A seismic social shift has taken place in recent years. People are overhauling their careers, assessing their work-life balances and uprooting their entire lives en masse. The so-called Great Resignation has sent shock waves through the global economy, impacting large, medium and small companies alike. As a human resource leader — present or prospective — there's never been more urgency to pivot and adapt to a changing world.
Every business has been forced to assess its working practices, as the cultural pendulum swings from economy-driven to consumer- and purpose-led. Whether you put it down to the pandemic, social media or sheer access to information, one thing is certain: The world is very different compared to 20, 10 or even five years ago.
As such, HR urgently needs to be redefined. The days of penny-pinching on labor budgets and obsessively drilling down into processes and legislation are over. An approach that puts people, knowledge and purposeful company culture first is swiftly taking over. If you're an HR leader or want to become one, it's crucial to understand how the nature of the role is evolving.
In this article, you'll discover how HR has changed and why it's so important, and you'll learn about the top skills and characteristics effective HR leaders possess. Plus, discover upcoming HR leadership trends and what it takes to become a chief human resources officer (CHRO) of the future.
An Introduction to Human Resource Leadership
Human resources leaders were traditionally focused on hiring, firing and managing remuneration and employee admin. Additionally, they oversaw disciplinary matters and workplace disputes. However, as Joanna York from the BBC notes, there's been a "disconnect between what we expect from HR and what HR is actually tasked with delivering. While employees may feel HR processes should right workplace wrongs, company leadership may think that the HR department is there to protect the organization."
Employees have always been told that HR is there to help them resolve issues and provide support, but it's become clear that some organizations have tasked HR with focusing more on fielding legal disputes. Today, the workforce is savvier about this side of HR, trust in personnel departments is at an all-time low, and workplace litigation has hit an all-time high. In other words: The defensive HR approach has failed. With class action settlements almost doubling between 2020 and 2021, it's clearly time to start solving problems in the workplace instead of trying to mitigate them.
David D’Souza, from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in London, pinpoints how successful HR departments achieve results. "The people profession is there to help the organization achieve its ambitions, through helping people excel within the organization. Fundamentally, this means supporting employee growth, making people feel positive and effective in their work and building a sense of commitment to the organization," he said.
Related Article: The Secret Weapon of People-Centric Organizations
Why Are HR Leaders so Important?
Under the new regime, HR leaders exist to align business objectives with employee output. They identify knowledge and experience gaps and design hiring, onboarding, and learning and development best practices to fill them. Because they aren't in the trenches with employees in the same way as managers, they're less prone to personal bias and favoritism.
In the modern world, organizational design and change management are critical to the skill set of a human resource leader. They should be experts on company culture and brand identity, and they should coach management and employees on these crucial elements. What's more, they must be data-hungry, constantly developing, monitoring and refining KPIs to maximize labor ROI. So, many companies now offer fun, creative benefits to attract top performers — and strong HR leadership is the best defense.
Another crucial role of human resources in today's global economy is the championship of diversity, inclusion and equity. Millennials and Gen Z are fiercely and proudly ethical, having grown up in a world without the rigid barriers of the past. Today, they make up the majority of the workforce, and even a small misstep could lead to a public outcry on social media. As such, HR leaders are pivotal in ensuring management and employees are up to date with equal opportunities best practices.
Related Article: How to Build a Culture of Inclusion That Delivers Results
HR Leadership Roles
There are more job titles for HR leaders than ever. Depending on your expertise and ambitions, you might be interested in the following roles:
- Chief collaboration officer
- Director of human resources
- Chief people officer
- Director of employee experience
- Chief diversity officer
- Director of employee engagement
- Chief learning officer
- Director of HR analytics
- Chief human resources officer
- Director of talent acquisition
- Employee wellness manager
Traditional HR vs. Modern HR
If you're an established HR leader, it can help to see a side-by-side comparison of modern vs. traditional HR priorities:
- Business leadership
- People and culture as top priorities
- Accountable for solutions and outcomes
- Pioneer HR initiatives that deliver an exceptional work experience
- Recruit and hire top-performing employees
- Onboard, train and develop employees to deliver the best business outcomes
- Foster an excellent company culture
- Collect data, present insights, provide high-level advice and make informed decisions
- HR professional
- Prioritizing administration and legislation
- Protect the organization
- Answer questions about benefits and job roles
- Responsible for staffing
- Help managers implement performance improvement plans
- Check in to see how employees feel about the organization
- Rely on IT and finance for data insights
Related Article: Definitions and Examples of C-Suite Executives
How to Go from HR Professional to HR Leader
You don't have to have reached CHRO status to endeavor to be an HR leader. Mindset and approach can turn any HR professional into an HR leader, priming them for promotion and future-proofing their role. If you're looking to up your human resource leadership game, focus on the following:
Mastering Your Craft
Having an intricate understanding of labor laws, compensation, benefits, family and medical leave and company policy is still essential. However, employee engagement, organizational psychology and DE&I best practices are also vital.
