HR, perhaps more than any other business function (with the arguable exception of finance), is prone to stereotypes. The ‘people person’ who disdains numbers and detail but is highly emotionally mature – and on hand with the tissues – has entered the popular consciousness. But it’s hardly consistent with the huge range of backgrounds and styles of those who are drawn into the profession.
But what if there were certain competencies, skills and behaviours that all successful HR leaders had in common? It isn’t a fanciful notion: as in other functions, headhunters have been using a new generation of psychometric tools to give them unparalleled insight into what truly makes outstanding candidates tick, beyond the bare facts on their CV or the impression they make in an interview.
People Management partnered with a new entrant to the UK assessment market – Great People Inside (GPI) – to piece together the essential validated psychometric dimensions of HR directors. It was a process that began with Tim Baker, consultant in the HR practice at Odgers Berndtson, designing a bespoke assessment based on his widespread experience of which requirements were most relevant to HR roles.
We then asked 24 experienced and demonstrably successful senior HR professionals (assisted by Baker and Paul McNamara at Eton Bridge Partners) to take an assessment covering their cognitive processes, behavioural traits and interests. Our subjects spanned a range of public, private and third sector organisations – from large telecoms providers to government departments and award-winning SMEs.
Their results were fed into a hybrid job profile where several key dimensions stood out. But the most surprising element of the results was that these HR leaders were remarkably well-aligned. Among behavioural traits, for example, around 90 per cent of respondents fell within the same range of results, and their interests – the things deemed to motivate them – were also significantly similar.
“It’s unusual to see people fall into such tight bands,” says Martin Goodwill, CEO of GPI. Other functions demonstrate a far greater spread of results, suggesting there is a ‘type’ of person, or at least a consistent set of behaviours, that excels in the function. So what sets great HR leaders apart?
The most significant behavioural trait that makes senior HR professionals stand out from other leaders was the ability to communicate a shared purpose and use it to motivate individuals, teams and organisations.
“HR directors are highly motivational and inspirational,” says Goodwill. “For so many individuals in a sample to score in such a tight band is rare, particularly given the many disparate organisations they work for.”
Energy and vitality
The ability to work well under pressure is heavily reliant on personal resilience, and an ability to draw on internal and external resources to maintain physical and mental health. This is by no means commonplace across the working population, but almost every HR leader scored highly in this area.
No other discipline, says Goodwill, is as adept at flexing its management style to motivate and manage people of different ages. HR leaders are comfortable dealing with a huge range of employees – and while Baker points out that there is a great deal of generalisation about the intrinsic motivations of millennials in particular, there is significant organisational value in being able to manage across the ages. “HR is able to adopt the right voice for every generation and can think about the good of the organisation now and into the future,” he says.
Louisa Baczor, CIPD research adviser, agrees: “The ability to genuinely understand human behaviour and treat people as individuals is part of the unique value HR can bring. The workforce can’t be treated as an homogenous group any more – we have to respond to individual needs.”
But Peter Reeve, head of HR at the Motor Neurone Disease Association and one of the 24 people who took the test, sounds a note of caution: “We’re all increasingly aware of the need to find engaging ways of talking to gen X and gen Y, but we may have taken our eyes off our older workforce a bit. Many of them are struggling with the abolition of the default retirement age and the fact they have to work so long. We need to talk to them too.”
Much has been made of HR’s burgeoning use of analytics. And our sample’s high scores for objectivity – defined as a tendency to prefer logic over intuition – suggests they are listening to the numbers rather than their gut instincts. Baker suspects that this is an area where leading HR directors may steal a march on the rest. “They are prepared to see what data tells them,” he says. “We will always need to value good judgement, but you need something to base that judgement on.”
Reeve adds: “People need to be much more grounded in metrics than they used to be. Certainly, in the organisations I’ve been involved in most recently, it’s notable that HR metrics are going to the board with meaningful commentary.”
Baczor, meanwhile, makes the point that when objectivity is combined with the emotional intelligence with which HR is traditionally associated, it’s a powerful mix: “It means HR leaders can understand people and what motivates them at work, but are combining that with evidence when they make decisions.”
HR leaders invariably enjoy helping others and are strong at building relationships; indeed, this desire to be cooperative and patient is defined as the main motivating factor that unites them. “This shows that relationship building remains critical,” says Baker. “There is a lot of persuading and influencing in HR. CEOs look for people who can get into the business and build consensus at all levels.”
The majority of HR professionals who took the GPI assessment were defined as creative and expressive – perhaps the most surprising aspect of the results given that most senior business roles allow little room for this to manifest itself at work.
But creativity can be expressed in many ways. “In job design it’s important not to simply apply best practice but to think about contexts and be creative around solutions,” says Baczor. “It’s an area where being artistically minded might help.”
Great ideas and access to reliable information matter little if you’re not being listened to. So it’s notable that most HR leaders are able to communicate clearly and directly while remaining respectful to others. Even so, there was a greater variance in scores here than in other areas. To succeed in HR, says Goodwill, being seen as assertive may not be so important.
Reeve says HR professionals are often in a tricky position, particularly when it comes to the CEO – they need a close relationship with the top leader, often more so than any other function does, but that means having uncomfortable conversations. “I know a lot of people struggling with managing directors who don’t want to be told the truth,” he says. “I have a conversation very early on [in the relationship] where I say: ‘Do you really want me to tell you what I think or not?’”
Baczor points to 2017 CIPD research – HR professionalism: what do we stand for? – that found that 69 per cent of HR professionals feel empowered to speak up at work, significantly ahead of most other occupations. A sense of professionalism, she says, gives innate confidence when it comes to challenging decisions.
The reliance on evidence, and the focus on multi-generational relationships, suggest that the DNA of HR leadership has shifted over time and may shift again as the context of work changes. But that should give confidence, says Baczor, that HR professionals who are dedicated to development can progress as HR evolves. Coaching and mentoring, or shadowing and secondments, offer ways to stretch your abilities and develop new ones, she says: “Anyone can learn to improve over the course of their career.”
How the tests worked
People Management and Great People Inside asked 24 HR directors, people directors and others of equivalent rank – from organisations including FTSE 100-listed multinationals, government departments, large charities and high street brands – to complete a bespoke assessment designed to measure the specific requirements of their role, as defined in conjunction with Odgers Berndtson.
The assessment concentrated on several dimensions categorised as cognitive elements, behavioural traits and occupational interests. These are defined as:
- Cognitive: the degree to which an individual is comfortable working with various cognitive processes.
- Behavioural: the behaviours an individual exhibits in the company of others, which is often suggestive of their overall personality. These are likely to an individual’s most fundamental traits, and tend to be the default position in times of stress.
- Occupational interests: the types of activities that the individual is most inspired and motivated by.
The assessment measured the default position of respondents – where they go when the pressure is on.
Can psychometric testing support HR decision-making, or does the science undermine its intentions? Read our look into the value of personality tools.