Human Resources is a Joke?


Human Resources, even as a concept, is often mocked on television and in other media – American sitcoms being frequent lampooners of the idea – but every business aficionado worth his salt will know that maximising what this department has to offer can be the difference between a corporation playing at big business and being an industry leader. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman certainly understood the huge impact that Human Resources can play in pushing business opportunity which could well be what led to their 2015 Harvard Business Review article What Separates Great HR Leaders from the Rest. They posited that there were 10 categories that separated the wheat from the chaff with the best of the best having the following credentials:

  • The ability to develop and coach of others.

  • The ability to build and maintain positive relationships.

  • Problem solving and issue analyses skills.

  • Being a role model.

  • Having functional knowledge and expertise.

  • The ability to develop strategic perspective.

  • A connection and focus to the outside world as well as being able to look internally.

  • Having a clear strategy and focus.

  • Anticipation of problems with quick responses.

  • The ability to establish stretch goals that speed up the HR process.

I was rather interested in their ideas as there appeared to be verisimilitude in regards to my own experiences, but I wanted to see how far this model would hold true given scrutiny from professionals in the sphere of HR. Who would there have been better to ask, of course, than the great HR leaders Zenger and Folkman’s article pertains to if I was to separate fact from fiction? As such, I surveyed 386 Human Resources Executives and Directors in order to crack this HR Da Vinci Code and put to them the following three questions:

  • Do you agree with the article that the four most important categories out of the 10 are “Problem solving and issue analyses skills”, “The ability to develop strategic perspective”, “A connection and focus to the outside world as well as being able to look internally” and “The ability to establish stretch goals that speed up the HR process”?

  • Which of the 10 categories do you feel to be most important?

  • Do you have any additional comments on which qualities are requisite for great HR leaders? EG Do you feel these categories cover everything or have the authors missed something?

The responses that came back were extremely frank personal accounts of life in HR and I was humbled by the passion displayed by those surveyed in promoting the importance of this sector. I firstly have to thank those whom contributed their time and honesty to this article before we get down to the business end of the results.

The overarching theme of responses seemed to suggest that “HR C-Suite people should be no different to other executives…in relation to core leadership capabilities”, but that the article did present well some of the key ingredients that make up a great HR executive. Indeed, 79% of those surveyed agreed with Zenger and Folkman over their choice of the most important sections with 50% of all respondents feeling that “The ability to develop strategic perspective” was the ultimate quality of a great HR leader as “Without it, HR contribution becomes reactive” and businesses “Miss out on exploring innovative ideas that can underpin effective and pragmatic changes”.

What was furthermore intriguing was the number of responses that highlighted the original article authors having perhaps overlooked “Having commercial acumen” as an intrinsic part of great HR leaders. Sure, “The ability to develop strategic perspective” almost implies that commercial acumen is a necessary cog that keeps the machine running at full, but the sheer breadth of comments that presented this notion of missing a trick suggests that this ability isn’t simply an event A that causes event B, but a separate quality in its own right that drives “Long term benefit of an organisation”.

I was also delighted to hear a lot of respondents confirm my own outlook that businesses are all about creating a culture and a working environment that benefits not only those in an organisation, but the customer as well. The idea that “Looking after the people” would mean “The business looks after itself” cropped up a lot and I was interested to find that a lot of the HR greats saw themselves as “Core enablers” of “Driving and building the culture required to achieve [a business’s] strategy”.

To conclude, it seems that “HR leaders…tightly aligned with the business” are what’s keeping the best firmly in the driving seat of their industry. Those that are best at “Creating value” as HR greats are those that are, according to feedback which strongly advocated the ideas outlined in the original Zenger and Folkman article, “Commercially strong” and “Strategic” – those that “Do not just facilitate change” but are “Provokers and catalysts for change”. Most importantly, is the idea that enabling business culture is what “Truly differentiates a great organisation from a mediocre one”. If a company can then push for a “Dual focus on both people and results” by maximising Human Resources Executives/Directors, what can possibly go wrong? – or more likely how much more can go right?


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