- Keep up with HR trends by reading relevant publications
- Regularly attend industry events
- Take any opportunity to learn and grow through courses, lectures and online learning opportunities
The proliferation of SaaS solutions has bridged the gap between non-tech experts and access to hard data. People processes must simultaneously serve the company and its employees while gathering and analyzing data.
- Automate wherever possible
- Collect data on everything from profit and costs to effectiveness and speed
- Measure productivity at the organizational, team and employee level
- Ensure everyone is adequately trained to use tech tools
Aim to master the art of design thinking to make it easier to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the economy. Use strategy and data insights instead of relying on past experiences and instinct to ensure organizational culture is optimized and fair.
- Learn more about how every department operates and collaborate more
- Discover creative ways to ensure corporate culture helps keep people satisfied, connected, healthy, engaged and performing optimally
- Avoid getting bogged down in admin and embrace your role as a truly people-focused leader
Related Article: Can You Teach Empathy?
Skills and Characteristics Required to Be a Global Human Resource Leader
While you may have a great baseline of the skills required from a human resource leader, conscious development is always a necessity. Great HR leaders have personal qualities that might appear innate but have actually been finely honed. Use focus, training and dedication to master the following list of skills and prepare yourself to be a CHRO of the future.
In a Forbes article from 2019, HR leader Mary Juetten discusses empathy: "The greatest empathy we can display is in offering others both our support in their personal problems and the space to deal with those issues as needed. Everyone, regardless of occupation, wants to be understood and valued as a human, and as humans we’re all going to face challenging circumstances with ourselves and our families."
It's easy to be empathetic to easy-going, happy employees, but the mark of an exceptional HR leader is being able to empathize with challenging employees. Showing empathy is usually the most effective way to reach an understanding and turn the situation around.
Empathy is one people skill, but there are many more you should aim to assimilate. Being sensitive to cultural differences, for example, is more important than ever in a global marketplace. Relationship management, perception and resilience are also core skills of top HR leaders.
Forward-Thinking, Decisive and Persuasive
To be an excellent leader, you should always do your best to be one step ahead of the curve. Plan for the future by voraciously researching trends and implementing them before they become mainstream best practices. Not only does this future-proof your organization, but it will instantly drive up respect from employees and management alike.
In some cases, you might have to push to ensure senior management understands the importance of issues such as diversity and inclusion. People who are used to traditional ways of working are usually slower to take-up modern best practices. As such, you must be decisive and convincing when delivering presentations and pitching new ideas.
Exceptional Communication Skills
To be persuasive and convincing, HR leaders should diligently and continually improve their communication skills. Clear, strong messaging boosts morale and trust and even increases loyalty. Think about your own experience: How much more likely are you to put faith in leaders who speak, write and listen well?
For instance, when policies and procedures are written expertly, they're easier to understand and, therefore, adhere to. Likewise, being able to verbally communicate company culture and brand identity can improve employee engagement. People tend to mimic great leaders with strong communication skills, so leveling up yours can play a role in improving everyone's skills.
Brand Strategy Expertise
The most effective people leaders have strong ties with marketing and work hard to embody the company's brand personality. Being able to align your employer brand with your outward brand can go a long way to attracting and retaining high-performing employees.
What's more, brand experts are perfectly poised to screen prospective employees. Being able to instinctively spot a cultural fit is a superpower and one you can develop and improve continuously. Naturally, HR leaders who embody the brand they work for are more likely to attract the right people, too.
