Do you need a HR background to be a successful HR Director?

General Motors have appointed Mary Barra as new Head of Human Resources (see article in ‘Workforce’ – General Motors Shakes Up HR Leadership)

Mary does not have a HR background, however has been a top executive with an engineering background. This has raised the question,

“Do you think someone with a ‘non-HR’ background can make a successful HR Director?”

I posed this question to an Institute of Directors discussion on LinkedIn (UK-based members-only group) and within 24 hours had over 20 comments, which brought out a range of strongly-held views on people management and Human Resources.

Some themes, and my commentary from the discussion :-

Can someone with a ‘non-HR’ background be HR Director? Absolutely, they could bring in real experience of the workplace, fresh innovative strategic thinking, strong stakeholder relationships (particularly for internal candidates) and bring in the real thinkers from outside HR.

What about specific HR knowledge on policies, benefits/reward, industrial/employee relations, employment law?
“It’s a positive sign they want to make deep changes in HR and don’t want to draw from the HR community” from the Workforce article.
Naturally this specialist HR knowledge is needed, but it doesn’t all need to be with the HR Director, or in some cases it doesn’t need to be within the organisation. Larger organisations can afford to employ specialist direct reports, and all organisations can go outside the organisation for specialist HR services. The HR Director is still ‘accountable’ for decisions made on employment law, but that doesn’t mean they need to know the latest directives in minute detail.

The context is key. The range of competencies and experience required for a particular HR Director role is varied and will depend on the circumstances. From major transformation to taking over a ‘steady ship’, the skills needed to ‘transform’ an organisation are very different to those needed to ‘manage’ an organisation. (see article HR Transformation Highlights Skills Gaps in HR.)

Who is responsible for ‘People Management’ anyway? Well everyone actually – from the CEOs to managers and employees. HR does have a key role, but it is not their sole responsibility. People solutions come not just from the HR Director, but from a collective team of specialists.

Do organisations need a HR function, if most services can be outsourced? There is a market for HR outsourcing (see article on Top 5 Benefits of HR Outsourcing) which vary in maturity from Payroll and Benefits Administration to end-to-end HR services (for large global players like BP, Unilever etc). If someone else can deliver a particular function ‘better and cheaper’ then why not outsource? My recommendation is not to outsource strategic functions which should be delivered by those ‘close to the heart’ of the organisation. Or better than outsource, why not eliminate unnecessary HR administration or utilise ‘self-service’ software applications where appropriate.

Why are we not having this discussion about Finance and IT, what makes HR different? A great question from @bncarvin on Twitter, and also from the LinkedIn debate. My view is that we are having this debate about HR, simply because in many areas HR is not delivering on ‘talent and people issues’ attracting, retaining and developing employees. In some cases, HR is not responding to the strategic agenda because it is bogged down in important operational work, mergers, restructures etc. In other cases, it is because the transformation skill-set is missing. Many of the Chief Executives current issues are ‘People issues’, for example improving performance of employees, developing the talent pool, fostering innovation. If these are not delivered by HR, then the CEO will look for radical solutions such as bringing in talent from outside HR.

My hope is that HR will develop the transformational skills required to allocate more resources to strategic issues, utilise appropriate HR service providers and benefit from the renaissance in HR software solutions (see article 5 Future Trends in HR operating models). With mounting pressure to deliver, HR has to transform or bringing in HR Directors from ‘outside of HR’ will be more common. However if HR does respond, the current question will change from,
“can people with ‘non-HR’ backgrounds become HR Directors?”
“can HR Directors become Chief Executive Officers?” (see for example the article Making the step up from HR to the CEO )

For those in HR who can rise to the challenge, the prizes are high indeed.

Does the shoe have to fit? I would be very interested in your views.

Finally I wish Mary Barra good luck in her new role!

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10 Responses to “Do you need a HR background to be a successful HR Director?”

  1. Beth N. Carvin Says:

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for raising my question.

    It’s important for any Executive level position to have experience in the field for which they will be responsible. Human Resources is no different.

    Would GM hire a CFO without Finance/Accounting background or a Chief Technology Officer without IT/Engineering background?


    So what gives?

    I have to disagree with the generalization that HR is not delivering on talent and people issues. All across the globe, HR executives are doing an outstanding job helping their organizations (from a people standpoint) reach their strategic corporate goals.

    Are there some bad apples? Sure — probably as many as in every other field.

    If an HR leader is not succeeding then bring in an HR executive better fit for the job. Why blame the entire profession?

    It’s a big mistake (and a little naive) to assume that there isn’t any specialized knowledge in Human Resources.

    Can Mary Barra succeed as the head of HR? Sure and I hope that she does. Just as a smart Human Resources person could succeed as the head of Production or Finance.

    I haven’t seen Ms. Barra’s resume and she may be amazing and awesome. So how about we credit her for the position because she’s great–not because she’s NOT HR?

  2. Steve Boese Says:

    This is a great discussion and I am glad to see Beth involved as she is a true thought leader in the HR space. I tend to side with Beth on this. While certainly star managers from IT or Finance may turn in to great HR leaders, I think as Beth says, top HR leaders could succeed as heads of Marketing or Product Management.

    But I think those are unusual cases. My unscientific rationale is the long line of actors that fail as pop stars and sports figures that fail as actors. Sometimes a major mid-career shift works out, but I think many times it does not.

    Great stuff, Andy.

