HR: the David Attenboroughs of the workplace?

A great (non-HR) leader has the ability to manage effectively. A great HR leader must transfer these skills across the entire organisation. HC talks to Caltex HR head Simon Wilshire about the unique role of HR leaders.

As most HR directors would agree, managing an HR department presents unique challenges that other managers would find difficult to understand.

HC spoke to Simon Willshire, general manager of human resources at Caltex, about the ups and downs unique to the management of human capital.

“I certainly don't think of my role as a burden,” he told HC. “Certainly HR leaders are incredibly busy people, and we often do challenging work, but I don't see that as a burden. No-one is forced into being an HR leader. We do it due to our own intrinsic motivations, as well as some extrinsic reward – and the fact that the work is challenging doesn't make it a burden. I believe it's a part of the human condition to want to test yourself in challenging circumstances, and therefore I feel I'm incredibly fortunate to work in a role where the problems are usually interesting, often complex and the stakes can be high.”

But do the gifts of being in HR outweigh the burdens? Willshire believes that they do.

“I would certainly say there are many wonderful opportunities in our work, and I'd certainly like to focus on those things rather than the heavy lifting,” he said. “Firstly, to me leadership and especially HR leadership is a lot about legacy. I'm deeply motivated to leave an organisation in much better shape than I found it. When I eventually leave my current organisation I want to leave it with a deeper, more diverse talent base, with a healthier workplace culture, with an exciting cadre of leaders, and with a bright future. Of course all leaders and employees work together to make those things happen, but HR leaders and practitioners have a special role to play to guide and drive such a legacy.”

Willshire added that HR leaders have “a rare licence to roam the entire organisation,” which provides the privilege of gaining a unique perspective of the workplace. 

“Somewhere in the organisation there is always some drama, some issue that requires special care. And the fact that people are at the centre of our work, means that we have a front row seat to witness humanity in action in all sorts of circumstances,” he said, suggesting that HR practitioners are “the David Attenboroughs of the workplace.”

In the ever-evolving world of work, the challenges HR face mean that the HR industry must consistently and effectively adapt. HC asked Willshire how he predicts HR’s role will change in the near future.

“Building creative talent and building highly adaptable organisations will be our 'higher' purpose,” he speculated. “I sense that the business strategy and organisation development functions will become much closer partners than they are today. HR leaders will need to have their heads in the future much more than we do today.”

He added that he suspects the trend toward outsourced, non-strategic HR will continue.

Willshire told HC that for him, the most enjoyable aspect of being in HR is having the opportunity to “play with culture,” referring to workplace culture as “the main game [for HR],” adding that this is “where the stakes are the highest.”

As many HR practitioners would agree, the role of HR within an organisation is unique – Willshire attributes this mainly to success being determined equally by who you are as by what you do.

“Character is critical in all leaders, but HR Leaders especially need to show humility, moral courage, respect, empathy and determination,” he said.

He also advised that CHROs need to use their unique perspective and role to work collaboratively with C Suite executives.

“A mistake any HR Leader can make is to set themselves up as the spiritual owner of the company's values, the owner of talent, culture or diversity,” he said. “This sort of approach can compromise the personal ownership that we really need on these issues from every member of the C Suite.”

Simon Willshire will be speaking about the unique aspects of HR leadership at the HR Summit in Sydney next March. For more information or to register, click here.

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