Has the Ulrich model narrowed HR career paths?

Written by
Changeboard Team

08 Oct 2012

08 Oct 2012 • by Changeboard Team

What HR talent is in demand?

See Dave Ulrich's response to this article: Ulrich's new dawn for HR

We regularly receive requests from HR leaders struggling to source high quality talent. Typical requirements include:

  1. Commercially minded professionals capable of partnering with senior leadership teams,who can translate business plans into HR strategy
  2. Within HR operations/shared services: people management skills; program management; HR technology implementation and process redesign and improvement
  3. Within specialist centres of expertise, we see gaps in all areas: organisation design/effectiveness, talent management, resourcing, reward, employee relations etc.

Are HR career paths narrowing?

Many clients looking for talent in these areas work in leading businesses and they’re invariably people with well-rounded careers; they’ve moved around and gained experience in all the key aspects of the HR function.

By contrast, many candidates today seem to have much narrower career paths. Typically, these HR professionals have worked in Ulrich-model HR departments – a growing trend. Consequently, we’re seeing candidates who’ve spent most of their careers in one of the three Ulrich strands, namely:

  • HR operations/transactional/shared services
  • Centres of expertise
  • Business partnering

We’ve also noticed less mobility across these strands, which partly explains why employers repeatedly struggle to source HR talent with the breadth of experience they need.

Another factor is the belief that only those candidates with directly relevant experience should be considered for these hard-to-fill roles. Unless we tackle both, this HR talent shortage can only get worse. What’s more, companies will find themselves fighting over a much smaller pool of truly commercial HRDs in the near future.

Get to grips with your talent

If you’re leading an Ulrich-model HR department, it’s important to focus on building your own internal talent pool to reduce longer term gaps by facilitating lateral movements.

The first step, as Jan Atkinson points out, must be to understand your talent capability. Jan is currently an HR director working with the civil service on building talent and capability. Until 2011, she was HR capability manager at BP.

Jan says: “Understanding an organisation’s talent capability is critical to highlight talent strengths, weaknesses and gaps. Without this insight you can’t properly plan the process of HR role rotations, or how you intend to fill gaps and strengthen weak areas.

“Many companies have taken vertically-integrated HR departments, where people were exposed to a bit of everything, and put them into Ulrich-model niches. In any HR function you must enable mobility to help build a sustainable talent pipeline.”

Focus on role mobility

Sue Warman, currently senior HR director for the international region of Taleo (recently acquired by Oracle Corporation) agrees. Before Taleo, Sue was an HRD with a FTSE100 firm. 

Sue says: “Bigger organisations are usually quite good at enabling HR role mobility; they’re more likely to take a bet on people by moving them into challenging roles. They can afford to take a longer term view.”

However, she believes economic circumstances have tempered this, with many organisations becoming increasingly risk-averse.

For Sue, the tone is set from the top, but risk-taking is always part of people development. She believes that good people will be less inclined to take a career chance unless their employer gives them the proper mentoring and coaching support to succeed. This is particularly important in cross-border moves, involving big language and culture changes.

“In one example I witnessed, a company wanted to give an HR manager international experience. The role itself was more challenging but that was just part of the problem; he wasn’t properly supported to adapt to a foreign culture at work or at home – his family were having problems settling down and that further affected his work performance. He simply wasn’t set up to succeed,” she says.

Support your employees

Sue’s point is clear: when developing people it’s all too easy to forget the impact of a big, cross-border move. Describing herself as ‘unfashionably corporate’, she agrees that finding good HR professionals with a similar career outlook is harder, as people increasingly set themselves up for a move to consultancy or interim careers outside corporate life in their 40s. One practical work-around is to tap into the interim HR talent pool to fill some of the gaps.

Sue explains: “I put time and effort into building a small team of interims that I call on regularly to supplement the in-house HR team. The fact that they’re outside the organisation brings a dispassionate view. And, because I always aim to use people from my trusted pool, it means they step up quicker and their know-how isn’t lost in the way that it often is with a one-time-only relationship.”

Consider a hybrid model

This idea is easier to achieve in large scale businesses.  For smaller organisations, internal HR talent development in an Ulrich model can be much harder. One solution is to adopt a hybrid model.

Here, a small team of business partners serve commercial management teams, but each carries responsibility for specialisation in one key HR stream (L&D, ER, reward, etc). Each also becomes responsible for coaching and developing their peers and other HR colleagues in their specialist domain.

I’ve seen this work well in subsidiaries of multi-national companies in Sydney.

Looking to develop your career?

  1. Be prepared to make a sideways move with your existing employer to develop experience covering all three boxes of the Ulrich model
  2. Consider the ‘longer game’ of developing exposure to HR operations , centres of excellence (CoEs) and business partnering, leading change programmes, to give a rounded career and longer term opportunity to progress to HRD
  3. If seeking a role within a CoE, consider further study within your discipline to develop deep ‘best practice’ expertise in the field.

Developing internal talent?

  1. Encourage and back HR colleagues to make a challenging move, and support them properly
  2. Include the use of an annual influx of graduate HR intakes to supplement lateral experienced hiring
  3. Consider using experienced interim managers for niche projects.  However, focus on knowledge transfer to your permanent team during the project and at exit.

See Dave Ulrich's response to this article: Ulrich's new dawn for HR

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