Heidrick & Struggles: The Four HR Roles That Matter Most

CEOs increasingly recognize the positive effect that HR can have on talent attraction and retention, company culture, and the bottom line. Consequently, many CEOs are demanding that chief human resources officers (CHROs) elevate the function’s performance to deliver more for the business. And many CHROs are seizing the opportunity.

Nevertheless, Heidrick & Struggles also see otherwise strong CHROs (and particularly those new in the role) plunge headlong into developing and selling an ambitious strategic vision that the HR organization itself is ill prepared for. In other words, ironic though it may seem, some CHROs make the critical mistake of overlooking the importance of talent in delivering on their own agendas.

Such was the case at one Fortune 500 company in technology and technology services, where a newly hired CHRO outlined a massive strategic overhaul of HR, complete with a new talent management system, enhanced self-service tools, the offshoring of certain tasks, and redesigned processes for all critical workflows—from routine transactions to performance management and succession planning. Yet despite all of the CHRO’s planning and support from the C-suite for these comprehensive changes, a critical element was overlooked in the rollout: the HR team itself. While the company’s HR team excelled at transactional processes, some key players lacked the knowledge, experience, and training required to step into their new roles as strategic advisers. Months into the effort, it was clear the CHRO was falling well short, with business leaders throughout the organization lamenting HR’s lack of competence and support—a chorus that resulted in the CHRO’s exit less than two years later.

To be sure, most CHROs know in their bones that even the most brilliant strategy will fail without a capable team to implement it; after all, understanding talent and teams is what they do for a living. So why do some still make this mistake? In part, it’s a holdover of the department’s legacy. HR has evolved over the years, moving from “payroll” in the 1980s to service excellence in the 1990s to (at its best) talent and strategic business advisers today. Even now, the negative stereotypes about HR—that it’s an executional back-office function with employees well versed only in regulatory nuance and benefits packages, for example—hold elements of truth at certain staff levels. In devising a vision for HR, then, CHROs must ensure their supporting cast is fully capable of making the transition to a more strategic way of working. The good news is that many CHROs are rising to the occasion, redefining how HR supports business strategy and building more effective teams to serve the organization.

What can new CHROs do to set themselves—and their teams—up for success and deliver on the promise of an engaged, responsive, and strategic HR function? The CHRO’s first priority must be to ensure he or she has a skilled “top team” in four core areas: talent, total rewards, shared services, and business partners. A CHRO can’t replace the whole team—nor would he or she want to. Assembling this team requires CHROs to embrace expanded leadership within the department to establish a culture of performance excellence as well as identify and mentor promising candidates.

While the insights in this article are largely intended for new CHROs, even veteran HR leaders can benefit. Like their counterparts across business departments, HR functions everywhere must continue to evolve to meet an ever-rising standard of performance—or face the consequences. Finally, for a CEO or board looking to bring on a new HR leader, hearing a candidate’s views and plans for these four roles can provide useful insights into how a would-be HR leader approaches the job.

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