The Main Skill Your HR Chief Lacks

The Main Skill Your HR Chief LackstcbrPDF normal

By Laurie Ruettimann


Laurie Ruettimann headshotMost idiots think they know how to recruit. To an extent, they do. You might be the worst leader with the sketchiest track record at attracting and retaining talent, but you understand how it’s supposed to go down: Develop a pool of candidates, screen for competencies and character, and extend an offer with optimism and conviction. And in about a year’s time, when the fool you hired turns out to be incompetent, inconsistent, and/or inexcusably stupid, start the cycle all over again.

That’s recruiting—the most important priority for your organization according to every overpriced human-capital consulting firm out there—and even if you personally get it wrong more than you get it right, you have an HR department that fills in the gaps and helps you get it done. And so, if people are our greatest assets—which is what we all say when we really mean that people are our most expensive assets beyond the really dazzling pieces of real estate our companies own in some of the world’s most glamorous industrial parks—the person who leads your HR department must understand how to source, screen, hire, cultivate, and promote talent. Additionally, your CHRO should comprehend the implications of such activities on other aspects of your organization.

But instead of hiring an HR head who has experience with the real world of HR, which starts squarely in recruiting, you’ve made a different choice. In an attempt to de-feminize human resources by moving away from the old model of personnel—with its gossipy, water-cooler relationships and ugly cat sweaters—you hired a middle-aged Big Four veteran with a golf tan. (No offense to golfers or ugly cats.)

That’s right. Good old-fashioned recruiting is exactly the kind of experience that every CHRO needs foremost to understand the stakes of doing HR wrong.

And what did he do? He hired consultants and advisers—based on relationships at previous companies—and orchestrated companywide planning sessions that probably got you nowhere. Your HR department still sucks, and it still has no seat at the table.

Now listen, I think it’s fabulous when HR leaders have P&L experience. I love it when a senior VP of HR knows a little math and throws around concepts such as big data and skills gaps like they’re the biggest things keeping him up at night. And it’s cute to see senior-level executives from other departments swoop into sophisticated HR departments and act as if they have experience communicating, setting goals, and negotiating. But I have worked for a variety of HR chiefs, as both an employee and a consultant, for over seventeen years. I know something for certain: HR is not getting any better. And you probably know that, too. Too many companies are looking for the wrong skills in their HR leaders. If I were in your well-heeled shoes and in the market for a new HR leader, I would hire a recruiter to lead the department.

That’s right. Good old-fashioned recruiting is exactly the kind of experience that every CHRO needs foremost to understand the stakes of doing HR wrong.

“Laurie, you’re a fool,” you might say. “I hired a former analyst to lead my HR agenda. He really understands the intersection of work, money, power, and politics.” Or, “I hired a lawyer as my CHRO. She understands our exposure in the marketplace, and she’s done a stint as an ops lady. This woman has the perfect mix of moxie and gravitas to accomplish our big, audacious goals.”

Hmm. I wouldn’t brag about that lady. While she might be awesome, the leader whom you hired has an average tenure of only thirty-three months, according to the authors of The Chief HR Officer: Defining the New Role of Human Resource Leaders. That doesn’t seem very long for a person who is brought into your organization to be a strategic partner, a change agent, and a champion of better employment practices.

I’m not alone in believing that recruiting—not just business acumen—might be a (maybe the) key attribute in a great and successful HR chief. Kris Dunn, CHRO of Kinetix, a recruitment-process/outsourcing firm in Atlanta, sees a connection between recruitment and successful HR leadership: “There’s no specialty, beyond recruiting, that will give HR pros more exposure to business. Recruiting, after all, is sales. You’ve got to market, sell, negotiate, bluff, and close. Understanding what a great candidate looks like and what a bad hire costs in the marketplace are keys to any HR leader’s growth.”

The problem is that a lot of HR executives want nothing to do with recruiting, which can seem administrative, rote, or even arcane. “If your CHRO feels that way,” Dunn suggests, “she may be in the wrong business. If you want your HR leader to have business chops, make the person recruit.”

China Gorman, the former COO of the Society of Human Resources Management and now the CEO of CMG Group, an HR consultancy, disagrees with this perspective and brings a nuanced approach to the applicability of recruiting experience in the role of a chief HR officer. She says, “If you take the functional expertise out of HR, the characteristics to be a leader aren’t all that different than those of other leaders. If you are a strategic leader, you demonstrate common traits: transparency, authenticity, and clear ownership of the decision-making process, and being able to translate what’s going on outside the organization into actionable strategies.”

Fair enough, but can you decipher the business landscape and translate the challenges of identifying, attracting, and retaining employees for your company if you’ve never been a recruiter?

“Sure you can,” responds Gorman. “Furthermore, CEOs who see HR as a strategic part of the business and not just a provider of services will hire a CHRO with specific business expertise who can earn the trust of the executive leadership team and create a relationship with the board. It’s imperative for CEOs to work with someone whom they can trust.”

Adds Dunn: “Saying HR leaders need better business chops in order to occupy the No. 1 HR spot sounds like general fodder for a political-campaign stump speech. And after a while, it starts to sound like background noise—all static with little action.”

Still, I do agree with Gorman that there is a big jump in responsibility between being a recruiter—or even a leader of a complex talent-acquisition team—and leading the HR organization of a dynamic company. But I think we could look internally to our recruiting team, rather than just to finance or ops, to find an HR head.

Ultimately, regardless of how someone arrives at the CHRO role, a leader must innovate, drive change, and add value in a way that shareholders and employees need and expect. I am with Dunn and countless other HR professionals who have done the work in the trenches. We believe that HR leaders who have actively recruited at some point in their careers will drive the future—certainly more so than a CHRO who massages the board and masters the talk of the Wall Street financiers.


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