The Leading Edge-How to Be a Great HR Leader

February 1, 1999
When most people think "survey," they often think "Gallup." Although the company is best known for the Gallup Poll, most people don’t know The Gallup Organization also provides management research, consulting services and education to some of the world’s largest corporations and institutions through The Gallup School of Management, based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Gallup has conducted interviews with more than 40,000 leaders and top tier managers over the past 30 years. The firm’s research has identified 20 key talents or "themes"—what Gallup defines as "natural predispositions" or "recurring patterns of thought, feeling and behavior that can be applied productively"—that relate directly to how a leader performs. Those four areas are: direction, drive to execute, relationship and management systems.

Here, Jan E. Miller, a senior vice president and the senior managing consultant of the talent assessment practice at The Gallup School of Management, discusses what characteristics she sees in great HR leaders and how some of those themes relate back to visionary senior HR leadership.

What does it take to be a great HR leader these days?
The first thing that makes a great HR leader is really understanding and valuing human potential: How do we measure it, take care of it, develop it, coach it, progress it and all those kinds of things. The HR leader understands that assessment. From there, once they know what [human resources] they have, they need to figure out what kinds of opportunities they need to provide for people. There’s also a lot more focus on setting the right expectations for people and looking at ways that those expectations are in line with the needs of the organization. I think there are clearer expectations from a great leader around human potential.

What’s the second mark of a great HR leader, in your opinion?
A great HR leader thinks both strategically and tactically. There are few people who can do both or shift from one to another. A strategic person has great ideas that are never fully realized, and a tactical leader is on the tarmac day to day, but doesn’t see the big picture or prepare the company’s people for growth. The best leaders do both.

What’s the third mark of a great HR leader?
The third one is that the great leaders in HR are now sitting at the executive table—and that’s a big shift. They’re seen as key people at that level, and they’re expected to have opinions and participate in things that will impact the business, not just people. They’re actively involved in bringing value to the business side of the equation. In the old world, HR was buried in the organization and was a cost center. Now, the great HR leaders sit at the [executive] table.

And the fourth mark?
Great HR leaders always think: "How do we measure what’s happening in our workplace and with our customers?" Quite honestly, for some of the large organizations I work with, the business units of the company really are the HR department’s customers. So they’ve got to stay very engaged with them and integrate and direct what we call "systematic solutions": Where are the points of measurement? Where are places we can make some changes? For example, how do we rank in terms of our leadership scores? Companies are doing a lot more employee surveys. They then are holding leaders accountable for the type of environment they provide. Great HR leaders are incredibly conceptual, and it’s exhibited in how they set directions.

Why is "direction" an important dimension for HR leaders?
A talent we see consistently in great HR leaders is they can get their head around ideas. They can sit at that executive table and draw points from this person and that person and be able to connect the dots for people. In a lot of ways, they provide the needle and thread that ties some very disparate ideas together and makes sense for the business.

One of the other skills or talents your study uncovered was that HR leaders should have a "drive to execute." How does that fit in?
It’s important for HR people to not be afraid of taking risks. By and large, I think poorer HR people are almost risk adverse. Better HR leaders aren’t afraid to try new things. They aren’t afraid of bringing ideas to the executive table and saying, "If we’re going to stay ahead of the game, these are the things that we need to be doing." They’ve got to drive that point.

What’s another skill or talent your study uncovered?
There’s a theme called "individualized perception" that we find in great teachers and in great leaders. These are people that know each person is unique, so they don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all program, and that they know there are some things that aren’t offered from a program standpoint. But I also think there’s more of a realization that: "If we’re going to maximize the talents that exist in this person, development is individual, so we’ve got to treat it accordingly."

What other skills are important?
Quite frankly, what I see is the best HR people really delegate to other people in the organization. If they’re monitoring systems day to day, I don’t think they’re as much "big picture" people. They don’t figure out what the company’s needs will be in the future.

Do all these talents or skills come naturally to great HR leaders?
Yes, they’re inherent in who they are.

So if these things are natural talents, can HR people who aren’t good at these skills learn how to do them well?
I believe that people develop and continue to grow. We operate from a philosophy that people grow most in the areas that are already strengths. Some people aren’t very financially astute. So they’ll get tutored and really work at understanding how to read a profit and loss statement. They’ll get better at it, but it isn’t natural for them.

I’d rather see people say, "I know what I’m good at. I know what I’m not so good at. So I’m going to find partners or people I can really rely on that I know can do this well." And, coincidentally, in our study of great leaders, we know that they’re not trying to be all things to all people. They know what they do well, and they’re consistently successful in surrounding themselves with people who have complementary abilities.

Workforce, February 1999, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 27-30.