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In this ever-changing job market, HR leaders spend most of their time trying to help employees develop their careers while often overlooking their own career development.

Jerene Ang delves into how HR leaders can develop their own careers and skill sets to ensure they are at par with environmental changes.

While many say HR is relatively slow to evolve, it has progressed greatly since the turn of the millennium.

Initially only known as the policemen of policy, HR leaders are now increasingly becoming business partners, playing significant roles in driving organisational objectives.

Part of driving organisational processes is ensuring the organisation has a solid succession pipeline, and as such, many HR leaders play a big part in developing their employees’ careers.

But how are they developing themselves to stay ahead of the trends?

According to a study by IBM in 2013 – “New expectations for a new era: CHRO insights from the global C-suite” – an area HR should be moving towards is using analytics to manage talent and working together with other functions within the organisation to find new value and capabilities in the organisation.

Peter Hatt, regional head, HR for ASEAN at Standard Chartered Bank, believes that in the past three years, HR has helped leadership teams make better decisions by building capability around business intelligence tools, data insights and analytics.

“HR needs to continue on this journey using evidence-based data insights, including techniques such as predictive analysis to help line managers make good people decisions and help understand the ‘pulse of the organisation’,” he says.

Lau Yin Cheng, cluster director (for the HR and OD cluster) at Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), agrees and confirms HR has been working more and more with other functions in the business.

“HR leaders need to be able to pull together the various functions to better enable the business outcome, be it for organisational restructuring, being involved in mergers and acquisitions or a switch in strategy that requires new capabilities.”

Hatt observes another way that HR has evolved lies in the maturing of the HR business partner models which help drive sustainable business outcomes.

“HR professionals have been spending more of their time understanding the business needs to help shape the people agenda, spending less time on transactional HR activity, and are being an effective partner to the business,” he says.

Additionally, he notes the HR function increasingly leverages on technology to help drive scalable HR products and processes, including in the areas of performance, reward, talent and succession management.

“HR technology is a real enabler for organisations, allowing the HR function to reduce manual interventions and free up HR practitioners’ time to focus on driving sustainable business outcomes through the people lens.”

Think you’re competent enough?

To keep up with the pace of change in the HR function, what are some of the competencies HR leaders need to have?

According to another report by IBM – “Unlock the people equation: Using workforce analytics to drive business results” – less than 20% of organisations are currently able to apply predictive analytics to address people issues.

Moreover, it stated that more than 40% of organisations are presently limited to basic HR reporting capabilities.

On this, Shweta Shukla, Facebook’s head of HR, India & SEA, says that more important than metrics are the conversations they generate.

“In Facebook, we don’t conduct massive HR business metrics reviews every month,” she says.

“Instead, we have regular conversations with our leaders, where we bring in relevant insights valuable for them and which speaks to the current context.

“That’s a much better way of engaging your business because if you show things such as ‘attrition is 5%’ without any insight then what do you really want them to take away from this? Otherwise we can get all lost in data and it can become an end in itself.”

She reflects that in her role as the head of HR, another skill HR leaders need is to be able to ask the right questions.

“A majority of the time, you play the role of a coach. I’m not saying you should have the answers to everything, but you should have the ability to ask the right questions and bring in insights from what you have learnt from other businesses.”

Another skill she brings up is to be solution focused – solving problems instead of throwing policies at them.

She thinks the more an HR leader is sought out to solve business problems, the better they will get at their jobs.

“It is very easy for you to fall into this zone if you keep throwing policies at people in response to their questions; it’s the best way to get rid of people who are looking to seek your views,” she says.

It goes without saying that to be able to ask business leaders the right questions and to solve problems, a deep knowledge of the business is needed.

“Most people working here are very smart. They know how to get their jobs done, but the part about being exceptional lies in understanding your stakeholders and knowing what they expect from you,” she says.

“It is fundamentally important for an HR business partner not to just understand the business, but also to connect the dots.”

In addition to understanding the business, she feels that an HR leader also has to be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

“What that means is, in every conversation you get different pieces of information about the business and its people. You should be able to connect the dots and go back to your business, show them the value and identify possible solutions.”

Hatt agrees and says: “Increasingly HR leaders need to think about their contributions at the franchise-wide level, not just their domain expertise.”

Lau also thinks it is important for HR professionals to know the business. He sums up what HR professionals need.

“One, know the business better than the business itself. Two, know the people better than their managers. And three, know yourself better than the others.”

