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The Group HR Director — Navigator of New Worlds

  • July 2015

Reflections from Chairmen and HR Leaders

In a business environment characterised by rapid change and high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty, where the ability to mobilise talent is perhaps the greatest differentiator of corporate performance, the role of the Group HR Director has become more critical than ever before.

To reflect on the challenges facing the role — and what it now takes to succeed in it — we spoke to six of Britain’s most senior business leaders. Two of them, Sir Peter Gershon (National Grid) and Robert Swannell (Marks & Spencer), are Chairmen of their companies. The remaining four, Elaine Arden (RBS), Tom Maddison (Xerox), Mark Taylor (Burberry) and Diana Breeze (Land Securities) are themselves Group HR Directors.

A number of important themes emerge from the interviews:

Leader of change. Companies are undergoing transformational change in response to globalisation, new technology and the demands of a new generation of talent and consumers. The Group HR Director must be front and centre of leading this change — including restructuring organisations to adapt to new business models, building and staffing operations in new markets, reshaping corporate culture, nurturing diversity and taking a long-term perspective on how to attract and engage talent for new times.

Thought partner to the CEO. The HR Director must, more than ever, be a peer and thought partner to the CEO and the rest of the executive team — playing a core role not just in talent strategy but in business strategy too; understanding how to translate strategic priorities into robust people processes at speed and scale; and bringing the same analytical rigour to HR and organisational performance as their peers do in finance, marketing or R&D. Only by taking his or her full place at the top table can the HR Director be a true confidante and counsellor to the CEO.

Bridge between technology and people. As the social media revolution transforms the way people communicate in their personal lives, HR Directors must imagine and implement bold new ways to employ technology to create conversations, connectivity and community in the workplace. Some of those we spoke to are driving internal social media platforms that represent a giant leap beyond corporate email. Yet, just as important, they see their role as nurturing authentic human connections through face-to-face communication — something too easily forgotten in the technology age.

Master of many worlds. Finally, the interviewees spoke about the personal leadership qualities that great Group HR Directors now bring to the role. Given the breadth of demands on them, today’s HR Directors must be extraordinarily agile. At one moment they must master the technical domain of executive remuneration; the next, they must translate the subtle nuances of the Board’s language to the executive team. This calls for a high degree of insight, emotional intelligence and adaptability — and the comfort to perform in a great variety of environments. It is no surprise that many leading Group HR Directors, including those interviewed here, have played a diversity of roles in their careers, ranging from finance to operations.

As business leaders are called upon to manage an unprecedented degree of complexity, and respond faster than ever before to changing markets, technologies and regulation, the Group HR Director is pivotal. It is he or she who must make the connection between strategy and organisation, and between technology and people. Those with the courage and capability to step up to the role stand to make a tremendous difference.

Access the full interviews The Group HR Director – Navigator of New Worlds.

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