HR Competencies: The Foundation Upon Which to Build Today's and Tomorrow's HR Business Leader

September 1, 2016

Kari Strobel, Ph.D., Senior Consultant, AvantGarde

Kari R. Strobel, Ph.D., is a senior consultant for AvantGarde and is responsible for providing strategic human capital consulting and project management to federal agencies. In her previous role as the director of HR competencies at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), she was responsible for leading all research activities to support the validation, implementation and maintenance of SHRM's Competency Model. She oversaw the development of competency-based products and services, including developmental assessments, selection tools, career paths, mapping to training programs and seminars, and the research to support the update of the competency model, which provides the foundation for professional development and certification for global HR professionals. 

She was also responsible for advancing SHRM's workforce analytics program, supporting the identification of critical HR trends, and enhancing SHRM's position as an authority on HR metrics and the application of statistical models to worker-related data to optimize human resource management. Prior to joining SHRM, Dr. Strobel worked at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where she was responsible for leading competency-based strategic human capital planning for the Department of Defense Total Force.

"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path."

—Gautama Buddha

Although HR critics abound, leaders in the field will be the first to acknowledge that their teams do not deliver innovative human capital programs that drive business results,1 and that a new mental model of what it means to be an HR professional must be developed to not only be relevant in today's business environment but to lead an organization to success. As purveyors of an organization's most valuable asset—its talent—HR is uniquely poised, through its application of a broad range of technical skills and its understanding of the business, to be an impactful leader and a formidable business strategist no company can do without. 

The need to "reskill" HR has been discussed for years with little mention as to what this looks like, how it is accomplished and what can be expected with respect to delivered outcomes. To address this lack of actionable information, through research with thousands of HR professionals (111 focus groups and more than 32,000 survey respondents covering 33 nations), including experts and incumbents alike, SHRM identified those critical competencies for HR to lead people and organizations—on a global scale.

The "Re-skilled" HR Professional

To be successful in HR and as a business leader, SHRM's research calls for the need for practitioners to be more than technically proficient; they need to translate what they know through key behavioral competencies. The combination of technical expertise and behaviors provides the right formula for success for HR leaders. In today's challenging business environment, the HR professionals should align with and meet the needs of the business strategy.

HR professionals are expected to be valued team members with the rest of the organization and contribute as business partners for the growth of the organization. The HR business leader now serves the purpose of providing HR expertise and behavioral attributes to organizational resources to contribute more strategically to business goals. HR professionals are equipped with the KSAOs (knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics), or competencies, to partner with senior leadership not only to be involved in the strategic management of the organization but to drive the implementation of it.

SHRM research suggests that through the application of HR knowledge and an understanding of the business, HR professionals are effective at building strong partnerships with senior leaders as they provide expert advice on all matters relating to the ongoing development of the organization. They have the ability to understand and apply information to contribute to the organization's strategic plan, interpret information to make business decisions and recommendations, and provide guidance to organizational stakeholders.

In other words, today's successful HR business leaders are highly proficient in nine critical competencies found in the SHRM Competency Model: Leadership and Navigation, Ethical Practice, Business Acumen, Relationship Management, Consultation, Critical Evaluation, Global and Cultural Effectiveness, Communication, and HR Expertise. For more information, please see

A Closer Look at the Critical Competencies Needed for Successful HR Business Leaders

Leadership and Navigation

Effective leaders are associated with numerous positive outcomes2—for example, positive employee work attitudes such as job satisfaction and organizational commitment,3 decreased turnover, and increased employee job performance.4 Leadership and Navigation recognizes this important role for HR professionals by describing the attributes needed by HR professionals to lead organizational initiatives and obtain buy-in from stakeholders.

Ethical Practice

HR professionals are often tasked with creating ethical HR systems or reinforcing an organization's ethical climate. These efforts serve several purposes, but most notably implementing a strong ethical climate can help protect an organization from adverse employee behavior. And implementing ethical systems is essential to organizations because ethical HR systems are associated with higher levels of organizational performance.5 Ethical Practice is and will continue to be a critical competency domain for the HR profession.

Business Acumen

HR business leaders need to be well developed in terms of their Business Acumen. This includes understanding business operations and functions, understanding how human resource management (HRM) practices contribute to core business functions, and understanding the organization's external environment. They should also recognize how internal and external factors (for example, the external competitive environment and internal personnel resources) interact to influence organizational performance. Effective HR business leaders need to be able to make the case for HRM to other business professionals—this includes marketing HR within the organization and showing how HR can have a direct impact on firm performance.

Relationship Management

HR professionals regularly interact with clients and stakeholders; therefore, job success for an HR business leader is largely a function of his or her ability to maintain productive interpersonal relationships and help others do the same, or to display competence in Relationship Management. Research has documented positive outcomes associated with productive and healthy interpersonal relationships in the work environment.6 

Positive formal relationships (e.g., an employee's relationship with his or her supervisor) are associated with beneficial outcomes for employees, such as improved feelings of belonging and inclusion in the workplace,7 increased salary, increased promotions, greater career mobility and other rewards.8 Positive informal relationships at work are associated with greater job satisfaction, involvement, performance, team cohesion, organizational commitment, positive work atmosphere and lessened intentions to leave.9

Employees who have better interpersonal relationships with their co-workers and supervisors may perceive the organization as more supportive;10 they may also be more committed to their organization and may experience increased perceptions of fit with their organization.11


Within their own organization, HR professionals often take on the role of an internal consultant or expert on human capital issues. In this role, within the Consultation competency, HR professionals can help business units address challenges related to human capital, such as staffing needs, training and development needs, employee performance issues, and employee relations issues.12 To be a successful human capital expert, HR professionals must not only possess requisite knowledge about HRM practices but must also be able to provide guidance to internal stakeholders.

