The new HR skills leaders need in their toolset

Human resources leaders must equip themselves with new skills so their voice is heard by the board

When Professor Vlatka Hlupic has something to say about human resources, it’s generally worth hearing, even if it’s uncomfortable.

According to the professor of business management at the University of Westminster, who was recently voted among the world’s most influential HR thinkers: “The trouble with HR is that it’s been a profession long based on process, where the skillsets required have been very people, typically psychology, orientated.

“But, while it’s served the profession to date, now there are core skills needed that are far more critical – those underpinning more strategic insight  – yet they’re also the skills the average HR director just doesn’t have.”

As put-downs go, it’s withering. Some might say it’s a criticism that isn’t entirely new. But what’s definitely concerning is the fact it’s still being talked about, because it can only mean one thing: HR professionals just haven’t done much about it.

The time has come for HR to be a business associate, not a subordinate

HR leaders need to start building strategic skills

This is not good news. With the pace of change demanding greater analytical and data-driven approaches to human capital management, the range of skills HR directors will need to demonstrate will only increase.

But, as the core conclusion of the recent KellyOCG report Agility + Ability to Enable Business Growth revealed, the main limiting factor organisations face is “a lack of understanding of the talent strategies required to enable agility, together with empowerment of HR leaders to step up to a more strategic role and drive change with the C-suite”. In short, HR directors aren’t equipping themselves with the right tools to deal with the new problems they must solve.

While some HR leaders are clearly more strategic than others, claims of an HR skills gap are never far away. “The operational side of HR always takes over,” says Jo Taylor, former director of talent management at TalkTalk, now managing director of Let’s Talk Talent. “There is a tendency to stick to operations because it feels safer, but the fact is HR directors need to break out. They need a stint in the business to understand the true value HR adds.”

New HR skills and development need to be made a priority

So serious is the issue that Ms Taylor believes HR needs “a complete rebrand” to ensure it’s a profession that attracts the best talent, rather than those who “fall into it”.

Devyani Vaishampayan, former global head of HR at Rolls-Royce, recently set up angel investment firm The HR Tech Partnership specifically for HR leaders to learn to talk the language of chief finance officers.

HR directors need at least an MBA qualification or above,” she says. “It’s only this which prepares them to think confidently about strategy, while equipping them with commercial acumen to present a business case for a particular course of action.

“They can no longer be sympathetic listeners. This type of HR director will always play a support service role and the HR department will never realise the impact it could potentially have.”

Robert Hicks, HR director at Reward Gateway, adds: “It’s not that HR directors don’t realise this. For HR to remove its invisibility, it needs to be part of the boardroom, but there’s also an issue of whether the business will allow HR to do what it needs to do. It’s chicken and egg.”

Data and digital: top of the new HR skills list

Toby Burton, head of the HR practice at executive recruitment firm Eton Bridge Partners, says: “While there’s certainly frustration there isn’t enough readiness among HR directors to operate in a digital world, as long as candidates demonstrate subject-matter expertise, additional skills like data skills are not yet a prerequisite.

“I hear some people say HR directors don’t need data skills, just people around them that do. But I believe it’s all about the department they want to create. If they want to ‘own’ analytics, they need to take control of it and upskill themselves appropriately.”

The easy target might be to criticise the body responsible for developing future HR leaders, in this case the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

But Mr Hicks has a different view. “I think the CIPD actually does a good job,” he says. “Its qualifications are degree-equivalent/masters level and you have to remember that for the 95 per cent of people who won’t reach, or don’t have the desire to get to, HR director level, this is sufficient.”

CIPD focusing on upskilling HR professionals

This week sees the CIPD’s annual conference and tomorrow it unveils a new Profession Map aimed at arming members with new knowledge and behaviours to make greater future impact.

CIPD professional development director Victoria Winkler says: “We’re extremely conscious that the nature of work is changing and best practice alone won’t get the profession to where it needs to be. In possibly our biggest overhaul in the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve consulted with around 19,000 people about what new skills the profession needs.”

Ms Winkler confirms that elements of the new roadmap will be incorporated at all levels of the CIPD’s qualifications.

The big question, of course, is whether this will be the catalyst to kickstart real changes of behaviour. Maybe a bigger question is whether HR professionals are willing to take up the challenge.

On this though, Professor Hlupic is clear. “HR has traditionally been taught transactional management concepts,” she concludes. “The time has come for a new paradigm shift. The time has come for HR to be a business associate, not a subordinate.”