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Top HR Traits

"What CEOs Want: The 10 Most Sought-After Talents of HR Leaders" was part of Human Resource Executive®'s November 2005 cover story, Accounting for Change.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006
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Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, "There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, learning from failure."

In today's tumultuous business environment, HR executives need to pay heed to those words -- while, hopefully, keeping the "failure" part of the equation to a very minor role best experienced early in their careers.

Today, CEOs are under fierce pressure to perform and they need the assistance of their entire organizations -- most especially, their HR leaders. According to interviews with executive-search consultants and human resource consultants, these are the top 10 qualities CEOs are looking for in their HR executives:

1. Trusted Adviser

One of the most important elements of the HR executive's job description is having the ear of his or her CEO -- and deserving to have that special relationship.

"CEOs want an HR executive to have an opinion that is not going to go with a group and . . . is going to be the right arm and a trusted adviser because of the fact that they are coming in with new and independent thinking," says Gregory S. Hessel, a partner and global director of the HR practice for Korn/Ferry International in Dallas.

To deserve that special relationship, HR executives must "say what you mean [and] mean what you say," says David Abrams, senior vice president at Aon Consulting Inc.'s Minneapolis office.

Sought-after HR leaders have "the courage to tell the CEO what he/she needs to hear, not what you think he/she wants to hear," he says.

2. Great Communicator

Words matter. And the results can be seen in the engagement levels of employees, peers and stakeholders. Effective HR leaders communicate and create "understanding of mission, vision, strategy and culture and [provide] focus, alignment and line of sight," says Abrams.

They also avoid "HR speak," says Scott Cohen, national practice leader for talent management in the Boston office of Watson Wyatt Worldwide. Preferred HR executives are able to take concepts and strategies and "translate them into plain and simple business language that people can relate to and understand," he says.

3. Leader

Insight and knowledge are necessary to lead others -- and CEOs want an HR executive who is a leader; one who understands people, understands the corporate structure and where the business is going, and understands corporate culture and how to drive it, says Francis J. Luisi, founding partner in the Rumson, N.J., office of the boutique firm of Charleston Partners, which exclusively recruits HR executives and professionals. "They are looking at the head of HR as a key business leader who just happens to do HR," he says.

Adds Abrams: "Making informed, compassionate, tough decisions and understanding and communicating their ramifications, good and bad, is highly valued by the CEO and board."

4. Cultural Leader

"HR doesn't own culture; the organization's people own the culture," says Abrams. HR leaders, however, must understand the culture -- and understand how to guide it in conjunction with senior leadership.

"HR partners with operational leaders in an attempt to guide a desired culture -- 'the way we do things here' -- that allows the organization to live its mission -- 'why we exist' -- achieve its vision -- 'what we're trying to achieve or be' -- and execute its differentiated strategy -- 'how we will get there.' Culture is critical to mission, vision and strategy achievement," he says.

5. Outsourcing Innovator

"Outsourcing is a key efficiency and expense-reduction tool that, if misapplied or poorly executed, can have the opposite results," says Abrams. CEOs want their HR professionals to have "keen knowledge of not only the systems and processes of the organization -- [both] HR and the operational unit as a whole -- that may be amenable to outsourcing, but a deep understanding of organization culture that will allow for effective planning and execution of any outsourcing effort," he says.

6. Financial Know-How

Don't know numbers, don't get the job. HR executives in today's corporate world need to know much more than how to craft incentive plans, says executive search consultant Eileen Finn of Eileen Finn & Associates in New York, who specializes in HR professionals.

Today's CEOs, she says, want HR leaders in the C-suite who understand balance sheets and the micro- and macro-economic impact of internal and industry issues and actions.

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"Making money," says Abrams, "drives most, if not all, CEO decisions and is still the yardstick by which most organizations and their stakeholders measure success."

7. Talent Manager

Managing talent -- acquisition, development, retention and succession planning -- is the "hottest" ability requested of HR executives, Hessel says. Each company may define talent management somewhat differently, but each CEO knows it's crucial to his or her company's success.

A company's talent strategy is "what creates sustainable competitive advantage," says Abrams.

8. Technological Wiz

Human resource executives need to "know what technology drives not only HR productivity and efficiency but what technology drives your organization and industry growth and efficiency," Abrams says.

Sought-after HR leaders understand how to leverage technology to increase organizational growth and productivity while reducing expenses, he says.

9. Results-Driven Operator

Bachman-Turner Overdrive's hit "Taking Care of Business" says it all. So do a few well-known clich├ęs: Keep the boat afloat, the train on the track, an eye on the wheel. Whatever sounds sweetest, the underlying principle remains: "At the end of the day, you can talk about the most cutting-edge strategy, but you need to be able to execute on those strategies," Luisi says.

"Organizations are all about results, not activities -- by which HR often still measures its own success," says Abrams.

CEOs are looking for HR leaders who "communicate deliverables to senior leadership" and deliver on their promises, Cohen says.

10. M&A Analyst

Understand the HR-related business issues and potential solutions that need to be brought to the table during due diligence and M&A planning and execution, says Abrams.

"Mergers and acquisitions drive many industry sectors' growth goals," he says. "Additionally, people and culture issues have driven many M&A failures."

If HR professionals are undaunted by this list, then add one more to the mix: enjoyment. The Washington Redskins' legendary coach, Joe Gibbs, once said, "People who enjoy what they are doing invariably do it well." That assuredly holds true for human resource executives.

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