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The triumphant HR professional

Posted on by from Changeboard

With organisations focusing primarily on cost, budgets have been cut and benefits slashed. What HR capabilities do you need to survive? Mary Appleton asks leading recruiters about the current HR recruitment marketplace and why a new breed of HR professional is needed to drive growth.

Describe the UK's current HR recruitment market

Jonathan Wiles, managing director, Michael Page Human Resources (JW): While we’ve seen an overall decline in the UK recruitment market it has remained fairly robust considering the economic and European backdrop. Activity has been driven primarily by churn and specific projects are based around transformation rather than growth. Financial services has been hardest hit. Industry and commerce, consumer and not-for-profit sectors have been more resilient to economic conditions with a more consistent flow of recruitment. Equally, we have seen activity from big corporate organisations and SMEs.

The HR shared services experience has become more sought after as organisations either revisit a model previously implemented or now see shared services as a way of ensuring that HR is able to work in a true partnering manner. HR advisors and HR business partners who can truly ‘partner’ with key stakeholders are always in demand. There has also been a stronger emphasis on talent acquisition and learning and development specialists who can ‘future proof’ an organisation, to ensure talent is engaged and retained.

Debbie Smith, director, G Squared HR (DS): Recently the market has been very client driven due to the high number of candidates on the market. For example, permanent roles have been at offer stage and the employer decides to go back to market, put the role on hold or change to an interim role. The recruitment process has also been slow, with decisions taking months to come to fruition. Financial services is one of the busiest industries in terms of recruiting, but we’ve noticed a decline in HR professionals willing to work in this sector. The skills most in demand are change management and employee relations due to restructuring and redundancies. We have recently seen an increased demand in learning and development, which is a positive sign for 2013.

Andy Montgomery, associate partner, Eton Bridge Partners (AM): There’s strong demand for specialists in change and transformation. In particular, employers have been looking to consolidate their position by producing greater efficiencies in back office processes, to produce leaner HR functions as a result.

James Aston, director, search practice, BIE Group (JA): Despite a flat UK economy and wider Eurozone uncertainty, HR recruitment remains relatively buoyant. The HR skills most in demand are: organisation design, HR technology implementation – including process design and technology configuration/implementation – and employee relations consultation, reward and recognition. The latter is needed to support changes in regulation, pay and grading structures and incentive schemes. The key sectors are energy and resources; utilities, as the deregulated market continues to commercialise; retail financial services, due to the break-up of the larger retail financial services networks; general and life insurance, needed to support the consolidation of the market; and technology, media and telecommunications, driven by ongoing change within the retail mobile phone market and the growing demand for smart phones in particular.

Debbie Gray, director, Totum (DG): When law firms look to recruit HR professionals, they tend to look for a higher calibre candidate than they did a few years ago. Consultative, advisory and commercial skills are now preferential to process, back office and administration skills. Firms want HR individuals to act as business partners and advise them on people strategy. In today’s economic market, firms are looking to HR to provide alternative solutions to recruitment, talent management, retention and development. The HR market has been quiet partly because HR people have been utilised, challenged and valued by their employers in recent times.

Kim McNamara, business development director, Ashley Kate HR (KM): There’s a golden opportunity for talented HR generalists to lead from the front if they possess change management and transformation skills. Due to restructures, TUPE and M/A skills are in demand, coupled with candidates who can offer cost-saving ideas and manage the ever-quickening pace of change. Candidates with a mix of sector background will find the current market more accessible. Employee engagement experience is still high on HR recruiters’ wish lists. Maximising employee potential by updating performance management systems and talent mapping/succession planning initiatives have prompted a need for skilled L&D professionals. In the City, we are seeing an increase in HR roles in the charity, retail and FMCG sectors alongside a steady upturn in HR recruitment in financial services. There has been a decline in HR recruitment in certain sectors in the UK – public sector restructures are still hitting hard, particularly in the NHS where there is little movement in HR recruitment.

Barney Ely, director, Hays Human Resources (BE): Salaries remained stable throughout 2012 with relatively few organisations awarding substantial pay increases. However, those companies wishing to employ the most talented individuals in the market have to offer attractive salary and benefits packages. Areas of demand include experience of change and transition. Retaining the best talent is becoming a higher focus area and this could reflect a continued upturn in the demand for learning and development professionals.

