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Preparing for the C-Suite

Saville Consulting was among the assessment firms that provided personality data on HR executives for our February 2008 cover story, "The HR Personality." Gary Schmidt, an industrial and organizational psychologist and president of the firm's U.S. subsidiary, offers a closer look at the meaning of the data, and ways HR leaders can take full advantage of their strengths in preparing for the C-suite.

Friday, February 1, 2008
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Finally making it to the C-suite is a difficult and prized opportunity. You are a leader among other leaders, and each of you has followed a unique path to get there, especially if you are a human resource executive. Now that you are "at the table" you may be curious about your peers, and if you are like us, you may ask the question, "So how alike and different are HR executives compared to other executives?" If you are looking to climb up to the C-suite, you may be asking, "What should I be prepared for?"

To examine these questions we compared 116 HR executives to 524 other executives using the Saville Consulting Wave Professional Styles assessment. This assessment asked respondents to rate the activities that motivate them and the activities they are good at. These responses were scored and aggregated, and the HR executives' results were compared to the average results of other executives and CEOs to see how HR executives are unique or different.

Saville Consulting Wave

Saville Consulting Wave is based on a model of work style that is organized into four major clusters: Thinking, Influencing, Adapting and Delivering. These clusters are aligned with a typical management process -- a vision or idea leads to a strategy and plan (thinking); people with resources are informed, persuaded and managed (influence); changes are needed due to group or team issues, competitor reactions, time pressures and other unexpected "surprises" (adaptability); and finally success is measured by the degree to which the program is organized and delivered on time and on budget, which requires energy, ambition, and persistence (delivery).

Also, readers familiar with research into personality theory will see the link between the Big 5 personality traits and the wave clusters: Openness to Experience = Thinking; Extroversion = Influence; Agreeableness = Adaptability; and Conscientiousness = Delivery. The fifth construct, Neurosis, is not directly addressed by the Wave model given Wave's focus on "normal" personality and work behaviors.

Each Wave cluster is sub-divided into nine behavioral scales for a total of thirty-six scales. It is at this level that we compared HR executives with other executives. Only statistically significant differences are shown in the table of results.

How are HR Executives Unique?

It is clear from the table of results that, on average, HR executives have a lot in common with their executive counterparts. In fact, there were no statistically significant differences for 29 of the 36 scales. However, there were some key differences found. It is these that make the HR executive unique.

HR executives rated their motivation and talent lower on two of the Thinking scales -- Strategic and Rational. This suggests that HR executives are, on average, less motivated and talented when it comes to thinking long term, making strategic plans, and creating a vision for the future.

When compared only to CEOs, the difference increases.

It is important to note that as a whole, executives are more strategic than non-executives, and HR executives are no exception. However, among this select group of executives, all of whom are strategic thinkers, the HR executive may find him or herself challenged to keep up.

Said another way, HR executives are strategic compared to non-executives (such as HR managers), but less strategic than their C-suite peers.

HR executives are also lower on the Rational scale. This does not suggest they are "irrational" but it does suggest that, compared to other executives, they may not enjoy working with numbers as much, are not as enamored with information technology or other logical systems, and they don't make decisions based on facts alone. Perhaps HR executives are more likely to consider emotional or psychological factors when making decisions rather than rely only on cold hard facts.

This emotional or "people" component also shows up in the leadership style of HR executives.

Our results found HR executives to be less Directing than other executives. This scale includes behaviors dealing with taking charge, coordinating others and actively pursing the leadership role. A lower score suggests a more participative style of leadership compared to a task-oriented style.

HR executives scored higher than other executives on three scales: Attentive, Resolving and Self-Assured.

Attentive means being empathetic, a good listener and trying to understand why people do things. Resolving is all about conflict management and being comfortable dealing with people who are upset or angry. Self-Assured addresses self-confidence, one's sense of self-worth and the feeling that you control your own destiny.

These appear to be strong assets for the HR executive that can be leveraged when dealing with others. Not surprisingly, the first two of these deal with people issues -- social interactions and conflicts. The third is an emotional issue -- self-confidence.

