DNA of Human Resource Directors: What It Takes To Reach the Top HR Job?

February 29, 20168:35 am1097 views

Human Resources Directors (HRDs) are resilient and collaborative, work 46 to 55 hour weeks and have rarely commenced their career in HR. They believe that aligning strategic requirements with the operational budget and workforce will be their biggest business challenge this year, while designing and managing organisational change will become a bigger part of the role in future.

They say stakeholder engagement is the most important skill for an HRD to possess and advise the next generation of HRDs to be commercially aware and good business people. That’s according to a report released titled, The DNA of an HRD, which is based on in-depth surveys with 461 HRDs in Australia and New Zealand by recruiting experts Hays.

So what makes up an HRD’s DNA? According to Hays Human Resource’s DNA of an HRD report:

Background and qualifications

HRDs are typically women in their 40s and early 50s: 60% are aged between 41 and 55 and 64% are female

  • A career change into HR is possible: Only 32% have always worked in HR
  • HRDs first enter HR with a wide range of qualifications: They then undertake additional HR qualifications or certifications
  • 61% are members of the AHRI (Australian Human Resources Institute) or HRINZ (Human Resources Institute New Zealand).

HRDs are split when it comes to the qualifications HR practitioners should ideally attain. Some say that if you want to understand the science behind your discipline you need to learn psychology.

One such HRD is Ian Cormack, HR Director at Woolworths Food Group. He has a Bachelor of Applied Science (Psychology), Graduate Diploma in Organisational Psychology and a Graduate Diploma in Business Administration.

In the report he says a lot of HR people under utilise psychology. “It’s like being a finance person without an accounting degree,” he says. “HR is an intuitive discipline and so everyone has an opinion. If you study or read about psychology you come to understand the underlying science and body of knowledge that supports your discipline and why we do what we do in terms of remuneration, bonuses, diversity and communication. Then you’ve got research, not just opinion, behind the positions you take.”


To become HRD requires experience and hard work: 59% have more than 16 years’ experience in HR and 54% received four or more promotions before becoming HRD

  • During this time, 26% worked for two or three organizations, 39% worked for four to five and 30% worked for six or more. Just 5% stayed with the one employer.
  • 47% of HRDs have worked outside Australia and New Zealand at some point during their career: This includes in the UK (51%), Asia (40%), North America (24%), Europe (18%) and the Middle East and Africa (16%).
  • The large majority (96%) say this overseas experience benefited their career.

Anna-Lisa Chivers, HR Director Australia & New Zealand at Goodyear Dunlop Tyres, believes in doing the hard yards early in your career to develop your HR skills. As she explains in the report, “I was the person sitting across from the union during EBA negotiations, personally handling ER cases, recruiting roles and writing policies and procedures. The generalist grounding gave me a solid ‘HR toolkit’ that is useful as your career develops. Even though the roles early on were not ‘strategic HR’ I came to understand how you enable the business through its day-to-day needs. In such a role you need to think strategically, be pragmatic and deliver.”

See: 6 Essential Characteristics of a HR Director

Stakeholder engagement and commercial acumen

  • Over half (53%) of HRDs say stakeholder engagement is the most important skill for an HRD to possess, followed by commercial acumen (52%) and strategic planning (48%)
  • These ranked well ahead of people management (32%), change management (31%), communication (22%), and operational effectiveness (10%)
  • 57% said up-and-coming HR leaders need to be commercially aware and good business people
  • There are two sides of the argument when it comes to how an aspiring HRD should gain commercial acumen: One says you must work outside HR to gain true business understanding, while the other says if you are open minded enough you do not need experience outside HR.

The importance of commercial acumen is a recurring theme in every conversation we had with HRDs. For example Trish Butler, General Manager Human Resources of Global Wealth, Group Innovation and Group Marketing at Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) thinks, commercial acumen is important because it ensures you make change for the right reason.

“You don’t just deliver core HR functions, you craft them to the particular business problem you face and the business lifecycle you are in,” she says. “It’s important to understand how the organization makes money and what levers contribute to that. But a lot of people aren’t curious about business.”

Resilience and credibility

  • 67% of respondents say resilience has helped them succeed in their careers to date
  • This was closely followed by being collaborative (54%), credible (53%), adaptive (52%), proactive (51%) and hard working and pragmatic (both 48%).

Most HRDs agreed that resilience is important as sometimes they have to make unpopular decisions. However, HRDs consistently raise the importance of being credible.

Andrew Phipps, Director of Human Resources at The University of Auckland, is one such HRD who says, “You need to be resilient – after all it’s a challenging job, especially if the organisation is going through change. But it’s more important to be credible and trusted. The way that you are perceived in the organisation is hugely important.”

However Phipps stresses that courage in your own convictions is important too. “I’ve had to make some very unpopular decisions, but they’ve been right for the organisation. You need to stick to your principles and that’s when you need resilience.”

Upcoming challenges

  • HRDs shared their biggest business challenges for the next 12 months: Aligning strategic requirements with the operational budget and workforce (54%), company culture (50%) and employee engagement (46%)
  • They also shared their professional challenges for the next 12 months: Achieving company objectives (20%), demonstrating RoI from the HR department (13%) and achieving buy-in and support from the board or executive level to implement HR strategy (12%)
  • HRDs gave their opinion on what will become a bigger part of the HRD role in the next five years: 59% said designing and managing organisational change, 57% said an increased need for commercial awareness and 56% said the identification and retention of key talent and succession planning.

The HRDs further agreed that they have an important role to play in any conversation about how to link strategy to budget and the workforce. As Anna-Lisa Chivers explains, “The most important trait is to be pragmatic in regards to what is feasible and possible and what isn’t. You also need to be authentic. People value you more when you say something isn’t possible and why, rather than giving a sugar coated view of the world.”

Career development

  • 68% say that if they had their time all over again, they would still choose the profession;
  • Most would either like to stay in their current post or take on a bigger HR role in future.
  • 68% have recently attended a networking event to meet other HRDs.
  • 66% like to stay up-to-date with industry and legislative changes.
  • Almost all (96%) are on LinkedIn yet only half (50%) use social media to network.

Trish Butler believes that while there is no one path to HRD, to reach your goal you must commit to learning. “Study, put yourself in new situations and take on challenges. Everyone gets to HRD in different ways, but they do it by accumulating knowledge and networks.”

Interests and work-life balance

  • 46 to 55 hour working weeks are the norm: 49% work, 46 to 55 hours and a further 26% work more than 56 hours each week.
  • Outside of work HRDs are generally active: 72% play sport or exercise in their spare time, 89% like to socialize with friends and family and 51% like to travel.

Of the survey findings Eliza Kirkby, Regional Director of Hays Human Resources, says: “HRDs tend to be highly experienced and well-educated professionals with sound stakeholder engagement skills and commercial acumen. They work hard, play hard and genuinely believe they can make a difference. They nurture others and are resilient, collaborative, credible and adaptive.

“Over two-thirds have not always worked in HR and many argue this wider business experience gives them the commercial acumen they need to succeed once they do enter HR. They then typically gain additional HR qualifications, and are focused on their ongoing learning and development.”

HRDs say achieving company objectives is the number one professional challenge for the year ahead. And they also plan to work out how to align strategic requirements with operational budget and the workforce, deal with company culture and engage employees.

“Reassuringly, the HRDs of today look back on their careers as time well spent, and say that given the chance they would do it all over again. For most then, HR offers a very rewarding career,” Kirkby concludes.

Also read: 2016 Represents “Back to Basics” Approach for the HR function in APAC

Image credit: freedigitalphotos.net

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