What Separates Great HR Leaders from the Rest

September 12, 2023

Great HR leaders

HR seems to have become every manager and employee’s favorite corporate punching bag, vying with IT for the dubious title of most-irritating function. We have seen a parade of articles recently calling for HR to be blown upsplit in two, or at the very least, redesigned. What separates great HR leaders from the rest?

Perhaps this is a good moment to evaluate what it is we really want from our HR leaders—and what we don’t. Over the last ten years, Zenger Folkman has collected 360-degree feedback data on 5,174 HR leaders. These leaders are spread across hundreds of different organizations with 56% of those leaders located in the US, 18% in Asia, 13% in Europe, 5% in Latin America, 4% in Canada, and 1% in Africa. Comparing assessments of leaders in the HR function with those of leaders in other functions, our data suggest that they were seen as three percentile points below average.

Analyzing the Data

We analyzed the data in two different ways. First, we contrasted the results for the 5,174 HR leaders in our dataset with those of 71,024 leaders in other functions. We were able to identify a few key skills that were common strengths of those in HR and some that appeared fairly frequently as weaknesses. Second, we rank-ordered 60 leadership behaviors for all those in HR from the most negative to the most positive behaviors.

Great HR Leaders leadership Behaviors

Listen to Episode 80: Can Personal Development and Talent Management Live Together? of The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast.

Strengths of Great HR Leaders

Developing Others, Valuing Diversity and Coachability. There were three competencies where HR leaders scored significantly more positively. The competency showing the biggest difference was that they were truly concerned about developing others. This set them apart from leaders in other functions, who did not score highly on this skill. They were also rated positively for providing coaching, acting as a mentor, and giving feedback in a helpful way. The second competency where their skills were rated more positively was in valuing diversity. HR has been a champion for increasing diversity in organization but also helping the organization understand the value of diverse perspectives and people. The third competency where HR leaders were rated more positively was focused on a leader’s willingness to ask for and accept feedback from others.

But is developing others valued by HR leaders’ colleagues? We asked raters to indicate the importance of each competency we measured, and they rated this competency tenth of 19 for these leaders. Perhaps the message here is, “We know you do this well already” or even “This is just table-stakes.” Or, it could be that developing others takes a back seat to other competencies that are highly valued by the other functional leaders.

Coachability was ranked 15th on importance and valuing diversity was 16th. While most leaders believe all three of these competencies are important they are not as urgent.

Building positive relationships. This was another skill where HR scored slightly highly than other functions. That makes sense; in most organizations HR is responsible for diversity and inclusion initiatives and for labor relations. They rated well on being able to “balance results with a concern for the needs of others.”

Valuing Diversity. Some of the most positively rated items focus on their willingness to capitalize on  diverse perspectives and talents of others and building an inclusive climate of trust and appreciation for those who think differently.

Weakness of HR Leaders

Not anticipating and responding quickly to problems. HR leaders were rated significantly more negatively on their ability to anticipate and respond quickly to problems. A number of items noted a general lack of speed and urgency to respond and react quickly.

Lacking strategic perspectiveIn general, HR leaders were rated significantly less positively on their ability to have a clear perspective between the big picture strategy and the details. Many were viewed as so focused on the “day-to-day” work that they lost perspective on the longer term broader business issues. HR leaders often complain that they “want a seat at the table” to engage more fully with other executives, but without clear strategy and focus they will never have that seat.

Focusing internally rather than externally. When comparing HR leaders to all other leaders in our database, they were rated significantly more negatively on their ability to understand the needs and concerns of customers. In many ways the function of HR is focused on internal problems, but the lack of understanding of the external environment often caused others to view some HR leaders as not in touch with the issues facing the organization. They were also rated more negatively on their ability to represent the organization to key groups.

Resisting stretch goals and delivering results. On a number of occasions, we have watched as senior executives ask for a program or process to be rolled out quickly only to have HR respond, “It takes more time than that—we need to slow the process down.” While at times that is necessary advice, too often it is the first response given by HR without considering what could be done to speed the process and move quickly.

What the Best HR Leaders Do Differently

We also found in our database that some of the best leaders in the world were part of the HR function. The graph below shows the four competencies that most consistently separate the top quartile leaders from the others. It is worth noting that what separated the best from the rest was their performance on the key competencies that were often weaknesses in HR, in addition to performing extremely well on HR’s traditional strengths.

If more HR leaders would add these four important competencies to their skill sets, we would see many more sitting at the table; and an increasing number seated at the head of the table.

 Authors’ Note: There’s an interesting gender wrinkle in our data, although we’re not quite sure what to make of it. According to our data, HR has the highest percentage of female leaders (65%). Overall, female leaders were rated at the 51st  percentile while male leaders were at the 48th percentile, but at the very top levels it flipped, and the senior-most men in HR were rated more highly—male senior leaders were rated at the 49thpercentile, and female senior leaders at the 47th. However, these differences are small and not statistically significant.

Joe Folkman and Jack Zenger

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