The majority of CEOs and senior leaders today understand the importance of Human Resources. Reliability, integrity, empathy, and discretion are the characteristics CEOs expect and require of their HR leaders. Nick Holley in his research for the Henley Business School, found that CEOs expect their HR leaders and the HR function “to deliver the core processes really well, but they don’t really care about these processes beyond the fact they are done”. His research overwhelmingly found that what they really wanted from HR, and what they most cared about was HR’s support in enabling the business strategy and building the people and organisational capability to deliver this business strategy. “What they valued most from their HR Director, is the director bit, less so the HR bit”.

CEOs need good HR leaders, now more than ever. During the global pandemic, CEOs have relied heavily on their HR leader to support them in managing the significant workforce challenges they have faced. In the majority of cases, HR has risen to this challenge, enabling their CEOs and fellow executives to focus on navigating the inevitable challenges the pandemic has thrown at them. HR has played a lead role and continues to do so as businesses grapple with the ongoing uncertainty and volatility of the pandemic.

The HR credibility deficit

Unfortunately, HR still has a credibility problem. Whilst not all CEOs can see the value of HR, many know that if HR is done well, they are far more likely to oversee an organisation with strong employee engagement, a dynamic and inclusive culture, high individual and team performance and ultimately better business results.

HR leaders who only draw on their technical expertise and know-how create complex processes and solutions to technical problems. Consequently, a lot of time and effort is put into implementing complex solutions that often don’t add substantial value to anyone.

HR needs to go well beyond transactional people management and processes. CEOs need and want their HR leader to be their strategic partner, trusted advisor and a competent, professional member of the executive team.

HR as a strategic partner

CEOs need their HR Leaders to:

Understand the business

They need to understand the critical drivers of organisational success, demonstrating a level of commerciality and pragmatism. They need to understand the numbers and take equal accountability for business performance and delivery of the strategy.

Deliver with Integrity

This is not only necessary but expected. Integrity is core and cannot be compromised. CEOs expect their HR leaders to be role models, upholding the values of the organisation and the behaviours expected of the whole workforce. CEOs want someone in their team they know they can confide in, who will support them to be the best leaders they can be and who will occasionally tell them the hard truth’s no one else will. It is not possible to build a relationship like this without integrity and discretion.

Take action

HR leaders must take accountability for the services, solutions and initiatives they deliver. There is a tendency for HR to over-complicate and over-engineer HR solutions with little consideration for the strategy, business need and/or the capacity of the workforce to implement such solutions. CEOs expect HR to operate effectively and efficiently and to provide domain expertise and advice on critical people problems and solutions for their business. Business strategy  must be the driver of the initiatives, solutions or processes are implemented and when.

CEOs need good HR leaders. They want an executive on their team who epitomises the leadership expected across the organisation. Many CEOs value the insights, advice and guidance they receive from their HR leaders. They need someone they can trust, who they can confide in and a sounding board. The technical expertise of the HR leader is a given. Strategic thinking, commercial understanding and performance are expected. Most of all what CEOs really need and want is a strategic partner who supports and enables them to be the best leader they can be. Of course, not all CEOs will feel they need this and there are many not even open to this. However, it can be very lonely at the top and for those CEOs who have strong HR leaders on their team, it can provide just that little bit of relief knowing there is someone close who just ‘gets it.’

Featured in IIDMGlobal (September, 2021), iidmglobal