Four essential capabilities of HR directors

To rise to the HR director role senior leaders must trust their ability to provide commercially astute advice

Four essential capabilities of HR directors

Rising to the top job in HR typically takes more than people leadership expertise, according Karen Gately, founder of HR consultancy Ryan Gately.

“While you may be highly regarded for your understanding of people and the ability to coach managers to get the best from their team, you also need a reputation for being business-savvy and a key influencer of organisational outcomes,” added Gately.  

“Being appointed to the role of HR Director usually demands capabilities across the broad spectrum of general management responsibilities.” 

Gately said successful HR directors influence the priorities set, decisions made and actions taken by leaders in pursuit of the organisations vision and strategic objectives. 

“Your ability to impact the way your organisation goes about leveraging the talent and energy of your work force is key to been seen as the right person to lead the HR team,” said Gately.

“At the heart of success is the trust and respect you earn.”

Gately said that among the most important capabilities you need to be appointed HR Director are these:

Be commercially astute

To rise to the role of HR Director, senior leaders need to trust in your ability to provide commercially astute advice and make sounds judgement calls that have the potential to impact the whole business. 

That trust will be in part influenced by your strategic thinking, financial literacy and knowledge of operations management. 

Take steps to develop your understanding of what drives your organisations success in the context within which you operate. 

Understand your organisations competitive advantage and how the people across your organisation influence your market position and ultimately success.  Develop also your understanding of governance and the role the HR Director plays in ensuring ethical and lawful business practice. 

Know the business. 

Understand the vision and strategic objectives of your organisation and develop your ability to articulate them. 

Focus on developing understanding of the organisation’s purpose, products or services and operational processes.  Build your awareness also of the competitive landscape in which your organisation operates and the implications for business strategies and priorities. 

If you’ve spent the majority of your career working in an HR department create time to spend in the operations of your business. 

If you lead a team, encourage that they also learn from the experience of getting ‘their hands dirty’ in roles across the business.  One HR Director I work with spent time following each step along the process from customer order to delivery and learnt invaluable lessons about how the business operates and what is needed from the HR team. 

Effectively link HR strategy to business outcomes

Know why the strategies you recommend will impact on particular business outcomes. Sustainability, profitability, productivity, innovation, growth, business process maturity and quality are all business goals shared by the HR team.

Demonstrate your ability to align HR strategies with business plans.   Avoid the all too common mistake HR professionals make of being too focused on the HR agenda. 

Show that you are focused on how HR practices impact organisational priorities and maintain a clear line of site between the advice you give and the commercial outcomes your organisation is striving to achieve.

Engage and partner with stakeholders

As an HR Director, you will need a well-developed ability to engage and partner with stakeholders at all levels of the organisations, including the Board.  The influence you are able to have is ultimately determined by the depth of trust and respect you earn from the people you work with every day.

Focus on developing your ability to present persuasive argument and influence engagement with the strategies you recommend.  Understand each of the stakeholders you work with including their values, priorities and needs. 

Earn trust and respect by behaving in ways that build confidence in your ability to be astute, rational, pragmatic, ethical as well as empathetic.  


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