SHRM: Strategic Thinking, Communicating Are Top HR Competencies

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 10, 2010
Strategic thinking and effective communication are the top overall competencies senior HR leaders need now, and these are expected to increase in importance over the next five years, according to HR leaders from several regions of the world.

However, more think it’s possible to cultivate effective communication than the ability to see the big picture and how their organization’s decisions and activities interconnect.

And strategic thinking, effective communication and the ability to lead change were considered the top three competencies senior HR leaders need during an economic downturn.

The findings are from a Senior HR Leadership Competencies Poll that the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted with more than 2,000 SHRM members and other HR professionals in 2009. Respondents were from Canada, India, the Middle East, North Africa and the United States.

The results are reported in What Senior HR Leaders Need to Know: Perspectives from the United States, Canada, India, the Middle East and North Africa, released March 8, 2010.

“HR leaders have stepped up to unprecedented challenges in recent years as the world economy shifted and slid into recession in many countries,” Amanda Benedict, SHRM survey research analyst, writes in the report. “As the economy prepares for recovery, HR leaders will be expected to acquire new competencies to lead business re-growth while implementing lessons learned from lean times.”

Respondents were given a list of 18 competencies—defined as a combination of knowledge, skills, abilities and other qualities—and were asked to:

  • Identify the top five competencies senior HR leaders need.
  • Indicate how those competencies might change in importance in five years.
  • Identify the extent to which top competencies can be cultivated.
  • Identify the competencies senior HR leaders need for leadership roles in global organizations and during economic crises.

While strategic thinking and effective communication surfaced as the top two overall competencies senior HR leaders need, the other top three competencies identified varied by country:

  • U.S.—HR knowledge, integrity and ethical behavior.
  • Canada—Persuasiveness/influencing others, leading change and credibility.
  • India—Business knowledge, HR knowledge and leading change.
  • Middle East and North Africa—HR knowledge, leading change and business knowledge.

HR professionals also differed by country and region as to whether the competencies they ranked as most crucial can be cultivated.

Ninety-five percent of the U.S. HR professionals surveyed, for example, thought that HR knowledge can be cultivated, but 61 percent think integrity is impossible to cultivate.

“This may suggest,” Benedict writes in the report, “U.S. HR professionals think that senior HR leaders must possess certain qualities that are integral to their character.”

HR professionals in Canada tended to think that their top five ranked competencies were possible to cultivate, especially the ability to lead change (53 percent “very possible”) and deliver effective communication (48 percent “very possible”).

HR professionals in India, the Middle East and North Africa tended to agree that their top-ranked competencies could be taught or learned. For example, 82 percent of those in India said it is very possible to cultivate business knowledge as an HR competency; 88 percent of those in the Middle East and North Africa thought so.

The ability to think strategically is a competency that will increase in importance for HR in the next five years, HR professionals in all regions agreed. Additionally, one-half or more of the respondents who selected “effective communication” as a top competency overall thought that it would increase in importance five years into the future.

Among the countries/regions for which “leading change” ranked within the top five overall competencies, one-half to three-quarters of respondents thought this competency would be of increased importance in five years. Some of the lowest importance projections were for competencies related to attributes such as “integrity” and “credibility.”

Global Economy

For HR professionals working in global organizations, respondents in all the countries and regions surveyed agreed on four of the five competencies that they think are most needed—global intelligence and global mind-set, cross-cultural intelligence, strategic thinking and effective communication.

“In a global economy, it is important to gain an understanding of the expectations of HR leaders in broader world areas, particularly those that are key components of the world economy,” Benedict says in the report.

“As the workplace becomes increasingly globalized, senior HR leaders must develop the competencies required of advanced HR roles in other countries and regions of the world,” she noted.

Benedict observed that despite substantial overlap of views on what competencies are most important for senior HR leaders, “the business community and HR professionals worldwide may be coming to a global consensus about standards for senior-level leaders of the HR profession.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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