Hiring Your Boss: A Recruiter’s Guide to Recognizing Exceptional HR Leadership

In many organizations, the recruiting function reports directly to the HR function. Good, bad, or in between, this is one of life’s realities ó and if recruiting is to be successful, HR must also be seen as being successful. Having dealt with senior management on a host of different people-related issues for the better part of twenty years, I have come to an interesting conclusion: Almost all members of management, as well as the executive team, require solid advice and council on people-related issues on a regular basis. Unfortunately only the executives who hired the right HR person in the first place are fortunate enough to get that level of expertise and coaching. So how do you go about choosing the executive whom you want to lead the HR organization? When the powers-that-be manage to hire the right person, it’s usually someone who understands the business end of business and who is a partner in the truest sense of the word. This kind of individual doesn’t spend time in meetings engaged in only HR-speak or administrating to endless bureaucratic requirements. Their eyes do not glaze over when conversation turns to driving revenue and making numbers. They also understand the need to balance business objectives with strong employee commitment and dedication ó recognizing that this task is a delicate, constantly changing, and on-the-fly balancing act. A clear understanding and implementation of this concept is not as easy as it sounds. Consider the following two scenarios:

  1. Go too far in the direction of driving revenue, and you achieve great numbers at the expense of burned-out employees, increased turnover, and a loss of productivity ó resulting in an erosion of the very numbers you were seeking to attain in the first place. (Furthermore, if employees are unhappy, they are easy pickings for the competition, and usually it’s the top performers who are recruited away first.)
  2. Go too far in the direction of employee well-being, and you have the most dedicated and committed employees on the face of the earth. They love coming to work, suffer less stress than their industry counterparts, and are pleased with the organization for which they work. The only problem is, the organization pays dearly for this situation with diminished productivity and a resulting inability to compete. This is not a desirable outcome either.

As you can see, the solution, though simple in concept, is far more difficult to put into play. Its successful implementation requires that, hopefully, organizational requirements mesh with employee needs. ROI and shareholder value is exactly where the business-oriented HR professional comes into the picture. This enlightened individual is a rare bird. If you have one on staff with the talents and judgment required, you’re ahead of the game, according to Bob Griffin, CEO of Knowledge Computing Corporation. “When I look for an HR executive, I search for someone that understands the needs of the clients, shareholders, and employees with an ability to manage conflict across all three,” said Griffin. “Once I have added that individual as a member of the executive team, as with any other executive team member, I let them do what they do best and build an organization to achieve success.” Just as you depend upon your CFO to map out your organization’s future from a standpoint of financial capital, you should depend upon this HR individual to map out your needs and identify, attract, and retain the human capital required to get you from the here and now to your planned destination. Following this logic, the question becomes clear: as a recruiter, what attributes should you be looking for in the HR professional that you will probably be reporting up through? What core competencies must they possess to successfully maintain equilibrium between the needs of the business with the needs of its employees? The answer has two parts:

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  1. An HR professional who speaks the language of business. Do they know what role a balance sheet plays in making decisions? What about an income or cash flow statement? Please do not misunderstand my answer. They do not need the ability to understand finances or manipulate numbers and projections with the same fluid grace as your CFO. However, if they sit at the executive team meeting devoid of even the most rudimentary understanding of numbers, they will seldom contribute anything of value to strategic organizational decisions. Numbers are the very language of business. If your HR leader does not understand the financial underpinnings that drive those decisions, they cannot offer the value required at the executive team level.
  2. The HR leader must develop well thought-out human capital plans that support strategic organizational objectives. Let’s look at a real-world example. If dramatic growth over a five-year period is an organizational objective, you are not looking for an HR person to ask how you want to accomplish that. You are looking for a leader, a thinker, and a doer. You need a person who will not ask questions but who will explore options and provide solutions. Does growing organically make the most sense? Is growth by acquisition a better plan? What about joint ventures, outsourcing, or other options? What are the costs associated with each of these options? Furthermore, can they provide a complete risk analysis for each concept, with associated examples of what other organizations have done that have had success or failure in similar endeavors? Most importantly, can they make a recommendation that can be backed up with a solid business case?

Now that we know what we are looking for, let’s take a quick look at what we are not looking for:

  • Those professionals endlessly embracing more sophisticated levels of technology for greater administrative purposes. A strong HR executive will understand the need to balance the technical requirements of the organization to ensure compliance with the appropriate costs and returns. But he or she will also understand that technology that moves beyond this requirement is superfluous. Those individuals who believe that more technology is always the answer frequently miss the meaning of the overall objective in the first place ó because technology never replaces sound business judgment.
  • Those who have made a career of striving to become a better HR/recruiting professional. Although admirable if your purview is conventional, becoming better at what most HR is today simply produces less ROI over time. Although it may provide an individual with incremental added value as it relates to organizational partnerships, it does not measure up to what your real needs are, since that person does not possess the core competencies for the task at hand.
  • Those who demand a seat at the table. It has been said that power is never given; it can only be taken. This is a good philosophy in war, but it will not be effective in the workplace. However, the right HR executive will understand their value, and as a result, expect a seat at the table.

With this logic solidly in place, it is important to remember that the HR professional you bring in must provide the substance and expertise required to be identified as a resource that is a vital part of supporting the organization’s business objectives. That person must also demonstrate the soft but very real skill of actually understanding the needs of the organization’s employee base. He or she must have a finger on the pulse of what employees are doing and what they are thinking. Hire the right person and recruiting will be well represented, well thought of, and highly functional. Hire the wrong person and, well, you know…

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See twitter.com/howardadamsky if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at H.adamsky@comcast.net

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2 Comments on “Hiring Your Boss: A Recruiter’s Guide to Recognizing Exceptional HR Leadership

  1. Ya know Howard, I?ve been thinking?..

    With Regard To:

    Item #1: ‘An HR professional who speaks the language of business.’

    I think it is indeed very important that high level HR Professionals have a strong handle on the ‘Language of Business’. However, You are neglecting to mention the equally important need for high level HR Executives to also have expertise in the ?Language of THEIR Business?.

    When I say the ?Language of THEIR Business? I am referring to the specific Industry/Company/Business Unit that said HR Professional is supporting. In my experience it is usually the HR professional who understands and can relate to their Company?s PRODUCTS and/or SERVICES that has the best rate of enacting successful ?People Management Programs?. I can?t even count how many times I?ve heard engineering / scientific managers say ?Geeez how the heck can this HR person have the nerve to tell me how things should be done when he/she doesn?t even have the **slightest clue** as to what we research / engineer / manufacture / service around here!!!?

    Therefore, I feel that it is important to mention that I am not advocating that one must always seek a Sr. level HR person who ?already knows your Industry?. Yet, I am saying that it is CRITICAL that one seek Sr. Level HR Executives who have the CAPACITY TO LEARN AND UNDERSTAND the Industry. I would wager that 10 out of 10 CEOs would answer yes to the question: ?Do you expect your highest ranking HR person to have a strong understanding of your Products and/or Services??

    Understanding of Balance Sheets and such is important ? but the high performing HR Professional must also understand ?What exactly do we make or produce? that generates the revenue to make said balance sheets even possible in the first place.

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