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HR Leadership-Development Opportunities Lagging

A new survey finds leadership-development opportunities lacking for HR professionals, and experts say there are two main causes: simple economics and the failure to make an effective case for training people in the evolving HR role.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015
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When it comes to leadership development, it seems that human resource executives dutifully dish it out, but they don't have the chance to savor it themselves.

That much was evident when Korn Ferry recently released the results of a global executive survey of more than 700 executives that asked about the state of professional development for human resource managers within their organizations.

The results were not pretty: Nearly half reported that their organizations did not offer HR-specific leadership development programs, while approximately two-thirds said development programs for senior HR leaders were not "as rigorous" as programs for leaders of other functions in their organizations.

What's more, according to the survey, just over half of respondents said HR people were considered for high-potential programs, but nearly 60 percent said there was no succession plan for their organization's chief HR officer. And nearly 60 percent said senior HR leaders did not get relevant development opportunities to perform optimally in their roles.

"HR is increasingly strategic across more organizations but training hasn't caught up," says Ronald Porter, a New York-based Korn Ferry senior partner. "This survey is highlighting that gap."

Experts say the reason for that gap is twofold: dollars and cents, and the failure to make an effective case for training people in the evolving HR role.

Patrick Wright, a professor at the University of South Carolina's Darla Moore School of Business, has seen the boom-and-bust cycle of training investment, and these survey results don't surprise him.

 "It's putting numbers to what we all know," says Wright, who is also founder and faculty director of the university's Center for Executive Succession. "There's a cyclical component to those numbers. HR is the last area that usually gets invested in and I've been around long enough to ... joke that you know the economy is coming back when the companies begin investing in HR. It's the leading lagging indicator."

He notes that following recessions in the early 1980s, just before 2000, and, most recently in 2008, HR professional-development spending was initially reduced due to economic pressures. Then, as companies assessed their strategic directions, HR's role was also assessed and realigned. Now, after a notoriously slow economic recovery, Wright says he's starting to see a few companies committing to investing in the very people responsible for supporting and developing their employees.

"Upgrading talent and 'muscle-building the organization' usually don't pay off right away," adds Porter. "In the HR cycle, there is a two- to three-year period for [professional development] to really pay off and that's what gets cut first. As HR increasingly helps activate the company's business strategy through aligning talent, it's a critical role."

So what can HR folks do to improve their opportunities when they feel like their organization has different priorities?

They have to make a compelling case, Porter says.

"They've got to be able to say, 'Here's our gap against trying to deliver against the business and we have a gap of development and proficiency.' Some of that's going to be through assignment or training, or a combination of the two," he says.

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"And, there has to be a clear line tying development and training to a business goal. Second, you need an effective development plan or training program to go to, and there haven't been as many of those out there, compared to how many sales programs there are."

Gary S. Rich, founder of the New York-based senior-executive-development consulting firm Rich Leadership, says professional-development opportunities for HR leaders should come from a variety of sources: academic and university programs, development training companies, experience in lines of business and independently studying business strategy.

Rich says HR leaders can even look internally for experts in business and leadership through the functions variably called organizational development (or organization development), organizational effectiveness or leadership development.

 "Those are the people who could teach all the other people in HR how [strategic leadership] works," says Rich, who was former CHRO at Reader's Digest, ACNielsen and American Express, as well as past CEO of QSP, a subsidiary of The Reader's Digest Association, where he was responsible for a $750 million business with thousands of employees for five years.

"Having the understanding of business strategy is the critical component," he says.

"What doesn't pop into the mind of a CEO is to call an HR person and say, 'Let's step back and look at this entire system, at the culture and at actual behavior, and say, here's what we see from people and let's consider why are we getting this behavior which is getting us this result.' "

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