  3. Mark Birch Says:

    “HR is not responding to the strategic agenda because it is bogged down in important operational work, mergers, restructures etc. In other cases, it is because the transformation skill-set is missing.”

    I think this gets to the fundamental truth about the state of HR today. Let’s be honest, HR is being outsourced for many of the reasons IT is being outsourced; many companies are not seeing the strategic value of these functions. They view them as commodity, operational functions that can be performed by any outside provider.

    HR needs a radical shakeup in thinking, process, and execution if it is to start delivering the type of strategic thinking that CEO’s needs in regards to People Mgmt. If a fresh perspective can be brought in from a strong and disciplined manager, then that should be viewed as a positive. To say that a talented individual cannot pick up the needed skills within HR to be an effective leader is not quite right.

    We are talking about LEADERS here. Much like we would not expect the CEO of an established company to start writing computer code or filling out a cash flow analysis, we should not expect an HR leader to be immersed in OSHA rules, benefits jargon, or applicant tracking processes. What HR leaders need to do is connect people issues with strategic business directives.

    Also, let’s face it, the vast majority of star managers are not coming out of the HR ranks. The people going to the top business schools are looking at careers in finance, technology, and marketing. HR is not seen as a lucrative career path to someone paying over $100K to get their MBA. Most HR leaders could never manage another corporate function as they lack the strategic thinking and leadership skills. It is up to HR professionals to spend time outside of HR, to get management / leadership training, and start to get more strategic in their thinking. The best run companies are those that rotate talented individuals across many corporate domains to help foster strategic thinking, innovation, and future leaders. HR leaders can be strong leaders in their domain, and a few can even jump across other functions, but by and large, there is a dearth of great HR leaders at the moment.

    I would really welcome your thoughts on this question of the quality of HR leadership. I would really like to see HR seen as a key player in the boardroom.

  4. Twitter Trackbacks for Do you need a HR background to be a successful HR Director? | HR Transformer Blog [] on Says:

    […] Do you need a HR background to be a successful HR Director? | HR Transformer Blog – view page – cached GM have appointed someone who does not have a HR background as new Head of Human Resources. Can someone with a ‘non-HR’ background make a great HR Director? — From the page […]

  5. Michael VanDervort Says:

    I posted on this when it first came out in the news. Someone pointed at that the HR exec at Boeing is from outside HR. Another example would be the head of HR at Walmart. Exceptions, but possible even at Fortune 10 companies. I don’t think it is a good idea in the long run though!

  6. Andrew Spence Says:

    Many thanks to Beth, Michael, Steve and Mark for taking time to make some interesting and insightful comments, it’s great to get such a broad perspective.

    Beth – I completely agree with you that there are many cases of HR Executives doing an outstanding job delivering HR Strategy in very difficult circumstances. As mentioned in the article, specialized knowledge in HR is essential whoever is in charge; my personal view is that this knowledge does not always necessarily need to sit with the boss. Finding a new HR Exec has to be someone who has the right skills and experience for that particular role, which will usually be from HR – this is the norm. What is interesting are the reasons why Business Leaders are increasingly looking outside of HR (thanks to Mike for providing a couple of other examples) to bring fresh ideas, innovation and a different way of thinking.

    Steve brings up a point that many people will agree with – ‘sticking with what you know’ is probably best – as mentioned many sports stars (thankfully) do not make the transition to movies! However, in business, many CEOs are brought into organizations for their leadership skills often from completely different industries.

    Like Mark I want HR to have a stronger position in leading organizations, but wonder if there is still a skill and perception gap in some areas? In terms of solutions – Mark brings up a great point about career development. HR Execs, like everyone else, would benefit from brushing up on their broader strategic thinking and leadership skills and consider rotation of roles across different corporate domains. Would it be beneficial for HR professionals to adopt this principle as another option for career development?

  7. Gail Says:

    It is ludacrous to believe that someone with no HR experience can be an effective HR Leader. They may give the business leaders exactly what they want….but it will not be viable HR expertise. Human Resources is a discipline…as is Finance & Legal. Someone with no Finance or Legal experience may tell the business leaders what they want to hear…but it won’t be what they NEED to hear, to mitigate risk. The exact same is true for Human Resource leaders. Human Resource leaders are individuals with strong business acumen & a solid foundation of Human Resource & labor law knowledge. A company that places an individual, with no HR experience,into HR leadership role is basically opting out of having HR, at their company.

  8. From the web-Feb 2011 « Implant Hr Says:

    […] Do you need Hr background to be a successful Hr Director ? – HR Transformer blog […]

  9. AndySpence Says:

    And to answer the question “can HR Directors become Chief Executive Officers?”

    Well done to Mary Barra on becoming the first woman to run a US carmaker

    "General Motors names Mary Barra as new boss"

  10. Affif Siddique Says:

    Great discussion Andy.The point you brought " What is interesting are the reasons why Business Leaders are increasingly looking outside of HR (thanks to Mike for providing a couple of other examples) to bring fresh ideas, innovation and a different way of thinking"? I would say the "Typical" HR leaders (not all) are still struggling to take the leap into the next gen of HR management requirements. They are still trying to innovate or fix things which has worked for them in the past. The new reality is the functions are completely changed and the need is to radicalized the way HR has worked in the past, the tools and the workforce and the dynamic work environment all are new and require everyone to take a big leap forward and that is scary for some. Brining new leaders from outside gives companies fresh mindset which is ready to take chances and make radical changes.

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