Michael Oliver, associate director, Advantage Professional (MO): HR skills related to attracting, retaining and maximising employee potential are in high demand as organisations drive towards efficiency. Reward, learning & development, organisational design, organisational effectiveness and talent specialists are highly sought after. Strong HR business partners have remained in demand across commercial sectors. There has been a shift in market confidence in key sectors, with an increased number of commerce organisations – notably within FMCG, pharmaceutical, and technology – growing their generalist and specialist HR functions. In contrast, financial services organisations – especially those in retail or investment banking – continue to adopt a conservative approach to recruitment, often utilising replacement-only policies.

Nicola Grimshaw, CEO, Oakleaf Partnership (NG): The market is relatively busy right now. Reward is very candidate short and the number of jobs across the remit continues to grow with the increased profile of compensation and benefits. In the labour pool, there’s a lack of expertise in benefits, pensions and mobility. The quietest area is on the learning and development side. There’s an ongoing demand for good HR business partners and HR managers across all industry sectors. 

Why are there skills shortages in the UK market?

(AM): Often it’s not that skills aren’t there, it’s that some employers want people to have already done the role previously, which doesn’t represent enough of a challenge for the candidate. If there’s no incentive to move, in the current climate, HR professionals are less likely to make the jump to a new organisation.

(JW): Companies who recognise HR as a strategic function rather than an operational department continue to develop their HR teams, which is driving some skill shortages. (DS): Employers are being more specific about their needs and will wait for the exact match rather than being open minded about skill set and sector. They end up recruiting like for like. (KM): Overall, the cost-cutting exercises that occurred in the recession have left companies short of the necessary skills needed to ensure survival in the current HR market. (JA): Often the training and development budget is first to be cut, which impacts the skills required for the future. Many companies have salary restraints in place, so cutting back on personal development will affect morale, motivation and the commitment for talented employees to stay and help the organisation through this difficult trading period.

(DG): The legal sector is currently going through more change than ever before as law firms are increasingly becoming more commercial in their approach to business to remain competitive. As a result they’re looking to recruit individuals with a different skill set to what they would have recruited a few years ago. This poses a problem for some firms because there are very few candidates with the combination of commercial/business skills coupled with law firm or partnership experience, which is what firms would instinctively choose to go for.

(BE): Employers are specifying a very detailed person profile with particular emphasis on exact like for like sector experience and proven commercial track record. This tight specification results in a smaller selection pool with much of that talent in employment.

(MO): Skills shortages are generally a result of the fast-moving market, which presents new challenges quicker than organisations can adapt to deal with them. Within HR, this is especially obvious within compensation, where there’s a need for increasingly innovative approaches to ensure a strong employer value proposition in the wider market. 

(JA): Many CEOs currently want two things: strong sales people to win business from competitors in a flat market and transformation experience to realise cost savings and increased efficiency. While as an HR professional you can’t help with the first of these, you can with the second by focussing your CV on areas where you have dealt with HR transformation and change, leading to material bottom-line savings or growth.

(NG): In such a congested market, at the HR director level you need to be well networked. In your CV, be clear on what your unique selling point is and be specific about what differentiates you from the rest. Don’t put general statements such as ‘I influence well’ or ‘I’m a good leader’. Talk about the areas you’ve had experience in over the last 3-5 years which differentiate you.

(MO): An articulate demonstration of how your role has contributed to the success of the organisation or division you work in will always gain attention. Tangible examples of delivering return on investment are crucial. Talking through the metrics and numbers of how you added value to the bottom line will also make you stand out. Examples of where you have stepped away from traditional approaches and developed commercially sustainable HR interventions are also a good way to differentiate yourself. Practical demonstrations of how to build an HR function that doesn’t necessitate the need for a three-box business partner model will have a strong impact in the interview room. Time spent in a non-HR capacity, for example in operational management roles, is also very powerful, while international experience is increasingly in demand.

(JW): Think about your organisation from a business, rather than just an HR, perspective. This means identifying the needs of the business first, rather than seeing opportunities to implement the HR agenda. Build your own profile through blogging and getting involved in the industry such as speaking at events and developing a strong network of other senior HR professionals happy to give references on your behalf.

