In recent years, the business landscape has undergone significant changes, leading to an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) working environment. The COVID-19 pandemic, rapid technology advancements and geopolitical tensions have introduced unprecedented disruptions to organizations and, thus, to the HR function. An organization's success is dependent on its C-suite successfully navigating this ever-evolving environment.
So how well are HR executives handling these turbulent times? And which skills do they see themselves as mastering … and muddling? SHRM Research conducted a new survey that asked 258 U.S. HR executives to evaluate their own leadership.
While HR executives acknowledge that their jobs are more difficult in this current VUCA environment, a majority show confidence in their current leadership abilities. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) say they are "thriving" when asked to assess their own leadership in the current VUCA environment. More than half (52 percent) say they are "comfortable, but not thriving" and 24 percent say they are "coping, but it is difficult." Only 2 percent say they are "struggling to adapt."
These HR executives were also asked to assess their leadership effectiveness. They were given a list of 16 leadership behaviors and asked to rank how effective they are at engaging in each behavior, with 1 being their most effective behavior and 16 being their least effective. In the chart at the bottom of this article, you'll see the full list of 16 behaviors and the percentage of HR executives who ranked each behavior among their top five (strengths) and their bottom five (weaknesses), as well as the percentage who ranked each behavior as their absolute top strength or biggest weakness.
The survey findings reveal that HR executives feel they excel in a few key areas of importance that directly relate to their ability to evolve in these turbulent times. But they also see opportunities for improvement, particularly in building a network to expand their skills and careers.
(Jump to interactive chart.)
HR executives reported high effectiveness in their abilities to strategize and quickly adapt to changing circumstances (51 percent and 44 percent, respectively, ranked these in their top five most effective behaviors). In the VUCA environment, strategic thinking and adaptability are crucial characteristics for leaders to thrive in their roles. In fact, in a separate question in this survey, HR executives identified the same two abilities—to strategize and to adapt—as crucial for their organizations' success, both currently and in the year 2030.
Leaders who successfully weathered the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and emerged stronger were likely the ones who demonstrated exceptional strategic thinking and adaptability. Strategic thinking equips leaders to analyze complex situations, anticipate challenges and make well-informed decisions. And adaptability enables leaders to respond swiftly to unexpected developments, ensuring the ability to seize emerging opportunities.
More than 4 in 10 HR executives (42 percent) also cited among their top five strengths the ability to collaborate. This essential HR skill became even more important during the past three years as HR leaders have had to work together with various internal and external groups to navigate the pandemic's many twists and turns. C-suite collaboration is also an increasingly important skill for CHROs in the post-pandemic workplace.
TOP 5 STRENGTHS
Percentage of HR executives who listed each behavior among their top five leadership skills (out of a list of 16)
Despite these strengths in strategic thinking and adaptability, the survey revealed that HR executives perceived networking and delegation as their main areas for potential improvement, with 67 percent and 54 percent, respectively, ranking them among their bottom five leadership attributes.
Networking has become an essential aspect of modern leadership, enabling leaders to gain diverse perspectives, share knowledge and foster collaborative partnerships. Yet, SHRM Research previously found that only 58 percent of HR executives frequently discuss current HR issues with an external network of leaders (Evolving Role of the CHRO, SHRM Research, 2022).
The weakness in networking might be influenced by the significant amount of time and energy that networking requires, and by HR executives' preference to focus their time and efforts within the organization rather than outside. However, it is critical for leaders to build social capital both inside and outside of their organizations. Leaders who invest in networking stand to benefit significantly, gaining valuable insights, seizing opportunities and learning from other successful organizations. Effective networking can bridge knowledge gaps, enhance the organization's understanding of market dynamics and foster innovation. (Tips on networking.)
The identification of delegation as a potential area of improvement by more than half of HR executives is noteworthy. Effective delegation is critical because it can impact a leader's overall effectiveness and performance in other areas, including strategy and networking. When leaders fail to delegate effectively, they might find themselves with little time or mental capacity for strategic thinking or building relationships with others inside or outside the organization. (Tips on delegating effectively.)
5 BIGGEST WEAKNESSES
Percentage of HR executives who listed each behavior among their bottom five leadership skills (out of a list of 16)
The bottom line: As the business landscape evolves, strategic prowess, adaptability, delegation and the power of connection—both internally and externally—remain at the heart of leadership. HR executives who develop these competencies are better positioned to navigate the complexities of the VUCA environment.
Ragan Decker, Ph.D., is a researcher at SHRM.