Strong HR leadership has, by many measures, never been more important to business development. And yet, according to two consultants at one of the UK’s best-known leadership advisory firm, there aren’t enough candidates ready to lead. People Management asked Gizem Weggemans, head of HR practice, and Karim Jalbout, head of technology practice at Egon Zehnder, how the profession can bridge the gap.
What’s different about HR leadership now compared to a decade ago?
Weggemans: It’s quite frightening if you think about how the chief people officer role has changed. It’s come with a massive shift in workplace culture – think about the diversity and inclusion agenda, wellbeing and new technology. It falls onto people leaders to deal with all that.
Jalbout: A CEO has to be supported by a strong executive team, which is why we have moved from HR directors to chief people officers who have a huge role across the organisation. It’s about how we attract and develop higher caliber people into the people function. If you look at the complexity someone has to manage, we really need the best of the best.
Weggemans: The CFO function 15 years ago wasn’t seen as sexy. Now it has demonstrated it can create real business value and that has got CFOs a seat at the table. Today, we’re at the onset of the same shift for the people function. The second you elevate the HR function to the top team, that changes the type of person you attract. Traditionally, some people might have fallen into the function but now we are seeing organisations appoint and develop chief people officers who are leaders in their own right.
Where does technology come into the equation when considering HR leadership skills?
Jalbout: There’s no question that data is going to start playing a bigger role in the function. Data is never going to replace human judgement, but it would be naïve to say it isn’t going to augment that judgement. It has helped strengthen HR processes, but it also hasn’t been as big a hit as some people expected – one reason is that companies have data all over the place and their first task is to get their data aligned, which is a huge job. Plus, the data quality isn’t that great and the HR function hasn’t yet built the analytical capability it needs.
Are you seeing enough strong candidates in the market?
Weggemans: I’m afraid that if you look at where the supply curve meets the demand curve, it’s not an optimal point. And I’m worried that if we don’t get proper leadership development into the HR function we will wake up in a few years and lack the HR leadership for this new world. You’ve got super-experienced group HR directors in massive businesses who are great at leading ‘supertankers’ but haven’t necessarily experienced the sort of transformation people need today. There are up and coming HR directors in technology businesses but they don’t have the experience in shifting legacy organisations. I’m not sure HR has been given the mandate to develop into those roles.
What would your message be to aspiring HR leaders?
Weggemans: When we do development work with individuals, we spend a lot of time talking about the system versus the individual. A lot of energy gets spent on talking about why the system doesn’t allow things to happen. But you are a leader – take charge of your destiny, develop yourself and step into your own journey. If leaders are to transform their organisation, they need to transform themselves first. Developing as a chief people officer isn’t a selfish thing – it’s a responsibility to the organisation as well as to yourself.