(DG): You need to be able to demonstrate experience of/an aptitude for helping your employer change, modernise and be more successful. Demonstrate your ability to act as a strategic partner to senior lawyers and CEOs/COOs and have experience of delivering change and delivering on projects.

(KM): Solutions-based offerings and strong commercial HR acumen (often gained in non-HR disciplines) are necessary to help reduce costs and support overall business performance objectives. You need to be a business person first, an HR practitioner second. Influencing skills are paramount for senior HR to stamp their footprint at board level and a track record in organisation design and development can assist with the creation of a more effective, profitable structure. Enhance your personal skills – network on and offline to identify new strategic ideas and initiatives for your HR function to remain competitive.

(AM): Those who can demonstrate a combination of strong emotional intelligence, commerciality and the ability to adapt to changing environments tend to be the ones that stand out.

(BE): Demonstrate your commercial and business acumen – show delivery that has had a direct impact on your business’ performance and evidence of how you’ve influenced senior stakeholders and board-level members.

How can senior HR candidates stand out?

(JA): Many CEOs currently want two things: strong sales people to win business from competitors in a flat market and transformation experience to realise cost savings and increased efficiency. While as an HR professional you can’t help with the first of these, you can with the second by focussing your CV on areas where you have dealt with HR transformation and change, leading to material bottom-line savings or growth.

(NG): In such a congested market, at the HR director level you need to be well networked. In your CV, be clear on what your unique selling point is and be specific about what differentiates you from the rest. Don’t put general statements such as ‘I influence well’ or ‘I’m a good leader’. Talk about the areas you’ve had experience in over the last 3-5 years which differentiate you.

(MO): An articulate demonstration of how your role has contributed to the success of the organisation or division you work in will always gain attention. Tangible examples of delivering return on investment are crucial. Talking through the metrics and numbers of how you added value to the bottom line will also make you stand out. Examples of where you have stepped away from traditional approaches and developed commercially sustainable HR interventions are also a good way to differentiate yourself. Practical demonstrations of how to build an HR function that doesn’t necessitate the need for a three-box business partner model will have a strong impact in the interview room. Time spent in a non-HR capacity, for example in operational management roles, is also very powerful, while international experience is increasingly in demand.

(JW): Think about your organisation from a business, rather than just an HR, perspective. This means identifying the needs of the business first, rather than seeing opportunities to implement the HR agenda. Build your own profile through blogging and getting involved in the industry such as speaking at events and developing a strong network of other senior HR professionals happy to give references on your behalf.

(DG): You need to be able to demonstrate experience of/an aptitude for helping your employer change, modernise and be more successful. Demonstrate your ability to act as a strategic partner to senior lawyers and CEOs/COOs and have experience of delivering change and delivering on projects.

(KM): Solutions-based offerings and strong commercial HR acumen (often gained in non-HR disciplines) are necessary to help reduce costs and support overall business performance objectives. You need to be a business person first, an HR practitioner second. Influencing skills are paramount for senior HR to stamp their footprint at board level and a track record in organisation design and development can assist with the creation of a more effective, profitable structure. Enhance your personal skills – network on and offline to identify new strategic ideas and initiatives for your HR function to remain competitive.

(AM): Those who can demonstrate a combination of strong emotional intelligence, commerciality and the ability to adapt to changing environments tend to be the ones that stand out.

(BE): Demonstrate your commercial and business acumen – show delivery that has had a direct impact on your business’ performance and evidence of how you’ve influenced senior stakeholders and board-level members.

What does tomorrow’s successful HR professional look like?  

(AM): Commercially astute, capable of operating in a state of ambiguity and change and able to deliver value quickly. Employers are looking for HR professionals who have an eye on the bigger business picture, and can truly act strategically and commercially.

(BE): Change will be the norm and will come in many guises: the HR professional that can lead organisations through change successfully will be highly valued. Most employers look for agile, innovative HR professionals who can bring a fresh vision to the role and are not afraid to challenge traditional ways. HR directors need to demonstrate how they have delivered return on investment, and employers will be looking for evidence of how they have influenced other senior colleagues and driven change.

