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How to Measure a Great HR Leadership Role: Bigger is Not Always Better

So you’re an HR Leader. You’ve made it to the top. Congratulations. But sometimes you ask yourself, is this as good as it gets? Could I be in a better role elsewhere?

Or you’re about to be offered an HR Leadership position. It sounds great, everything you’ve always wished for. But what are the pitfalls you need to watch out for when reaching your final decision?

Having worked on several hundred HR Leadership positions and with several thousand HR leaders across the world over the last decade, my colleagues and I at ChapmanCG have seen many different definitions for what makes a good HR role. For some individuals, the key focus is in a particular industry, the company’s brand image and its products; for others it will be about the size and complexity of the role; and there are those who place a higher value on the salary and role’s status.

All of these are viable, there is no single formula to what makes an HR leader satisfied in their role. But if I look at the career ups and downs of the most accomplished HR leaders whom I’ve followed across the years, there are three common factors to what constitutes a great HR leadership role. And these are: Impact, Autonomy and Visibility.

1. Don’t think Scale, think Impact

The received wisdom is that size matters when it comes to HR leadership positions. More size and scale means more resources, which in turn means that your role wields more influence. So if you’re the head of HR in a large company, why not aim to be an HR leader in an even larger and more complex one?

Think again. Scale and complexity do not always make for a happy HR leader, since both aspects can make it much harder to see the tangible results of your efforts. Great HR ideas formulated at the top of an organisation can be diluted in the tiers of middle management, before being quite ‘lost in translation’ at the front line of the business. And increasingly we are seeing HR heads lead by means of persuasion and business instinct rather than solely through the blunt weapon of a large and well-resourced HR team.

You should always keep in mind the size of the business and the size of your HR team, they will obviously have an effect on the day-to-day management of your role. But don’t let these factors alone convince you that ‘bigger is better’. Use your reasoning skills to evaluate the positioning and expectations of the HR function, and use your emotional intelligence to assess your chemistry with business leaders and other key stakeholders. These are the factors that will translate into an environment where your HR skills and ideas can thrive. And that’s impact.

2. Don’t think Brand Power, think Autonomy

The power of a brand is immense, and it affects us as consumers at a shopping mall in the same way it affects us as job-seekers in the talent market. For some of us, working as an HR leader in a top tier company is about the professional swagger, akin to the superficial bragging rights of buying luxury brand items. And for others it’s about the quality of that luxury brand: the chance to work with high calibre co-workers, the exposure to world-class HR and business practices, and the shared pride of being part of a successful business legacy.

Whatever the draw of these high pedigree organisations, there is a wide spectrum of quality when it comes to their HR leadership positions. The expectations for HR talent are, of course, very high and many top tier companies will search for HR leaders using a rigorous multi-country process, focusing on a complex array of HR skills and personality traits. But then once they hire this person into the role, it’s very common that they ask them to use only 50% of those attributes. Maybe it’s because the company has a culture of centralisation, where any HR leadership position beyond a global core is hampered by a matrix structure that doesn’t allow for enough autonomy or creativity. Or maybe there’s a historical legacy in the company where the HR function has been positioned as politically inferior to another function such as the finance or legal team.

From our experience, a good HR leadership role will always function as part of a larger team, where the skills and personality of the HR professional complement the other members of the management team. But being part of that team counts for nothing unless the HR leader has a voice that is distinct, and a voice that counts.

3. Don’t think status, think Visibility

When we look at conventional definitions of success, it’s easy to fall back on the notion of status. And for some people that’s often shorthand for salary. When you peel back the layers of achievements of many successful business people, many still define the state of their career by these factors. And when they ask themselves ‘Could I be doing better?’, they often mean ‘Could I be earning more?’

And that’s a fair point. A good HR leadership position will be well remunerated to reward the incumbent for their impact and their opinions, as we’ve just outlined. But it will come as no surprise to learn that salary in isolation does not define a ‘great HR leadership role’. The great HR roles hinge around recognition and visibility, rather than rank and reward.With visibility of their achievements across an organisation, an HR leader can gain the respect of their business peers, which in turn affords them the credibility to do more with the role that might otherwise be outlined in their official job scope. More visibility leads to more influence and more responsibility. This virtuous cycle also has a chance to cascade down to the rest of the HR function, so that one great HR leader can raise the profile of the entire HR team around them, as well as the reputation of HR in the wider business community. So yes, you have every right to expect a good salary in a good HR role, and something isn’t right if that’s missing. But to achieve greatness in HR, and to check whether you are indeed on top of your HR leadership career: be visible.


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