In the UK, over 50% of CEOs have a background in finance. Only 5% come from HR. Those that do have usually made an effort to gain wide-ranging experience in other business functions. Writing for The HR Director, Nadine Smart, Head of Talent at Cirrus, suggests some areas for HR leaders to focus on in order to accelerate career development.

Most modern organisations are obsessed with becoming more innovative, agile, and customer-focused. For many, this demands widespread transformation. It also means putting people first. So who is best placed to make successful, people-centred transformation happen? HR leaders, of course. But sometimes there are a few hurdles to overcome to ensure you are seen as a true strategic partner rather than simply a service provider.

Over the past two years, Cirrus and Ipsos MORI’s Leadership Connections research has looked at the relationship between HR leaders and the C-suite. Overall, we have found a strong desire amongst HR leaders to play a more strategic role in their organisations.The research also indicates that the majority of C-suite leaders feel HR could do more to help them achieve their goals. For example, one C-suite leader in two is concerned about the innovation capabilities within their organisation, while fewer than three in ten HR leaders see innovation as an area requiring organisational attention. This indicates a lack of alignment between HR and the board and shows that HR may be underestimating board expectations. So, if you want to develop your career as a HR leader, it’s important to really understand your organisation’s strategy and goals. I know this sounds obvious, but by taking the time to engage in regular conversation with C-suite colleagues to discover more about their goals, you will be better placed to propose strategic, people-centred solutions.  Equally, you may well have to deal with some inbuilt bias from fellow leaders who view you more as a support function than a true business partner. The most successful HR leaders have the commercial acumen to build a strong business case and the confidence to drive real change.

Become a transformation agent. Around a fifth of C-suite leaders cite ‘business transformation’ in their top-three selection of where HR should contribute to the business. Traditional HR missions such as talent attraction and performance management continue to be on top of their list, leaving room for a greater partnership between the C-suite and HR leaders to drive change.

Contribute to innovation. HR leaders can help develop the required leader and employee skill sets across the organisation in order to foster a culture of innovation. One of the biggest challenges for many big businesses today is encouraging a more entrepreneurial, responsive and risk-taking mindset amongst all colleagues. This is a huge challenge. Too often, bureaucracy can get in the way of maintaining a culture where innovation and improvement are valued, and people feel confident to experiment without fear of failure. To fuel innovation, HR can encourage more collaborative ways of working to increase learning and knowledge sharing.

Be a culture champion. Time after time, we are told that employees want meaning from work as well as money. HR leaders can be the champions of company culture. You can be a role model for positive behaviour, and encourage senior colleagues across the business to be role models too. Where you see a disconnect between your organisation’s espoused values and the behaviour you see in practice, call it out.  Following the financial crisis, we all know that values such as transparency and honesty are no longer simply nice things to aim for. We have seen that corporate amorality is a costly business. Developing ‘soft’ skills contributes to solid business results.

Sell yourself. Over the past couple of decades, I’ve seen more and more HR professionals develop marketing skills. Today, most HR departments in major organisations include communications specialists. This has helped to get buy-in for HR initiatives and to engage colleagues across the business with change. However, I sometimes feel that although HR people are better than ever at promoting their work, they’re not always the best people in the organisation at selling themselves – particularly when it comes to moving outside the HR function. Consider your strengths and achievements and think about how you could apply your experience to new and exciting roles.

Practise what you preach. HR leaders continually espouse the benefits of learning and development. Make sure you prioritise your own. As a HR leader, you know this doesn’t always have to be a formal academic qualification such as an MBA or a professional CIPD qualification – but you also know that at times, academic rigour is what’s needed. Everyone today has a busy schedule. Make sure yours allows time for on-the-job learning, so that you can seek out development opportunities as they arise.

Embrace technology. Increasing your understanding of technology is helpful, but you don’t need to turn into a complete teccie (unless you want to). What’s more important is to understand the power of technology as an enabler. For many of us, it helps to connect us every day across geographies and time zones. We’re used to dealing with multiple platforms. Where HR can really add value is to ensure that technology is really serving people and eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy, rather than the other way round.

Overcome bias. There is no doubt that a significant barrier to HR professionals’ career progression – particularly when it comes to moving outside the HR function – is the way HR is viewed. Many would agree that the single biggest reason why more HR people don’t get promoted has a lot to do with how the profession is perceived. While this is changing, there is still a body of opinion that HR people need to be more commercial, more business-focused and more confident. Demonstrate that you’re prepared to take responsibility for delivering outcomes. Be accountable. And show that you have the appetite and the desire to take on new challenges.

Want the top job? Research from David Ulrich in 2014 stated that in the modern economy, the most important areas for a CEO to focus on are talent attraction, organisational structure, and building the right culture. All three are essential to driving successful strategy. The research also found that the business leaders whose traits can enable these areas of focus can be found in the HR department. As a HR leader, you know that already. You also know that there’s bias to overcome and experience to gain before we see more HR leaders become CEOs.

In the UK, over 50% of CEOs have a background in finance. Others built their careers in operations or marketing. Research shows that only 5% come from HR. Those that do have usually made an effort to gain wide-ranging experience in other business functions. So the lesson there is clear. If you’re a HR leader with ambitions to become a CEO, make sure you get some experience in other functions. And if some of that experience is international, you’ll be strengthening your CV even more.

As a talent specialist, I love travelling around and working with HR leaders in a wide range of organisations. It is a diverse profession which has developed significantly over the past couple of decades.  All around me I see innovation, creativity and passion. I see people with a strong sense of purpose who care very much about their organisations and the people they work with. I also see frustration. Because despite most organisations saying they value innovation, values and talent, not all of them are prepared to promote the people who are actually best placed to improve these important areas. It’s up to HR to step up and shout more, and up to organisations to listen.

We’d love to hear your own views. Please email us or tweet @CirrusConnect.

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