(KM): Ensure you add value, set and achieve realistic HR objectives, be increasingly customer focussed, have a real understanding of the scale, complexity and culture of your organisation, and have the ability to use changing business models to exploit different markets. Take an interest in new employee engagement thinking. Credibility and confidence are important in promoting new initiatives and ideas to the HR team so it’s essential that the HR strategy is well received at executive level. Risk takers who will push boundaries are becoming more desirable. No longer are companies interested in just best practice.

(DS): Be on top of your game and highly commercial with proven examples, facts and figures. Keep up to date with the market and business movements. One of the most requested requirements in HR is business acumen and how you will impact and benefit the business as a whole. (NG): The HR professionals of the future will be a real mix of operational and commercial. The initial model of the strategic business partner is not necessarily where it’s going to be. The ‘generalist’ will be a business partner but also someone who understands the detail and operations and can really respond well to business leaders.

(JA): Get some experience outside of HR in commercial functions on your journey to becoming an HR director. For interims, being able to sell niche specialist capability to assist in managing change is critical.

(DG): In the same way that tomorrow’s successful lawyer should be a strategic adviser and consultant to their client, so the future HR professional should be that same partner and adviser to their senior business colleague – a strategic adviser helping to move the business forward and not a cost centre holding things back.

(JW): You should understand all aspects of an organisation’s strategy and be able to identify how you can add value from a people perspective and how HR can influence and help to deliver through effective processes, policies and services.

(MO): Demonstrate broad business knowledge and experience, which translates into a contribution to business success through people or organisational solutions. Talk succinctly through the challenges your organisation faces and its business priorities, and be fluent in understanding company turnover, profit and EBITDA. Consequently the HR strategy you design will be developed specifically to influence or enhance the wider business. 

What does tomorrow’s successful HR professional look like?  

(AM): Commercially astute, capable of operating in a state of ambiguity and change and able to deliver value quickly. Employers are looking for HR professionals who have an eye on the bigger business picture, and can truly act strategically and commercially.

(BE): Change will be the norm and will come in many guises: the HR professional that can lead organisations through change successfully will be highly valued. Most employers look for agile, innovative HR professionals who can bring a fresh vision to the role and are not afraid to challenge traditional ways. HR directors need to demonstrate how they have delivered return on investment, and employers will be looking for evidence of how they have influenced other senior colleagues and driven change.

(KM): Ensure you add value, set and achieve realistic HR objectives, be increasingly customer focussed, have a real understanding of the scale, complexity and culture of your organisation, and have the ability to use changing business models to exploit different markets. Take an interest in new employee engagement thinking. Credibility and confidence are important in promoting new initiatives and ideas to the HR team so it’s essential that the HR strategy is well received at executive level. Risk takers who will push boundaries are becoming more desirable. No longer are companies interested in just best practice.

(DS): Be on top of your game and highly commercial with proven examples, facts and figures. Keep up to date with the market and business movements. One of the most requested requirements in HR is business acumen and how you will impact and benefit the business as a whole. (NG): The HR professionals of the future will be a real mix of operational and commercial. The initial model of the strategic business partner is not necessarily where it’s going to be. The ‘generalist’ will be a business partner but also someone who understands the detail and operations and can really respond well to business leaders.

(JA): Get some experience outside of HR in commercial functions on your journey to becoming an HR director. For interims, being able to sell niche specialist capability to assist in managing change is critical.

(DG): In the same way that tomorrow’s successful lawyer should be a strategic adviser and consultant to their client, so the future HR professional should be that same partner and adviser to their senior business colleague – a strategic adviser helping to move the business forward and not a cost centre holding things back.

(JW): You should understand all aspects of an organisation’s strategy and be able to identify how you can add value from a people perspective and how HR can influence and help to deliver through effective processes, policies and services.

(MO): Demonstrate broad business knowledge and experience, which translates into a contribution to business success through people or organisational solutions. Talk succinctly through the challenges your organisation faces and its business priorities, and be fluent in understanding company turnover, profit and EBITDA. Consequently the HR strategy you design will be developed specifically to influence or enhance the wider business. 

Mary Appleton

By Mary Appleton

Changeboard

Mary is Changeboard's editor in chief.

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