F or too long, human resources executives have staffed the human resources function with less than optimal candidates for today’s strategic role. Perhaps this was because we were so busy fighting fires that we didn’t step back and really define what we needed for the future--even though we required other functions to do so.
Perhaps we couldn’t easily attract the "right stuff" because human resources was considered to be a dead-end career (at least that’s what many heard in B-school!). Perhaps we allowed people to "select in" to human resources for all the wrong reasons: they wanted to be administrators; they liked to work with people; they were stressed out in line jobs; or they didn’t want to work (or declare a college major) in an area requiring math or quantitative skills.
Senior executives’ responsibility
The result of this kind of staffing was to severely limit the potential talent pool of professionals who could take human resources to the strategic level. Luckily, some--although certainly not in sufficient numbers--with the right attributes did manage to enter the field to set an example of what a strategic human resources function can contribute to an organization. Unfortunately, happenstance and good fortune alone will not transform the profession.
Senior human resources executives have a responsibility to make every human resources hire a step in the process of building a strategic human resources function.
Three hiring criteria
The selection criteria for hiring the talent necessary to build a strategic human resources function should include a focus in three areas: foundation dimensions, business acumen and interest, and the ability and willingness to acquire human resources knowledge and skills.
The first area, foundation dimensions, consists of the basic skills and abilities required to develop the competencies to be a strategic human resources leader. These include, for example, intellectual openness or curiosity, analytical skills (both verbal and quantitative), conscientiousness, integrity, assertiveness, strategic-thinking ability and a results orientation.
The second area, business interest and acumen, includes demonstrated success in business as well as being a student of the business. (If you have several years of experience: Do you understand the total business and its strategies? Do you get out of the office and meet with line managers? Do you read business periodicals?)
"We can't depend on seminars,
Business acumen also includes knowledge of basic financial-performance measures and the technical tools necessary to succeed in business (computer skills, statistical and quantitative skills). Be cautious about those who avoided quantitative or computer courses in college. Determine why they avoided these areas of preparation so necessary in today’s technological world.
The sales job of senior leaders
Given that a candidate possesses these foundational and business requirements, does she also have the requisite human resources knowledge and skills, or is she willing to acquire them through on-the-job training, seminars, in-house training, university programs, e-learning and certification programs?
Beyond this, what is most essential is the desire and motivation to build a career in human resources. This is where the senior human resources executive will earn his badge of strategic human resources honor.
Senior human resources executives must recruit and actively identify candidates who may or may not have human resources at the top of their list of career choices. They have to make converts of those who may not have considered human resources as a career or who may have been dissuaded from pursuing a career in human resources by personal experience, peer pressure or the advice of significant others. Potential candidates might be, for example, recent MBAs or individuals with demonstrated success in other functions, especially those who have achieved upward mobility in those functions.
We have to get over the notion that if people don’t express an interest in human resources, then they are not potential candidates. In fact, it is our responsibility to provide these potential candidates with a compelling answer to the question: "Why would I want to work and build a career in human resources in this organization?" This would include a commitment to provide the appropriate training, human resources education, exposure, career path, advancement opportunities, compensation, support, coaching and mentoring, and challenge.
When you begin with the right criteria, magical things can happen. Transformation efforts become much more effective. Only then will the human resources function have the talent to perform at the desired level. We can’t depend on seminars, books and consultants to transform human resources into a function of strategic importance, especially if we haven’t started with people capable of thinking and acting strategically in a competitive business environment.