According to Shukla, another skill necessary for HR leaders is objectivity and the ability to make tough decisions.

She is of the opinion that instead of being the most well-loved HR person, HR professionals should “put people and business objectives in the centre. Then, ask the right questions, instead of moving in any one direction”.

“As an HR business partner you have to be very objective because you are the voice of reason and rationality. Deep employee trust is only generated if you display objectivity in all your interactions,” she says.

If the competencies mentioned above look all too familiar, Hatt says: “I think the competencies required haven’t changed significantly. It is more that we just have to get better at them.”

Take ownership of your own career

Now the skills and competencies are all laid out, what should HR professionals do to move up the career ladder?

IDA’s Lau advises: “My personal philosophy is that as an HR professional, focus on enjoying your job and delivering value, then the promotions and recognition will come.”

In his opinion, HR being a helping function, should “focus on what is in the best interests of the organisation and its people”.

When it comes to picking up the skills needed to be a good HR leader, his take is that the best approach is the “aspiration approach”.

On the topic of career progression for HR leaders, he says: “I feel it takes both sides, one is the individual having the interest and desire to contribute. On the organisation’s side, it’s really about creating the environment to allow people with the aspirations to want to learn.”

Shukla is also of the opinion HR professionals have to take ownership of their careers.

Hence, when she has discussions with people in her team about their career growth and development, she usually starts from their career goal and works backwards.

“We want everyone to have a career vision and a lot of conversations are centred around that. So most of my discussions are about the career goal they have in mind and then working backwards from there,” she says.

Hatt is also of the opinion HR professionals should be the drivers of their own careers.

Frustrated when he hears people complaining about their job, he advises: “If you don’t like what you are doing, then do something about it.

“We are in the driving seat for our own careers. The organisation can help you manage your careers and give you opportunities, but we must take ownership of our own careers – no one else can do this for you.”

Specialist or generalist?

Another hot question on the theme is the route HR professionals can take when progressing in their careers.

Shukla is of the opinion there is no set path to success and that being a specialist and a generalist can lead to success.

“You can succeed both ways because gone are the days where you needed to be a generalist to succeed. Deep expertise is equally valued and functional leadership is very valued too.”

An often overlooked aspect about career progression, she points out, is leadership.

Her advice is to be very open about these things, “because at the end of the day, a lot of your growth is dependent on the leadership skills along with your subject matter expertise”.

Reflecting on her career, she says: “Every day I know that if I am growing, it’s not just because I understand my own discipline, but it’s also because I am developing my leadership skills. How am I connecting the dots, how am I influencing and helping my business leaders take better decisions.”

Hatt agrees and says: “There are many opportunities for HR professionals within HR and outside of HR.

“You can have very successful and fulfilling careers going down the generalist route, whether it is being an HR business partner at a global, regional or country level or becoming a country head of HR.

“At the same time, you can have a very successful career going down the specialist route whether it is in talent acquisition, performance, reward and benefits, HR service delivery, employee relations, HR risk management, talent and learning or HR data analytics.”

He also feels it’s possible for HR professionals to take up C-suite roles later in their careers.

“In HR, we are in a privileged position in that we often get to see things at a macro and franchise-wide level,” he says.

“There are not many roles which can give you this opportunity and visibility and I think HR practitioners can gain valuable skills and critical experiences that are required at the C-suite level.”

Looking towards the future

After this discussion about competencies and career paths, Shukla has some suggestions for the way forward.

Shukla points out the concept of knowing the business and being a business partner is expected to remain, with more to be done in that aspect.

“The concept that we need to partner with our business has not changed, but there is still room for evolution,” she says.

“My learning is that the decisions that we took, whether it’s about structure, or the people in it or introducing new programmes, it was about helping leaders make the right call at the right time by asking the right questions and putting the right data in front of them.”

In addition, she is also passionate about how technology will impact the culture of the organisation in the future, not just for tech companies, but also for financial services organisations as well as consumer goods companies.

“The significance of real-time communication is clearly evident as it directly impacts the quality of decisions being made by your workforce. Organisation structures and decision-making processes also impact how well an organisation is able to adapt to the digital, social world,” she says.

“There are increasing questions around work structures and decision-making hierarchies making their way into the digital transformation discussion. HR can play a very pivotal role in decoding these changes and helping organisations deal with it. The future belongs to those who can hack this.”

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