A foot in both camps? Photo: Shutterstock

Thursday 28th January 2016

Leading the new breed

Should future HR leaders be business or operationally based?

It’s like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first, in terms of the new breed of HR: strategic business savvy or operational HR excellence?

Most people would say the latter – you can’t furnish your house until you plaster the walls, after all. But one could also argue that an excellent HR operations system couldn’t be devised by someone with little understanding of the workings of their business and the wider economy.

And with that in mind, here’s a conundrum for you to consider: in developing the HR profession – which is of course what we all want to do – is it more important to make HR departments more business-centric (read ‘generalist’) and convince leaders from the operations, finance or marketing parts of the business to join as HR leaders?

Or, in a bid to promote HR excellence and make our profession a career path of choice, should we invest our attentions in recruiting  future stars from the fast growing human resource management degree programmes or postgraduate courses, which more and more business schools are offering?

It’s not quite as difficult as Sophie’s Choice. But with mounting pressure on people directors to be operationally excellent as well as strategically innovative (oh – and completely business focused) having the right team is an increasingly difficult balancing act.

A business anomaly

Is this a unique challenge for HR leaders? Not necessarily. But a couple of things do make HR a business anomaly.

First, HR departments are a relatively new concept in business. Marketing, finance and operations have had years to develop themselves, yet ‘HR’ – at least in the guise it currently adopts – is the new kid on the block, having only really come into existence in the 1990s. It’s only over the past 10-15 years that ‘people strategy’ has even entered into the common business vocabulary.

Second, the HR department is like a microcosm of the entire company. Not everyone in an organisation of any size will be affected by its advertising campaign or know about its turnover. But every employee will care about their career trajectory, their comp and bens and their terms and conditions. They all ultimately want to like their jobs, feel engaged and valued.

HR touches every employee, whether they realise it or not. It follows, then, that HR has to understand the workings of the entire business from finance to front line, boardroom to back office.

So, this ever-evolving department has to be ahead of the curve in issues such as the impact of  Generation Z, and it has to know the business inside out.

I’ve written before in this column that in order to unveil an HR masterpiece, an HR leader first has to have the basic operations in a state of perfection. That means understanding the business thoroughly and being on point when it comes to HR policy.

HR leaders have experimented for years with business partnering – placing members of the HR department in various parts of the organisation, essentially planting mini HR eggs in other nests. But, like most HR initiatives, it is hotly debated whether this works or indeed can ever work in every organisation.

A bottom-heavy profession?

At the top of the profession, too many HR leaders I speak to have ‘fallen’ into the profession after being discovered as being excellent managers. At the same time, the industry is bottom-heavy with highly qualified ‘HR careerists’ with little experience in commerce and entrepreneurship.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me – as an HR director in the hospitality sector – it was important to understand both sides. I worked for several years in hospitality operations, understanding the workings of the industry. Only then did I concentrate on developing  HR credentials, earning HR qualifications later in my career.

In terms of developing the HR stars of tomorrow and future-proofing the profession, I think a new conversation needs to be had on developing the future leaders of the HR profession.

So, who is going to lead the new breed?

About the author

Eugenio Pirri

Eugenio Pirri is VP of People and Organisational Development at Dorchester Collection. In the last 18 months, Eugenio and his team have won more than 10 prestigious HR awards.