Are you lacking business knowledge?
The route to the top in HR is fairly standard – you work your way up from HR advisor, spend some time in an HR specialism like compensation and benefits, acquire line management experience and impress the big bosses while doing it all.
The shortage of HR representation at board level is well documented. But what’s the reason? Is it because HRDs don’t want these roles, or do they lack the required commercial and financial know-how?
If your route to a top job is blocked by a perceived lack of business knowledge, a few years as a business unit leader or a secondment to another department could equip you better for HR and overall business leadership roles.
Getting out of HR
Lorna Clarkson, HR programme manager at RBS, held a variety of different functional roles within Royal Mail including senior marketing, innovation and HR. According to Lorna: “a broader background allows you to understand problems from more than one angle. It encourages a breadth of thinking and enables people to understand how to get things done more effectively.”
Richard Burdon, HR director - corporate at the BBC, whose background includes business systems and marketing, adds: “It’s not just about doing a non-HR role; you need to perform a line management position. Don’t get involved in a stand-alone role or project-based work. It’s when you move into a line management role outside of HR that this wider exposure becomes really valuable, when you need HR’s support as a manager.”
Moving from HR to another business function caused Richard to see the value in internal secondments. He thought his HR function was doing a great job, but the perception from outside HR wasn’t the same. He says: “It’s important to work in a line management role and go and be a client of HR. You can’t perceive the real issues unless you’re a client.”
The benefits of cross-functional exposure
- Better HR understanding: Spending time in HR allows other line managers to understand the value the function brings to the organisation.
- New perspectives: HR professionals have first-hand insight of the complexities of the whole organisation. You can add a valuable viewpoint to the new departments you operate in.
- Potential future leaders: For businesses whose main asset is people and the knowledge and intellectual capital that come with them, appointing a CEO who can combine the necessary commercial and strategic influence with the proven people skills of an HR background can be of great value.
- Succession planning: If an organisation grows rapidly or faces challenges, there should be a group of employees able to turn their hand to more than one function, allowing risk to be managed more effectively.
- Commercial awareness: HR functions best operate when the business is their first priority and HR is second. When those in HR leadership roles gain hands-on exposure to P&L, financial processes etc, they develop their own commercial skill set and develop first-hand knowledge of the broader business agenda.
Introducing formal development programmes
Richard feels that many businesses haven’t yet developed programmes that deal with internal secondments in a formal, sustained manner. He says that for development initiatives to be successful, they must be part of your business philosophy. Behaviours, rather than functional skills, should be recognised.
For Lorna, it’s vital to ensure this development is part of the company culture and doesn’t offend those in other functions when someone from HR assumes a leadership position. Staff should be aware that this is a formal growth programme for everyone’s benefit and as part of this, ensure people are seconded to a variety of departments.
From a practical point of view, Richard suggests starting small: “Look at your top 5% talent pool and then focus on a fifth of that. Make sure that there’s a clear, defined plan in place for individuals and that it’s planned and executed properly. Sell the benefits for the overall business.”