Too nice has a price

by 02 Apr 2009

The best HR managers combine great people skills with the backbone to be tough when necessary. It’s a delicate balance, writes Ken Gunn

What makes an outstanding HR man ager? What personal qualities, skills, experience and training should a CEO look for when appointing a person to this crucial role?

It is tempting to think of an HR manager as being at the soft end of management – the people person who relates well to others. There is no doubt that people skills are es sential – but so too is having backbone. As a syndicate chairman and independent direc tor Peter Jollie says: “If you have a whole lot of nice HR people who are too gentle and fair, nothing will happen.”

Achieving results

Backbone probably has more to do with na ture and birth order than nurture. In that sense, Jollie suggests that firstborn children – who are used to assuming responsibility from a young age – tend to make the best HR man agers. And people from the country who have to achieve results with few resources can also do very well.

Jollie is keen on people who have had ex perience managing a busy environment such as supervising a call centre. “That type of role is invaluable in giving a feel for what happens in the real world.”

Effective HR managers are organisation ally and politically savvy. They understand, reinforce and support the organisation’s val ues. At job interviews, good HR managers see beyond qualifications and experience and in tuit how well the candidate will fit into their firm’s culture. They also need to have genuine empathy for people, seeing them as individ uals rather than job titles.

The Noni B experience

David and James Kindl – the twin brothers who jointly manage the clothing manufactur er and retailer Noni B – create a sense of be longing and flexibility. And they understand how hard it is to earn a dollar on the shop floor.

David, a CEO Institute member, explains: “We know that Noni B ranks down the list of priorities in employees’ lives; we know that family is the most important thing. If a store manager has a son who plays footy on Sat urday, we will be flexible with rosters to give her that time off, even though it is a busy time in the shop.”

During tough economic times many com panies try to cut costs by firing head office staff. But at Noni B hard times are seen as pe riods when staff members most need head of fice support, empathy and training. Constant open, honest and quality dialogues through line management, memos and newsletters helps to keep staff members at the 211 stores inspired, connected and informed.

Of course, costs have had to be cut. David and James have pruned expenses by nego tiating cheaper rents and closing down 20 of their La Voca stores, which were launched in 2006 and did not become profitable before the economic downturn.

The best HR managers are adroit jugglers, according to David Kindl: practical, consis tent, experienced in their industry, able to lis ten to all points of view, champions for em ployees and they know their legal and compliance responsibilities. Is this the soft end of management? No way!