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Lessons from the field… Hiring a Great HR Leader

hr-meeting-photoIn recent years, I have assisted several companies in hiring HR leaders and have been impressed by how this field has progressed since I was in Human Resources many moons ago.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently when approaching an HR executive about a new opportunity is: Does HR have a seat at the table?

I still come across companies that see HR as a necessary evil or for risk management to keep them out of trouble. If this is the type of HR professional you are seeking, you will have no difficulty finding this person. Traditional HR has bred many people adept at making sure that laws and regulations are followed, rules are created and enforced, and that budgets are maintained.

To be fair, these are part and parcel of what HR and other departments must do for survival of the business but the best HR people start with objectives essential to the business and work out from there. These creative executives are not the type to answer “no” because it is easier than responding “why not?”

One of the things that makes HR a complex field is that its primary business is people which introduces elements such as unpredictability and need for empathy into business decisions. Many HR people go into this field because they are highly empathetic, but to rise in leadership and organizational effectiveness, empathy must be combined with objectivity and strategic thinking. Making decisions that are good for the business and good for the people working within that business can be a delicate balance and sometimes that balance must seemingly tilt in one direction or the other.

The tough HR leader knows that what is good for the business can ultimately be what is good for the people even though this is not immediately apparent – as well as the other way around. Human Resources management can be harrowing, but as most of the best HR leaders will tell you, it is hugely rewarding.

Hiring the right HR leader can be one of the most important decisions the CEO will ever make.

Hiring the right HR leader can be one of the most important decisions the CEO will ever make. In my realm, which is primarily startups, a great HR leader is an even harder to find. Not only are these leaders often building from scratch but must at times enter into a situation realizing that part of their role is to educate the CEO and other executives on what the work of HR leadership actually involves and the value that it brings. In recruiting, the candidate’s ability and willingness to do this enter into my assessment process. I look for ways in which the person’s role has evolved within a company based on the value that they bring. However, the saying “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink” applies. The CEO must be predisposed toward the people-oriented decisions required to build a truly significant business.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently when approaching an HR executive about a new opportunity is: Does HR have a seat at the table?

The best HR leaders want to make a difference in building a successful business. They want a role that involves developing and implementing strategies that accomplish the company’s core objectives. The highly effective HR leader will want to understand the business and develop everything HR-related from there. This HR exec will translate the vision, mission, aspirations, objectives and goals of the company’s key leadership into shaping the actions required to hire, retain and empower the best team possible for that particular business.

In a recent search for a Head of HR, here are some of the questions my team and I heard from prospective candidates:

  • How does the Founder/CEO see the role fitting into the organization?
  • Will I have a close working partnership with the Founder/CEO?
  • After people are hired, what does the CEO want to happen to them?
  • How invested is top leadership in the HR portion of the business?
  • Do the resources allocated to the role and where it fits within the organization match the objectives of the role?
  • How agile is the business in responding to issues and in making decisions?
  • Will I be given room to learn everything I can about the business? Will this be considered a valid aspect of my role?
  • Will I have the opportunity to strategically support the leadership team and to help them become better leaders?
  • Will I have the platform to help people improve their lives?

When you are hiring a Human Resources leader, your answers to questions like these will determine the caliber of candidates you will attract for the role.

The most desired candidate that I was not able to recruit away had a close working relationship with the co-founders of a fast-growing startup and could point to ways in which she was making a significant difference in the business’s growth and success — she felt indispensable. One person became a candidate because she felt at cross-purposes within her current company, successfully meeting the CEO’s charge to hire the very best talent but not given the support or resources to create an empowering working environment for these high caliber hires.

It may also help to know that when asked the question “What motivates you?” I heard a similar response over and over again from HR leaders, summarized as “I want to make a difference in the world.” They are motivated to join a company that they can help make a significant difference. For many great HR executives, this starts with making a difference within the company, itself.

Donna White

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