Today’s HRDs are working far beyond the people agenda

The way we work has changed almost beyond all recognition in the last six months. But even before the pandemic profound societal, economic and technological shifts were impacting the world of work. Any change to the world of work is by its very nature a change to the people profession: if the profession fails to keep up with external drivers, it will become obsolete, and deservedly so.

As part of the CIPD’s commitment to set the profession up for sustainable success and to co-create a vision of the future, we recently embarked on our People Profession 2030 research project. A successful Hackathon event in August led to the generation of thousands of ideas from hundreds of people professionals around the world. To test and refine these ideas, we then held a series of eight nationwide HR leader roundtables, bringing together almost 60 senior leaders to discuss the themes that had emerged from the Hackathon, to help further define our vision for the future of the people profession.

I was lucky enough to facilitate all of these sessions and hear the views and insights of these leaders in our profession – that’s 16 hours of stimulating discussion (and yes, every session was sufficiently different!).

Having spent more than a decade working with HR leaders, first as a journalist and now as senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, what struck me most from these conversations was how little we covered traditional HR issues. Rather than talk about the ‘bread and butter’ of HR, such as employee engagement or performance management, we covered topics as wide ranging and diverse as the role of the organisation in local communities, climate change, financial management and responsible supply chains, all through a lens acknowledging the importance of leadership and culture as the golden thread. 

The HRDs I work with often say that they consider themselves to be business leaders first, with a specialism in HR and people. These conversations proved that point loud and clear. Of course, people issues are business issues (it’s not for nothing that ‘people are our greatest asset’ has become such a tiresome cliché), but these HR leaders understand that people issues sit within a wider ecosystem, not in a vacuum.

One HRD reflected that one thing that has changed in recent years is the widening of the gap between the deputy HR director and the HR director role. While the deputy HRD is an expert in all things ‘people’, stepping up into an executive HR director role means taking on a breadth of accountabilities that can be quite overwhelming. And while the deputy HRD role remains internally focused, the top HR job is now far more externally facing, having to work with and influence a far broader range of partners and other stakeholders. 

This means the skills required to be a successful HR leader are becoming more demanding. It is a given you will be an expert in the technical and operational side of HR, but are you able to know the finances almost as well as the CFO, carry out complex external stakeholder management and truly understand the possibilities of digital transformation? All while role-modelling the leadership behaviours you want to see in the rest of the organisation and being comfortable speaking truth to power when necessary?

The broadening of the HR leader’s role is also clear through a separate piece of research we have just completed with Professor Veronica Hope Hailey from the University of Bath, which explores responsible business and trustworthy leadership through COVID-19. We spoke to 60 business and HR leaders for this work, and those conversations brought home the strategic breadth of the modern CPO role, with many HR directors leading or co-leading their organisation’s COVID response.

HR hasn’t always traditionally been seen as a role for the most ambitious professionals, but it’s clear from our recent discussions that the credibility and influence of the function has never been higher. This is partly due to COVID, and the human-centricity of the health crisis (now mutating into an economic crisis), but also due to the fact that people issues have been rising up the corporate agenda for a number of years now. 

New regulation such as gender pay gap reporting has made D&I a board level issue and investors are more interested in ESG (environmental, social, governance) indicators than ever before. Changes to the Corporate Governance Code focus on the cultural indicators that tell a story about the long-term health of a company, requiring PLCs to disclose information around employee voice and organisational culture. The number of very public corporate failings that ultimately come down to problems with culture and behaviour, from Mid Staffs to News UK to Sports Direct, also serve to frame people issues through the lens of material risk.

All this provides an opportunity to leaders in the people profession, and going by what we’ve heard recently, it’s one they are ready to seize. The expanding role and influence of the HR director may be a challenge to deliver, but as opportunities go, is there a more exciting C-suite role now than that of the CHRO?

Katie Jacobs is senior stakeholder lead at CIPD.

The People Profession 2030 research will be unveiled at the CIPD Annual Conference

The 'Responsible business through crisis: senior leaders on trust and resilience during COVID' research will be published in October.

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