What it takes to become a director

by 03 Oct 2007

Q. I am a commercial HR manager/business partner within a blue-chip organisation and I am keen to become an HR director within the next five years. What kind of HR experience do you feel is best regarded to get to this level? Operational or strategic HR? Generalist or specialist?

A. It won’t come as any great surprise to hear that there are far fewer HR director opportunities in the market than there are HR managers. Naturally, only a select number of these managers will make it to the very top of the HR ladder, just as with any other corporate profession. When addressing the question of ‘how do I get there?’ it is important to note that job titles can be ambiguous and in the context of this article we interpret a HR director to be the most senior member of a HR team.

The nature of the HR profession has developed so considerably over the past few years that the most successful HR directors must now offer a lot more than just a solid generalist background. These days it is business knowledge first and HR experience second, insofar as without the former, the latter is redundant. So what qualities and experience do Australia’s best employers look for in an HR director?

One thing that is very apparent is that when a recruitment firm is approached by an organisation to search for a new HR director, more often than not that employer will expect many applicants to already have operated at director level – sat on a leadership team, managed a large team and proven capability of having an impact on the success of an organisation. If you are with a company that is big enough to offer considerable career progression, then it is sensible to take every chance you can to make yourself as marketable as possible.

For example, if you get the chance to spend some time actually working in the business (on a secondment), it can add a huge amount of credibility to your skill set. Being able to actively manage the profit and loss of a business area means that upon returning to your HR career you will have a first-hand understanding of what a business needs, and how HR can best manage those needs. This point cannot be underestimated – one of the most frequently quoted criticisms of HR, by chief executives, is lack of commercial acumen.

With regards to whether generalist or specialist experience is better regarded, quite simply you cannot have too much of any kind of experience. Almost without question, the best HR directors will be able to demonstrate something over and above a standard HR manager. If you have the opportunity to work in a specialist role then this is always useful to consolidate a proven generalist career. Reward and benefits experience or an organisational development bias are skills that are particularly well-recognised in top notch HR directors.

The other important aspect to consider is a question of capability. Having first-hand business exposure and/or good management experience is all well and good, but taking full accountability for an HR function of any size requires a very headstrong approach. For example, you must not be afraid of making difficult decisions and of course you have to balance running a harmonious and happy team with getting the job done to meet, if not exceed, the business’ expectations. I also believe that while conceptual thinking and strategic planning are hugely important, the most successful HR directors are the ones who never lose sight of the service HR is there to provide, and who are frankly happy to still roll their sleeves up when needed.

I think what is clear is that becoming an HR director is not a right of passage! Just because you have ‘done your time’ as an HR manager, it does not mean you will automatically take that final step to lead an entire HR function. You have to be able to offer that little bit more whether that be some additional specialist experience, a secondment to a business role or just outstanding leadership ability. Most often it will be a combination of all three.

By Tim Henry, senior consultant, Frazer Jones & HR Matters