What the Next Generation of HR Leaders Must Know

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Dr. Joseph Jones, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, Director of HR Competencies and Resources Research, SHRM

Joseph JonesDr. Joseph Jones, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is the director of HR competencies and resources research for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), where he oversees thought leadership, product development and research for both HR professional competencies and other HR practices. In this role, he collaborates with members of the HR community to better understand, document and develop the competencies and other knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics (KSAOs) necessary to be successful as an HR professional and to lead successful HR programs. His leadership responsibilities include educating the HR profession about and managing the SHRM Competency Model as it relates to HR careers and day-to-day practices. 

Dr. Jones has more than 18 years of human resource experience implementing a variety of competency modelling, talent management, HR technology, assessment and analytics projects for both private and public-sector organizations. He has presented at numerous professional conferences and conducted webinars and workshops on topics such as talent management strategy, competency modelling, employee selection, engagement, assessment design and cross-cultural assessment research. His work has been published in Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice and the Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. 

Whether early in their careers or highly experienced, many HR professionals ask, "What must the next generation of HR leaders know?" Yet often, when they try to find an answer to this question, these professionals become confused by the daily or weekly or monthly volumes of sometimes-conflicting information generated by "thought leaders" throughout the industry. How can they make heads or tails of this constant new information overload? What do the HR leaders of tomorrow REALLY need to know to succeed and help those around them succeed? Take a deep breath and relax. It's actually simpler than you might think.

Here is what the next generation of HR leaders needs to know:

  • They need to know the basics of HR.
  • They need to know how and when to adapt themselves or adapt the world around them.
  • They need to know what to do with what they know (and DO it).
  • They need to stop thinking that diversity and global business don't apply to them.
  • Above anything, they need know to be ethical and foster ethical behavior in others.
In this article, I will expand on each of these areas.

HR Is Still HR 

Despite the guidance you receive out there about the future of HR, the first things you need to know, like any other field, are the basics—HR Expertise. A recent SHRM survey indicated that the most important competency non-HR executives seek among HR leaders is technical expertise. This competency was so critical that they emphasized the importance of technical expertise, along with other behavioral competencies, not only today but also a decade from now.

As HR professionals, we wear many hats. We are data analysts, consultants, technologists and change leaders. Because of this, Ethical Practice, Communication and other competencies are still critical. But without that core HR knowledge you bring to the leadership table, your organization may not view your HR function as a value-adding resource that drives business success.

What HR professionals need to know today and in the future is pretty well articulated, but it is also ever-changing because of new HR laws and regulations (e.g., Affordable Care Act, changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act), innovations in technology and other trends. This constant churn serves as the foundation for continuous improvement among the next generation of HR leaders. This foundation is best exemplified in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK).TM

In a recent event at SHRM, five HR professionals participated in a panel discussion to share their experiences and needs in their HR careers. One of the panelists, when asked if he would recommend a career in HR, stated that the field has an image problem—people need to start thinking of HR as a serious practice, just like finance and law.

So the first thing the next generation of HR leaders needs to know is: HR needs to change the prevailing view from "HR is not rocket science, anybody can do it!" to "HR is not rocket science…but it's just as hard!"

HR Will Change

Yes, HR is still HR. But like every other profession, our profession will change as our culture, society, business and climate all change. John Boudreau's recent article in Organizational Dynamics highlights the need for HR to step up its game in thinking ahead to its future.[1] In the U.S. and elsewhere, the HR of today looks different from the HR of 20 years ago because the world has changed. If you had asked HR leaders back then, "What should HR leaders know about the HR of 2016?", it is unlikely that any would have predicted that HR leaders would need to understand the impact of social media on talent acquisition, regularly assess employee engagement, embrace talent analytics as a competitive advantage and, in the U.S. in particular, learn every detail about a new health care law that seeks to provide affordable health benefits to all U.S. citizens.

Of course, it would have been impossible to accurately predict all of the changes in society, technology, politics and global business that have affected what we do in HR. Although some may have foreseen an increased use of analytics in business and social media in society, very few would have been able predict the passing of the Affordable Care Act and the impact it would have on HR. Fortunately, HR leaders don't need to be futurists to succeed in their careers and help their organizations succeed.

Something profound or traumatic will happen that will affect your business and your employees. The successful HR leaders of the future will be those who are able to adapt themselves and adapt the world around them to successfully navigate through these changes. HR leaders play a key role in preparing their workforce for such events, without creating a culture of fear and control that hinders productivity and engagement. This is a key aspect of the Leadership and Navigation competency included in the SHRM Competency Model. HR leaders need to start thinking about leading change and not managing it. They need to be strategic about being strategic when it comes to change.

Ethical Practice Is the #1 Competency for HR Survival

Yes, HR professionals wear many hats. But at the core of it all, HR serves as the ethical foundation of the organization. In wearing our many hats, we are:

  • The collector of private data on each employee in the organization.
  • A safe place for employees to voice their issues and concerns.
  • The monitor of ethical behavior of the organization's leaders.
  • A navigator of the various cultural norms and customs of the employees within the organization.
  • An interpreter of HR laws and regulations.
Nowhere does the risk of failure for HR professionals have more potential for harm to their careers, to other employees or to their organizations than when it comes to Ethical Practice. Ethical behavior is a dichotomy—if you are good at it, you don't fail; if you are bad at it, you do.