A high-level tool that any top human resource leader has under their belt is emotional intelligence. This soft skill is a combination of several factors, including self-awareness, self-control and a strong understanding of human behavior. Conflict resolution, adapting swiftly to a changing economy and the ability to make decisions under pressure rely on the aforementioned skills. Without them, you simply won't be as effective at leading, managing and collaborating with employees and colleagues.
Emotionally intelligent leaders form the backbone of a healthy work environment, boosting morale and improving retention rates.
As a human resource leader, high ethical standards are a necessity. While this skill can be improved upon, ideally, it's an inherent part of your character. A love of policy, rules and standards will strongly benefit your organization.
Employees need to trust HR for the department to have seen desired outcomes. Any deviation from the standards you set will be judged harshly and will likely inspire employees to follow suit. The old mantra of "do as I say, not as I do" is officially redundant.
The modern workplace is diverse, and HR must be sensitive to the background, needs and issues experienced by various groups.
But the workforce isn't only more cross-cultural than ever; Women, people with disabilities, people with nonbinary gender identities and other minority or historically undervalued groups are also more represented in the workplace. HR leaders must not only understand diversity and inclusion, they must also ensure employees and managers at every level live and breathe DE&I.
Related Article: Are Employee Surveys Masking Flaws in Your DEI Efforts?
Can HR Simultaneously Become More People-Centric and Digitized?
It seems like a paradox that HR is relying increasingly on technology but also becoming more people-centric. But so far, this appears to be the nature of future workplaces. With automation reducing the administrative burden on leaders, there's more time for strategy and development. And this is exactly what chief HR officers say is long overdue.
From Process-Led to People-Led
HR has traditionally been process-led, with leaders encouraging self-service and taking a hands-off approach to the role. Conversely, technology helps HR leaders add more of the human touch by freeing up time.
Priorities can shift to nurturing, guiding and getting to know each employee: their strengths, areas for development and aspirations. The better you get to know the team on a deep personal level, the easier it'll be to create mutually beneficial outcomes.
With many employees spending at least some of their time working remotely, engagement can be more of a challenge. Moving away from encouraging self-service is one important solution to keep in mind. Another is ensuring that the majority of coaching and meetings take place in person. While work can be done remotely, face-to-face communication tends to be more effective.
An anonymous CHRO told McKinsey: "Proximity with employees is key to identifying potential people-related challenges, future leaders and the hidden champions who contribute quietly, yet significantly. HR will have no real impact if we do not know our people."
Another CHRO from a large financial organization added: "When the rubber meets the road, it’s all about helping individual employees. This can’t be managed by an app. A real talent manager has to sit down with the boss and the employee — in person."
An Updated Human Resources Operating Model
In its report Reimagining HR: Insights From People Leaders, McKinsey outlines what the future operating model of HR looks like:
- The elevation of HR through digital transformation: Instead of manually gathering and analyzing employee data, and then slowly acting on it, people will use software. Automation is the future, and it will facilitate faster decision-making and improved employee experience.
- Shifting the focus from admin to providing cutting-edge advice about retention, productivity and diversity to top-level management.
- Giving line managers ownership for tasks such as recruitment and appraisals. This is effective at the team level, as managers are more personally invested in their employees. It also frees up HR leaders to embrace a more strategic, culture-based role.
Related Article: What to Know About Human Resource Management
Top Upcoming HR Trends
The Gartner HR Trends report identified five priorities as being most influential in the future of human resources:
- An astounding 95% of HR leaders agree that hybrid work practices are set to continue long into the future.
- With the total number of skills required to perform a single job optimally increasing by 6.3% year-on-year, training and development are increasingly critical. Additionally, skills that were once essential are set to become redundant.
- The state of trust between individuals, employees and employers and the health of employees has eroded. HR leaders must act quickly to identify ways to make employee well-being and health a priority and to rebuild trust.
- Employees expect to be treated as individuals and feel seen and heard on a personal level. Old practices of treating everyone the same should give way to a more personalized, holistic approach.
- More empathy, healthier work environments and personalization should be complemented with a strong focus on DE&I. A specific point of focus should be on making leadership roles more representative of our increasingly diverse workforce.
About the Author
Imogen Sharma is a freelance writer who specializes in business, science and culture. She's passionate about staying ahead of the curve in the fast-paced world of tech and digital marketing.