How to … step up to the role of HR director

Moving to a top job is never easy, even if you have the right qualifications and experience for the position. Dealing with the politics that inevitably go with senior-level management, acquiring and mastering new skills and being strategic, as well as delivering results, can all feel like a steep learning curve

Scott Beagrie explains how to meet the challenges of the key HR position

What is the challenge?

Moving to a top job is never easy, even if you have the right qualifications and experience for the position. Dealing with the politics that inevitably go with senior-level management, acquiring and mastering new skills and being strategic, as well as delivering results, can all feel like a steep learning curve.

Rising to the role of HR director well prepared and with your eyes open can make the early weeks feel less overwhelming and more productive and enjoyable. And remember, it is important to feel like you can do the job and to act as though you are ready for the position as well – after all, no chief executive wants an HR director who’s almost, but not quite, up to the task.

Where do I start?

You are talented, hardworking and smart, and this career move has occurred because the CEO thinks you are up to the task, so be confident and have faith in your capabilities. An acute sense of who you are – your strengths and weaknesses and your effect on other people – is crucial at this level.

“Self-awareness is the most important stage of personal development,” says Jane Phillipson, a consultant at Hay Group who has served as an interim HR director at the University of Manchester. “Be clear about your strengths, the leadership approaches you have found successful in different situations in the past, and how you are going to ensure your new team understands what you expect of them.”

Build your credibility

If you are moving to a new organisation and are unfamiliar with its products and services, immerse yourself in its commercial activities and corporate strategy. Knowledge is power, so get to know the innermost workings of the business. Establish contact with heads of other departments, such as finance, operations, marketing and IT, to become fully conversant with departmental and company-wide objectives and goals. As well as raising your profile, this will present a firm foundation for planning and decision-making, and the insight you get from this will give you an edge.

Communicate effectively

Good communication skills are a prerequisite for every HR director. This means being able to both interpret and articulate the company’s vision and objectives and translate best practice. At departmental level, while it is impossible to talk to everyone every day, you want to be seen as a ‘go to’ person, so try to keep an open door policy. Also put mechanisms in place, such as regular meetings and team talks, to ensure you know what’s going on, where any issues lie and whether intervention is needed.

“Your team needs to feel supported as much as you do,” says Phillipson. “Communication may never be perfect, but that does not mean you should not strive for it.”

Sharpen leadership skills

At this level, you will need other people’s help to succeed. Use every opportunity to practise, test and improve your influencing skills to help you earn commitment, loyalty and trust.

Prepare to be challenged

While you might not be steering the ship, as HR director, you are in charge of its engine – the people – so learn to live with the magnitude of the job. Develop your own coping strategies, as you will be the person others turn to when they don’t have the answers.

“This means the most challenging issues you face will be those where the outcome of your decisions will be the most uncertain,” says Phillipson. “But the development that comes from a promotion should stem from moving out of your comfort zone and into your stretch zone. As someone once said to me, you don’t know how to do anything until you’ve done it. When you’ve done it, it becomes your new comfort zone.”

Second opinion stepping up to the role of HR director

What can you do to mentally prepare for the step up?

First, remember who your friends are. To have reached the heady heights of HR director in any organisation, you will have worked with bosses, peers and subordinates from whom you will have learned a lot. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone to ask those you trust for advice. And second, retain your sense of humour. How many times have we all said: “One of these days I’m going to write a book about the things we experience in HR”? If you can still laugh about the situations you find yourself in, and ideally have people around you can laugh with, you are more likely to stay strong.

How should you go about building a relationship with your new charges?

First, spend some time with them – both individually and as a group. It may sound obvious, but it is crucial to get to know your staff as people. Find out what the issues are and establish your credentials by tackling them from the outset.

How should you monitor and evaluate your progress?

First, don’t expect quick solutions to problems that may well have been endemic for a long time. Second, keep a learning log. It’s a great basis for self-reflection and reminding yourself how far you have come. It is also a good foundation for identifying your own development issues. And third, think about getting a coach or, at least, an informal mentor.

What are common mistakes when making the transition to HR director?

Trying to do everything yourself. If everyone else is out of the door at 5pm and you are still in the office at 8pm, you are managing neither yourself nor your staff very well. The ultimate buck may well stop at your desk, but agreeing who is taking primary responsibility for what, and providing clarity about how you will manage individual and team performance, is vital to creating a positive working environment for everyone.

By Jane Phillipson, consultant, Hay Group.

For more info


The Leader Within: Learning Enough About Yourself to Lead Others,by Carl Edeburn et al, Financial Times Prentice Hall. ISBN 013470256

Courtesy of Personnel Today

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