Delving into HR’s DNA

What does it take to become vice-president of human resources?
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/20/2014

 Becoming a vice-president of HR requires a robust background in all areas of HR, along with a solid understanding of the operational side of the business. Once a strong foundation is established, it’s about building leadership skills through effective communication, people management and change implementation, and then creating links between human capital and business strategy.

That’s according to the report DNA of a VP of Human Resources from recruiting firm Hays, based on a survey of more than 100 Canadian HR leaders and a review of 100 resumés.

These executives have had a more difficult road proving their value as strategic business leaders, according to Rowan O’Grady, president of Hays Canada.

"Where obvious technical ability and qualifications set minimum vocation standards for other department leads, the VP of HR has had to demonstrate how... her work positively impacts business growth. There are less tangible qualifications that can be highlighted to demonstrate business acumen. Instead, having a broad range of professional experiences helps cement a reputation with the C-suite."

It’s about linking human capital to business strategy, and contributing to the strategic plan — as opposed to what the HR department can do, said O’Grady.

"A lot of the VPs we speak to said exactly that: You’ve really got to pave your own path, you’ve got to inject yourself into the organization, understand it and start thinking of how can you contribute to it," he said.

"If an organization can genuinely link their people to the business strategy then, yes, the VP of HR becomes a true partner but, more importantly, they put people at the centre of their strategy."

In some respects, you need to be a bottom feeder, said Sofia Theodorou, senior vice-president of HR at LoyaltyOne in Toronto.

"You need to take initiative and understand the pain points in the organization and be able to make a meaningful impact and solve things for them, even when they extend beyond traditional HR tasks. And that’s where becoming more of a strategic business partner comes in. It’s just not sufficient to know HR and be an HR specialist and guru... You need to also understand the financials, the company’s products and services and its competitors pretty well, and why the strategic goals and objectives of the organization are what they are."

When it comes to the soft skills needed by a successful vice-president, leadership and people management ability, communication skills and attitude rank highest, according to the Hays report.

Your role is really to be a change catalyst, said Theodorou.

"(It’s about) how do you align the organization or your products and services in order to meet the overall goals of the enterprise, which means you really have a change management role and change management is all about the communication — are you giving enough context to people as to what’s changing, why it’s changing, how it’s going to affect them on a macro and micro level, what does it mean for the business."

You set an example for executives and the organization as to what’s expected, said Carrie Lindzon-Jacobs, executive vice-president of HR at Imax in Toronto.

"Communication is key — enthusiasm for the company, being a brand ambassador externally and internally, getting employees engaged and on the bus with you."


In looking at the average resumé of a vice-president of HR, 45 per cent have a Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation while 67 per cent have an HR-related post-graduate certificate or diploma, 15 per cent have an MBA, 21 per cent have a BA and 29 per cent have a master’s degree, found Hays.

Sixty-two per cent of respondents said their undergraduate degree is unrelated to HR and 24 per cent said the specificities of the education and training do not matter — it’s more about experiences and the total package.

But the biggest weakness on the resumés of vice-presidents of HR is a lack of accounting and finance experience or knowledge.

Having business and finance acumen is a necessity, said Lindzon-Jacobs.

"Reporting into the CEO and sitting at the table with the CFO and all the heads of the various businesses, many of whom are running a P&L — I don’t know how you could contribute at that level of the organization without being able to read a balance sheet or the financial statements and understand the impacts of decision for the business."

Data analytics is a window for HR to have harder numbers around its impact and effectiveness, said Theodorou.

"That’s why having knowledge and building your capability and data analytics is going to be more critical to success and career progression for HR professionals."

Career progression

As to that progression, 56 per cent of respondents said there is a lack of director to executive-level opportunities available and 58 per cent moved to a smaller organization so they could reach a more senior role faster.

Lindzon-Jacobs became head of HR at a smaller company before joining Imax.

"It’s very, very hard to move from being the head of a division or senior generalist for a group to the head of the entire department, especially in a public company when you have to have the relationships with the board, you have to understand various levels of compliance, and then you have to be able to run the department from end to end," she said.

"Gaining that experience in a smaller organization where you can learn and grow and also develop the biggest business acumen is very helpful."

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