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What should ambitious HR people learn?

I was recently running a seminar for a group of senior HR Business partners. These are successful people in a high performing organisation.  All of them have degrees, all of them have CIPD or equivalent and all are doing really well with great careers ahead of them.

We had as part of the seminar a discussion about their personal development and what it was for and the answers were as you would expect; they included:

  • improving self-awareness
  • improving skills or learning new ones
  • building or improving confidence
  • developing strengths or talents
  • improving income potential 
  • identifying or improving potential
  • building employability  
  • enhancing lifestyle or the quality of life
  • improving health
  • fulfilling aspirations
  • improving social abilities

What was interesting about this particular group was that you could tell the difference between those who undertook development because they wanted to get the badge, to be able to say “I have this qualification or this certificate” and the others who had a natural curiosity and a desire to learn for the sake of learning. The second group were the ones that I predict even greater things for because they were interested in treating themselves as a learning project and they wanted to develop their own self-awareness. 

The measure they were most interested in was their own progress and how they could enhance their experiences through learning. This group displayed the attributes that I look for when recruiting HR people. 

Some of the questions I like to ask HR people in interviews include;

“What’s the last book you read or Ted talk you watched? 

"Who do you follow on twitter from the business community and why”

"What self-development do you personally invest in (i.e. what do you pay for yourself?)"

These questions tell me quite a lot 

There are also those HR people who are development junkies, they go on every course they can and never put anything into practice they are to be avoided and so are the other type who get their BA in HR and decide that that’s all ok as they now know everything they have to know and never need to bother again.

One of the false assumptions about people that can misdirect our learning is that people are rational and so we can deliver HR through rationality. This would lead us to assume that as long as we understand our craft and explain it rationally we will be fine so the focus on the subject matter expertise of HR will be all we need.

What neuroscience is teaching us is that we need to reconsider our understanding of essential human functioning.

The dominant part of our brain is not the prefrontal cortex (the rational part) as we have been taught in the past but the Limbic system, the seat of emotion and memory, and this governs all our decision making.

If you think about all the important decisions we make in our life, whether to enter a relationship, buy a property, have a child, study, take up a job or make any kind of major purchase we will have decided on the basis of feelings although we will probably have justified the decision on a rational basis later.

So the assumption that giving the people we work with and manage the logical case for our HR intervention without consideration of the emotional issues will be in most cases hopeless. Our first and most powerful responses are emotional and those who can manage their own and others emotions are the most successful.

So what does that mean for you in HR when looking at development? Here are some areas to consider in your own development.

You are a sales person: whether you like that term or not as an HR person you will be continually attempting to influence people with your ideas and suggestions. Even in the most command and control structures you are selling. If you can’t influence people you will not progress.

To be able to sell you need to understand your impact, and understand the emotions that drive the person you are dealing with. So an area of development that is often neglected in HR is self-awareness, and an understanding of your own and others emotional intelligence.  NLP can come in handy here so can coaching skills.

Executive impact: the impact you make when you meet those you want to influence is driven by the first few moments, how you look, how you communicate how you connect with the other person creates the difference between a success and failure. Being coached or mentored by an expert in these areas can make a huge difference in your success. 

Financial awareness and astuteness, creating a business plan, being able to calculate ROI on potential investments, contract management, all of these areas include the requirement for financial understanding and common sense.

Develop access to the business you work in and learn about it. The best in HR make sure they take advantage of their close proximity to the business to gain real, deep operational experience. These are the HR directors who know the guts of a business – what’s there, and how it all works. You can’t know how to improve organisational effectiveness without knowing these basics first.”

Bring the outside in. Those that rise to the top have a hunger for knowledge. They’ve established how other firms in their sector operate (and how this impacts them), or have decided what the next stage of their own company’s development should be, one, two or three years down the line. Business today is about the extent to which external situations are changing, and who is best prepared to take advantage of it.”

They learn from other people and have great executive relationships “Personal relationships are critical. HR directors need to hold a mirror up to the CEO and be brave enough to say ‘no’. They must have the courage to ask the executive team what they think the impact of their actions is. It means these HR directors are very comfortable delivering both good and bad news as it happens. They don’t pull their punches.”

Networks. They have great networks in and outside HR and they are active and generous members not just turning up to get something back. Their networks are across a variety of sectors and if one doesn’t exist they create it. They understand the value of organisational raids and know how to beg, borrow and steal to get the best ideas inside and outside of their own sector.

The bottom line is that if we in HR don’t take our own development seriously what credibility do we have in telling others to. 


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