Human Resource Leaders: Capability Strengths and Gaps

By Walker, James W.; Reif, William E. | Human Resource Planning, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Human Resource Leaders: Capability Strengths and Gaps


Walker, James W., Reif, William E., Human Resource Planning


As part of the restructuring and repositioning of the HR function, many companies are redefining the roles of human resource leaders so they can contribute directly to business performance. Leadership roles are being redefined to increase emphasis on working with management to lead people through rapid, effective business change. While many HR leaders are moving swiftly into these broader roles, others have difficulty adjusting to the new role demands and demonstrating the required capabilities. Complicating matters, many client managers do not necessarily understand or fully accept the need to move away from traditional HR roles or fully appreciate what HR leaders can contribute as strategic business partners.

This article examines the results of a study of self- and multi-rater assessment data provided by 490 HR leaders and 2,463 other raters, typically line managers who are their primary clients. The findings suggest a need to build a greater understanding of the strategic role of HR leaders among managers and the HR community alike, and to accelerate the development of capabilities that will enable HR leaders to meet the more demanding requirements of leadership roles.

Human Resource Leadership Defined

Consistent with the strategic positioning of the HR function, many companies have redefined certain roles as leadership roles. Human resource generalists, including HR managers assigned to business units, organizational effectiveness consultants, and functional experts/managers, are increasingly expected to demonstrate leadership capabilities as strategic business partners. This shift in roles is made possible by fundamental changes in the HR function. Many transactional and specialized services are handled through technology applications, provided by internal shared services, or outsourced to external vendors. This releases resources and time for other activities.

The HR leadership role focuses on the alignment of organizational capabilities with business strategy through design and implementation of HR processes, effective facilitation of organizational change, performance as a consultant to managers, and leading initiatives that address important people-related business issues.

Working with a consortium of companies, we developed a capabilities profile that articulates the behaviors expected of HR leaders and implicitly spells out the capabilities required for effective performance. [1] We define capabilities as observable behaviors that demonstrate knowledge and skills and make a difference in performance. The capabilities profile defines a detailed set of behaviors critical for effective performance as HR leaders. For feedback and development, we carefully avoid personal traits or attributes (e.g., integrity, energy level) that may be used in hiring or selection. The profile is a normative model designed to clarify and clearly communicate leadership role expectations and guide individual performance and development.

Similar models have been developed within companies (e.g., GE, Kodak, Boeing, AT&T, Sun Microsystems,) and through research studies. An ongoing study of the knowledge and skill base of HR leaders, initiated in 1988 at the University of Michigan, points to five key capability areas: business knowledge, HR functional capability, managing culture, managing change, and personal credibility (Ulrich, et al., 1995). The Society for Human Resource Management sponsored an evolution of HR competency models, historically emphasizing functional knowledge (Forman and Cohen, 1999). A recent study addresses broader competencies relating to changing roles and expectations of HR (Schoonover, 1998). Competency requirements have also been addressed by other associations (e.g., ACA and ASTD) and researchers (Yeung, et al., 1996; Gorsline, 1996).

Our model has two major components. To build a solid foundation for the HR leadership profile, we developed a model of core capabilities normally expected of all HR practitioners (Exhibit 1), regardless of their job or position within HR, or their functional area of the business (e. …

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