So you want to be an HR director – here’s how to get there

There are several tried and tested steps aspiring people professionals can take if they want to progress, says Katie Jacobs

If you’re an ambitious people professional with your eye on the top job, you’re in luck. As senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, I spend much of my time with chief people officers discussing everything from their current people strategy to where they think the profession is going and what skills they are struggling to hire into their functions.

This, alongside regular conversations with HR headhunters, has enabled me to pull together a list of career experiences you will need to tick off to give yourself the best chance of landing an HR leadership role in a large organisation. It is by no means exhaustive, but if you're in career planning mode it’s a good place to start.

Get out of HR

This may seem counterintuitive, but many of the best and most commercially astute HR leaders have spent time outside the function. They may have started in a different discipline, such as operations or sales, and then moved into HR as part of their development. Or they took the decision to increase their business knowledge by running a P&L in a business line beyond their function. 

This not only helps develop commercial understanding but gives an up-close-and-personal view of the issues managers are struggling with day to day. While you don’t have to leave HR to do this, getting out into the business can help shape you into a more relevant and rounded professional with credibility beyond your function. Within the HR department, running operations or shared services can give you the experience in managing efficiency and leveraging new technologies that many CEOs are hungry for.

See the world

In an increasingly globalised environment, experience of working within different cultures is key to success within any multinational business. A 2013 Korn Ferry report states that gaining international experience is critical for ambitious HR professionals, providing “excellent preparation for the sensitivities required when managing a diverse multinational workforce”. 

You don’t necessarily need to take an overseas posting, but that full immersion in a culture will make you stand out. Challenging spells in fast-developing regions like China will be seen as more valuable experiences, given the scale of difference. If you are serious about progressing within a multinational business, why not step up and ask for that secondment?

Look up and out

At a time when most of us feel overwhelmed by the demands of the day job, it can be tempting to keep your head down. But being curious and looking up and out, horizon scanning and networking with peers in other industries is immensely useful. Understanding the risks to and opportunities for your organisation on a macro level is critical, as is being curious about the world around you from a socioeconomic and political point of view.

Building a network of peers helps to sense check ideas and share challenges. The HR leader role is often a lonely one; you act as the confidant and coach to the CEO, but no one in your organisation provides you with that service. A strong network can see you through challenging times – and even help you find a new role.

Get a handle on the numbers

In a previous role, I conducted a survey of HR leaders about HR skills shortages. The biggest gaps they identified were around commercial awareness and being comfortable with data, with reward experience the trickiest technical area to hire for. A leader in a large business needs to be able to go head-to-head with the CFO, which means you need to be comfortable with the financials. 

CHROs are also increasingly involved in discussions with the remuneration committee around executive pay, particularly in listed businesses. None of this means putting financials ahead of the people agenda, but it’s important to understand how the people agenda fits within your commercial context. 

Keep developing

The best leaders maintain a learning mindset; they don't think that getting to, or near, the top means they can stop developing themselves. This might mean taking an official course like an MBA or getting experiential development from activities such as joining a non-profit board or becoming a school governor. Finding mentors to support and challenge you can be invaluable. And it’s why the CIPD is launching the pilot of a mentoring programme for aspiring HR leaders, linking them up with established directors who are giving up their time to help develop the next generation. 

The CIPD Aspiring HR Director Mentoring Programme – launching in Autumn 2019 – provides up-and-coming leaders in the people profession with a structured opportunity to learn from established and experienced group-level HR leaders. Apply here to express interest in becoming a mentee or mentor.

Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD