What Emerging HR Executives Need to Know

By Desda Moss Oct 14, 2015
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IanZiskin.jpg HR Magazine’s Book Blog recently interviewed Ian Ziskin, author of THREE: The Human Resources Emerging Executive (Wiley, 2015). Ziskin is president of EXec EXcel Group LLC, a human capital coaching and consulting firm he founded in 2010. His global leadership experience includes serving in chief human resources officer and other senior leadership roles with three Fortune 100 corporations, including Northrop Grumman, Qwest Communications and TRW.

Why did you write THREE?

The book is about the integration of a few interdependent areas that are going to become increasingly vital for emerging HR executives.

First, it encourages HR leaders to think about themselves—what they want to be known for as a leader and how well or poorly they are controlling their destiny by managing th​eir own development. These self-management elements are a crucial foundation to enable HR people to be better leaders themselves, and to therefore bring out the best in others.

Second, the book explores what the very best emerging and experienced HR leaders know and do. I want readers to consider whether they are focusing on the right capabilities, competencies and content that will make the biggest difference to their effectiveness as an HR leader—now and in the future.

Third, it emphasizes and illustrates the importance of learning from others, which is essential to building a more externally savvy and multidisciplinary mindset and skill set.

You state in the book that most HR leaders do a terrible job of figuring out who they are as leaders. Why is this the case?

Most HR executives put their energy into trying to make other leaders more effective. They view it as the ultimate unselfish act. In reality, while HR leaders might believe there is a noble unselfishness to this approach, it is a sure path to leadership mediocrity. Our job as HR executives is to cause people and organizations to be more effective and to address reality with brutal optimism. We help others to see challenges for what they really are, confront them, and resolve them. Despite the criticality of the HR executive’s role in helping other people be better and more effective leaders, we give precious little thought to who we are and what we want to be known for. It is virtually impossible to invest in and build capable leaders without first investing in and developing ourselves as HR leaders. The very best HR leaders I know have a point of view about themselves—what they believe in, what they want to be known for.

You list eight things the best HR leaders know and do. These include human capital strategy, leadership and talent development. What are the most important ones? Why?

The most important capability of HR people, in my mind, is not any of the eight you are referring to, but rather the ability to connect the dots between them, to orchestrate multidisciplinary solutions to complex business challenges and to lead others to collaborate in making those solutions succeed.

Tell us about your model of a “development triangle.”

The model is all about developing HR leaders through a balancing act between three critical dimensions of development: what, who and when.

The “what” involves the areas of content knowledge and capabilities HR leaders need to be effective—what they need to know and do.

The “who” includes a critically important and often underemphasized element of HR leader development—the people with whom HR leaders spend time, and how that distribution of people and time should change substantially as we move along in our HR careers.

The “when” means that, in addition to paying attention to what we need to know and with whom we are spending our time, HR leaders need to know when they are experiencing critical developmental inflection points and how to take advantage of what they are learning, especially in the moment.

You ask readers to identify their role models and to explain why they were inspirational. Who are your role models?

I have been quite fortunate to learn from a wide variety of role models in my life and career. The most influential ones include my wife and my mother—Susan Edwards and Marilyn Ziskin, respectively—as well as a couple of key leaders including Howard Knicely, retired CHRO of TRW, and Ron Sugar, retired CEO of Northrop Grumman. Each of these people taught me something different and valuable about myself and others, but they all taught me one common life lesson through their own behavior: The best people and leaders bring out the best in others, they have a positive multiplier effect on the people and circumstances around them.

What’s the story behind the song you included in the book?

I play guitar and write songs from time to time, and I have been known to perform at events—sometimes dressed in ridiculous costumes. There is a very good reason I have made a living as an HR leader, coach and consultant rather than as an entertainer. The “HR HeRoes” song came about when I was invited to perform at the annual conference of the HR Policy Association a number of years ago. It was a way of letting my CHRO colleagues know how much I appreciated them and their contributions to the HR profession and to the success of the organizations they represented. I also used it to deliver a message of appreciation to my HR colleagues at Northrop Grumman.

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

I wrote the book as a way of giving back to the profession because I have been so lucky to work in a career I love, surrounded by people I really enjoy being around and learning from. I would like the book to prompt readers to reflect on:
  • What they stand for and what they would like to be known for as a leader.
  • What they should know about the business, and the internal and external context in which they operate.  
  • What they need to know, do, ask and answer as an HR leader.
  • What their strengths and development needs are, and what they can do to build on those strengths and close any gaps so that they remain relevant in an ever-changing world.
  • How they can help others grow and develop as HR colleagues.

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