Overall, the biggest difference found between HR executives and other executives was on the Enterprising scale. This is about competing, spotting business opportunities and selling (being sales oriented). Compared to other executives, HR executives are less interested, motivated and perhaps talented when it comes to "enterprising" or commercial behaviors. That could be one reason why they chose a career in HR in the first place.

One way to interpret these findings is that typical executives, as compared to HR executives, are more focused on business opportunities, objectives (strategy and task leadership) and results (sales figures and other hard financial data). HR executives appear more interested in people issues and effectively managing the social system inside the organization. They are less externally focused on markets or business issues and more internally focused on people issues. Note that these are not mutually exclusive behaviors and some individuals can score high on all of these.

On the surface these finds may seem intuitive -- HR executives are more people-oriented while other executives are more strategic, capitalistic and task-oriented. However, it may help to explain, at least in part, why HR executives sometimes struggle be taken seriously by their executive counterparts.

Is it possible to develop these traits?

Strictly speaking, traits aren't developed, they are part of your DNA and shaped by your early experiences, but you can develop relevant behaviors.

For instance, you don't have to be a musical prodigy to learn to play the piano. However, even though you may lack the same musical gift that some people are born with, you can, through hard work and practice, become a talented pianist. The same is true here -- you can, through hard work and practice, develop the behaviors that may come more naturally to your executive peers.

This study did not address the impact of situational variables. Certainly the situation has a big impact on a person's work behavior, but a person's unique combination of motives and talents will also impact work behavior, and it is from this perspective that this study was done.

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Tips for Improving -- Preparing for the C-Suite

Development means knowing when and how to take full advantage of your assets (talents and motives) while improving or managing your liabilities -- those behaviors that do not come as easily or proficiently for you as others when situations arise that require them.

In other words, HR executives can recognize and utilize their more natural talent for people issues, conflict resolution and modeling a participative leadership style. The HR executive is the person best suited to have a finger on the pulse of the organization's social system.

However, HR executives may also have to stretch themselves when it comes to being a strategic business partner and being passionate about issues like corporate strategy, business opportunities, financial objectives and making the hard decisions that impact people. Below are a few tips that can help you to get started.

Enterprising

* Get to really know your product or service and your market. This means being externally focused and understanding the challenges that your peers are wrestling with.

* Find out about your competitors' businesses and their HR practices and look for opportunities to differentiate yourself in order to attract and retain top talent.

* Create metrics and monitor your progress against competitors or benchmark companies -- both in term of efficiency and effectiveness.

* Study market trends and demographic (workforce) trends that can help develop your "employer brand" and value proposition.

Strategic & Rational

* Be sure to read and fully understand your organization's strategic plan.

* Discuss with your executive colleagues your long-term HR vision and how it aligns with and supports their strategic objectives (if it does, they will listen).

* Look for ways that HR can contribute to business strategy, such as creating an HR strategy that will ensure the organization has the right talent to meet future needs.

* Ensure strategic ideas are accompanied by a strong business case and supporting data.

* Read business and economic publications and track major trends.

* Learn more about key business issues and metrics used by different functions in the organization.

* Identify, monitor and communicate key strategic HR metrics that can drive business performance, especially metrics important to other key organizational functions (e.g., sales or operations).

* Look for ways to link softer HR metrics to hard business metrics; track and report on progress to your organization.

Directing

* Practice your situational leadership skills. Some situations aren't conducive to a participative style of leadership or for developing staff -- be ready to take command in these situations (e.g., crisis management).

* Volunteer to lead a task force on non-HR issues, utilizing your skills as a facilitator to coordinate and manage people from outside of the HR function.

* You are among a group of success leaders, so you may have to be more assertive than you prefer when coordinating or managing other executives. Push yourself harder if you find your agenda is not getting the attention it deserves.

Saville Consulting is a global firm specializing in talent measurement for purposes of enhancing staffing, development and retention of top talent. Its North American office is in Hightstown, N.J. The firm provides assessment tools and consulting services to large and mid-size companies, including global corporations. www.savilleconsulting.com

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