their skills and knowledge in HR current and relevant.

So, I'm not sure I believe some of the "advice" about how to get ahead in HR, other than for someone at the CHRO level. In most companies, it still feels like "touchy-feely" people with highly traditional backgrounds in HR are the ones who get ahead.