Written by
James Martin

Published
14 Dec 2015

Who is the ideal group HR director?

14 Dec 2015 • by James Martin

I have been a specialist in HR functional searches for nearly 16 years now, with a focus mainly on group HR directors in recent times. Whilst this might not be the best conversation starter at parties, it has given me a good insight into what CEOs are looking for in their CHRO.

So what should the young aspiring HR professional expect and how should they plan their careers?

The first thing to stress is that the old anxiety of whether the CEO sees the group HR director as a thought partner is long past (at least when you are talking to a headhunter). Clients are exceptionally unlikely to go to the time, trouble and expense of an external search unless they are looking for somebody special.

Another area has changed – the experiential criteria of the ideal candidate. In the past, it was common for group HR directors to come up through largely generalist routes, with perhaps one or two short spells as a specialist in areas like talent management or OD. Now, CEOs are increasingly seeking candidates who truly understand the compensation agenda. Of course, there is almost always a compensation and benefits professional who will report to the CHRO. However, the remuneration agenda has become so important and sensitive both at board level and with external stakeholders that the difference between a CHRO relying on the specialist in board discussions versus one who knows the topic more intimately is noted. So time spent as a specialist in this area is a real plus, coupled with honing the influencing skills and gravitas to stand out in the boardroom.

True international experience is also frequently cited as a must have criteria. Whilst those staying in their home market may develop long experience of managing HR overseas, living in multiple countries and ideally continents is a strong preference with many of my clients and reflects the multinational nature of much of the larger companies in the FTSE.

Demonstrating numeracy and commercial acumen is also key. For candidates about to meet a CEO, being able to talk and ask questions about the P&L, cash flow and balance sheet as well as the strategy is welcomed. Time spent in a P&L role is rare but prized. 

In terms of variety of working experience, it is often hard to place candidates for very senior roles who have remained with a single company for their entire career. Whilst this may seem unfair to the loyal, there is a perception of a risk that such an individual may not find it easy to settle in a new culture. As a result, most clients like to see two or three companies on the CV, ideally with a good track record of internal promotion in each. Too many moves later in the career is typically viewed with some caution.

With all these constraints, some may despair that the chances of getting the top job are very slim. There is some consolation. First, most clients are reasonably sector agnostic. So long as a candidate has worked on similar challenges elsewhere (e.g. M&A, growth or restructuring), there is generally less concern about where that experience was gained.

Second, on any search there are typically only few candidates that meet every criteria in the ideal profile. Coupled with the tendency for most CEOs to prize a personality fit as much as an experiential one, then there is hope for the candidate to form such a positive connection that it outweighs one or two gaps.

Finally, the most important advice I can offer any aspiring HR Director is to become truly curious; open-minded and keen to learn and develop. Whatever their background or credentials, the most impressive senior HR professionals I have ever met have always been the most curious. It is an energising and inspirational quality that will impress headhunters and CEOs alike.