What makes a great HRD?

by Contributor16 Oct 2018

ABLA CEO Nigel Ward shares some insights from a group of top-level HR professionals on what it takes to become a great HR director

Last week I was sitting in a coffee shop with three very experienced HR directors – two from companies in the ASX 100 and the other from one of Australia’s larger not-for-profits. After the usual chatter the conversation steered to ‘what makes a great HRD?’ It was a robust conversation but I was pleasantly surprised by the level of agreement. There is no right or wrong in this, but the consensus is worth sharing.

1. It is invaluable to have held a line role. Everyone had done this so there may have been some inbuilt bias, but all agreed that by doing this you got a much better understanding of business as well as the real challenges and stresses of line management. For those sampling the co­ffee it had also meant that they got over the ‘business/commercial credibility’ hurdle quicker.

2. Have courage. In fact, everyone at the table shared experiences of putting their jobs on the line when the culture of the business or the culture within a management team was under threat, or just had to change. Knowing when and how to stand up to the CEO or senior managers seemed to be a very necessary part of the arsenal.

3. Never have an independent HR plan. Note the word ‘independent’. All agreed that an HR plan must be crafted to support the business plan. This means that you need to have enough commercial sense to really get the business plan and model in the first place and then ensure that HR activity (putting aside the basic functional must-have stu­ff) is targeted to commercial business outcomes rather than the latest HR fad picked up at this year’s HR conference.

4. Know when to get the CEO to sponsor the project, not the HRD. This one led to much mirth, and like a scene from the movie Jaws, we all shared our battle scars in getting this wrong. Sometimes if the ‘people initiative’ is that important it just has to have the sponsorship of the CEO so that the reluctant executives can’t write it o­ as another HR thing. If not, the learnt conclusion.

There was about 115 years of cumulative business experience around the table, so I hope some of these insights might warrant at least a moment of reflection. As usual I got stuck with the bill, so maybe I still have a lot to learn!


Nigel Ward, CEO and director of Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors (ABLA), is one of Australia’s leading advocates and practitioners in employee and industrial relations, with more than 35 years of strategic business planning experience

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