They say time flies when you’re having fun. Perhaps that’s why almost 20 years in HR doesn’t seem like anywhere near that long. But the profession has altered every bit as much as my career has in the intervening years – and not necessarily in the way I expected.
If you had asked me two decades ago whether I aspired to be a managing director, I would have said no – as would many HR professionals at the time. Real or imagined, there was a barrier between HR and the business that seemed to keep the profession distinctly separate from operations.
I’m glad those perceptions have been challenged. Where once HR simply had to carry out the wishes of senior leaders, today the people agenda is front and centre for businesses, which brings benefits to us all.
The standards we, as HR practitioners, hold ourselves to have never been higher, and neither has the recognition that people matter to companies been greater. That doesn’t mean that HR’s mythical seat at the top table – which has always been a futile quest – has materialised. But it does mean the people agenda is being discussed at that table day in, day out.
The business partner model deserves some credit for this shift, but the biggest factor is a greater understanding of the importance of ethics and values. A succession of corporate scandals has shown that the right culture can make or break a business, and no one is better versed in that topic than HR.
Increasingly, I see HR practitioners being promoted into senior positions, and the profession growing in credibility as a result. These are well-rounded individuals who have demonstrated clear results through their people strategies. And they have transferable skills: the best HR professionals are able to move seamlessly into operational aspects of the business, just as operational leaders often make great HR professionals.
In my case, I’ve quickly realised that the fundamentals of HR are the building blocks of business itself. People can copy any aspect of what we do within our organisation, but they can’t copy how we do it because they don’t have the same individuals with the same ingrained expertise we have.
The role of any leader in that context is to get the best from their people, and in my first few months as managing director I’ve concentrated on helping the business become more collaborative. I’m lucky to be in a company with an excellent reputation as an employer, where senior leaders are already effectively HR leaders because they prioritise their people.
But I’ve still had plenty to learn, and it’s true that becoming an MD after taking an HR route has meant an even heavier workload as I absorb the detail of finance and sales. Any new leader can experience imposter syndrome – the worry that you might not be good enough or knowledgeable enough – so I have been busily arming myself with facts to ensure I am always on top of the agenda.
At the same time, I am and will remain an HR guy at heart. I manage a financial director but don’t feel the need to know the role inside out any more than a leader from an accounting background needs to understand the Bradford Factor.
I hope I’ve developed the confidence, over the years, to avoid feeling that HR is somehow less complex or less strategically important than other disciplines. If anything, it’s the most important part of any organisation, and that makes HR professionals the sherpas of the corporate slopes. Let’s make ourselves invaluable.
Robert Ordever is managing director of O.C. Tanner Europe