If there is one thing above any other that the next generation of HR leaders must know to survive, it is that you will need to remain ethical, regardless of your career level, job title, organization size, organizational culture, organizational structure or industry.

Highly Successful HR Is Not Just Knowledge of HR

Successful HR leaders rise to the top because they are highly knowledgeable about HR and apply that knowledge effectively to solve problems, often before they even become problems. In the development of the SHRM Competency Model, HR professionals around the world stressed the importance of becoming proficient in both the knowledge of HR principles, policies and practices, as well as the ability to apply that knowledge behaviorally.

According to SHRM's research, although HR Expertise is a critical competency for HR success, eight other behavioral competencies are also critical, regardless of career level, organization size or industry: Ethical Practice, Leadership and Navigation, Communication, Critical Evaluation, Relationship Management, Consultation, Business Acumen, and Global and Cultural Effectiveness.

But successful HR is not only about the balance between HR knowledge and its associated behaviors; the truly accomplished HR leaders of tomorrow will be those who look outside HR for knowledge. Future HR leaders will increasingly learn from other disciplines, such as finance, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history and physics. Groups such as Ideagen, NetImpact, TED Talks and the Chautauqua Institution have become key resources for leaders across diverse vocations. HR leaders of tomorrow must look beyond HR—otherwise our profession will be left behind while others find innovative ways to solve the most pressing issues in both business and society.

Looking beyond HR is particularly important for addressing a critical need in the HR field overall—innovation. As an example, the field of neuropsychology is changing the way we view HR. Historically a fringe research area when it comes to HR, advances in neuropsychology have started gaining acceptance by businesses looking at nontraditional ways of hiring and engaging workers to create a competitive advantage.

HR leaders will have to open their minds to different ways of viewing the interaction between humans and work to innovate how they recruit, motivate, engage, train and develop, and reward the workforce. If not, they will eventually find all the top talent moves to employers that stay at the forefront of human-machine interactions at the workplace.

Thinking Globally and Culturally Is Important to You

Although HR will change, one thing that won't change anytime soon is the need for a global and cultural perspective, regardless of whether you work in a small manufacturing company in Kansas or a large multinational based in Macau. Having this perspective is about more than understanding international business and culture; it's about leveraging diversity to drive organizational success.

An example is found in a 2004 competency study conducted by the Association for Talent Development (ATD; formerly the American Society for Training and Development [ASTD]), which listed diversity as one of eight trends in the world of training and development.[2] Twelve years later, this trend has accelerated.

HR professionals need a global and cultural perspective not only to be effective in their own roles, which require working with a diverse and possibly global workforce and labor pool and understanding the diversity of the organization's customers and stakeholders, but also to build this capability for their organization. No matter where business is located, HR must apply global and cultural effectiveness across all aspects of human capital and talent development.

Case in point. Yes, the generational issue has been written about and discussed extensively.[3],[4] But with four or sometimes five generations now concurrently in the workforce, generational differences—and how those differences translate with regard to HR practices and strategy—are still a subject that the next cohort of leaders will need to understand. As Baby Boomers retire, new generational issues will arise, and we'll still see those same four to five generations inhabiting work space at any given moment. The new generation of HR leaders will need to understand how to handle the demands of these generations while still upholding the needs of their organizations.


So, what must the next generation of leaders know?

First and foremost, they have to recognize that much of what they need to know about HR has already been said. This does not mean that there isn't more that can be learned, nor that HR leaders should not stay abreast of the latest trends in HR. The problem they face, though, is knowing what—of all the available information—is really critical to their success and their organization's success.

This boils down, really, to the following:

1. Knowing the basics of HR.

2. Knowing how and when to be adapt yourself or adapt your world.

3. Knowing what to do with what you know (and doing it).

4. Knowing that you need to stop thinking that diversity and global business don't apply to you.

5. Knowing that above anything, you need to be ethical and foster ethical behavior in others.

HR will change. The world around us will change. But until we are all replaced by machines and technology that do not require human maintenance and operations, people will remain critical to work. And as long as people are critical, what we do as HR professionals to ensure that people are happy, safe and productive in their jobs will also be critical. Know and apply the five things I have stated above, and learn and apply the nine competencies included in the SHRM Competency Model, now and in the future—and you will be sure to achieve your career goals and help advance HR's mission.

[1] Boudreau, J. (2014). Will HR's grasp match its reach? An estimable profession grown complacent and outpaced. Organizational Dynamics, 3(43), 189-197.

[2] Bernthal, P. R. (2004). ASTD 2004 competency study: Mapping the future: New workplace learning and performance competencies (Vol. 1). American Society for Training and Development.

[3] Knight, R. (2014, Sept. 25). Managing people from 5 generations. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/09/managing-people-from-5-generations#

[4] Meisinger, S. (2013, Feb. 19). A lesson in generational differences. Human Resource Executive Online. Retrieved from http://www.hreonline.com/HRE/view/story.jhtml?id=534354994

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