The most effective HR professionals possess a unique set of attributes that enable them to translate complicated information about HRM practices (i.e., HR Expertise) into actionable recommendations for end users (e.g., hiring managers). HR professionals must be able to analyze business challenges, generate creative solutions and provide accurate and timely guidance to internal stakeholders based on best practice and research that accounts for the unique internal and external environment of the organization.

Critical Evaluation

HR can enhance the effectiveness and usefulness of human capital programs by informing their development and monitoring their success with appropriate data through Critical Evaluation. One such source of data is human capital metrics. Not only do human capital metrics add value to the role of HR in organizations,13 but HR functions that collect and properly use HR metrics to inform HR activity are seen as more reliable strategic partners.14 The rise of data-based HRM practices is clearly evident—one such example of this trend is "big data" and its increasingly frequent use by HR departments. HR professional are currently being asked to inform their decisions with data, and this trend is likely to continue and increase in the coming years.

Global and Cultural Effectiveness

Because many organizations are proactively attempting to increase the diversity of their workforce, and because the workforce of today is increasingly global, successful HR leaders must be able to effectively and respectfully interact with colleagues, customers and clients of varying backgrounds and cultures. HR professionals are often tasked with developing, delivering and evaluating these diversity-related initiatives. 

Additionally, various laws and regulations require organizations to use inclusive hiring practices. Again, HR professionals are often primarily responsible for complying with these laws and regulations because of their pivotal role in employee hiring. Given the role of HR professionals in promoting and maintaining a diverse workforce, it is easy to see the need for and importance of the Global and Cultural Effectiveness competency.


When HR information is communicated well, employees better understand the purpose and value of policies and practices. When managers effectively communicate HR practices and policies to their employees, employees perceive the organization's HRM to be more effective, and, in turn, employee satisfaction and business unit performance are positively affected.15 To effectively fulfill duties at each career level, HR professionals must ensure that the messages they distribute are clear, concise and readily understood through their expertise in Communication.

HR Expertise

HR professionals directly affect organizational success by developing, maintaining and executing sound HRM policies, practices and procedures16 that support organizational mission and goals. Effective HRM practices can have numerous benefits for organizations, such as reduced turnover, increased productivity and financial performance, and sustained competitive advantage.17 To implement successful initiatives, HR professionals must have a well-developed knowledge base. This knowledge is reflected in the HR Expertise competency.

Evolution of HR

Developing each of the nine SHRM competencies is required of HR professionals to help their organizations be competitive. Learning more about their company's financial results, understanding the numbers and, more importantly, knowing how their decisions and actions affect the bottom line will help contribute to HR professionals' business success. Competent and proficient HR professionals understand how their behavior affects value-creating activities in the organization and, in turn, understand the impact their behavior has on gross margin. These individuals are seen as fellow business leaders and not just "HR."


1.     Schwartz, J. Bersin, J. & Pelster, B. (Eds.) (2014). Global human capital trends 2014: Engaging the 21st century workforce. Westlake, TX: Deloitte University Press.

Hammonds, K. H. (2005, August). Why we hate HR. Fast Company, 97, 40-47.

2.     Barling, J., Christie, A., & Hoption, C. (2011). Leadership. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol 1: Building and developing the organization (pp. 183-240). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

3.     Burke, C. S., Sims, D. E., Lazzara, E. H., & Salas, E. (2007). Trust in leadership: A multi-level review and integration. Leadership Quarterly, 18, 606-632.

Judge, T. A., & Piccolo, R. F. (2004). Transformational and transactional leadership: A meta-analytic test of their relative validity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(5), 755-768.

4.     Barling, J., Christie, A., & Hoption, C. (2011). Leadership. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol 1: Building and developing the organization (pp. 183-240). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

5.     Lado, A. A., & Wilson, M. C. (1994). Human resource systems and sustained competitive advantage: A competency-based perspective. Academy of Management Review, 19(4), 699-727.

6.     Reich, T. C., & Herschcovis, M. S. (2011). Interpersonal relationships at work. In S. Zedeck, H. Aguinis, W. Cascio, M. Gelfand, K. Leung, S. Parker, & J. Zhou (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 223-248). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

7.     Alvesson, M. & Sveningsson, S. (2003). Managers doing leadership: The extra-ordinization of the mundane. Human Relations, 56, 1435-1459.

8.     Allen, T. D., Eby, L. T. Poteet, M. L., Lentz, E., & Lima, L. (2004). Career benefits associated with mentoring for protégés: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(1), 127-136.

9.     Berman, E. M., West, J. P, & Richter, M. N. (2002). Workplace relations: Friendship patterns and consequences (According to managers). Public Administration Review, 62(2), 217-230.

10.  Wallace, J. C., Edwards, B. D., Arnold, T., Frazier, M. L., & Finch, D. M. (2009). Work stressors, role-based performance, and the moderating influence of organizational support. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(1), 254-262.

11.  Kristof-Brown, A. L., Zimmerman, R. D., & Johnson, E. C. (2005). Consequences of individuals' fit at work: A meta-analysis of person-job, person-organization, person-group, and person-supervisor fit. Personnel Psychology, 58(2), 281-342.

12.  Combs, J. Liu, Y., Hall, A., & Ketchen, D. (2006). How much do high-performance work practices matter? A meta- analysis of their effects on organizational performance. Personnel Psychology, 59(3), 501-528.

13.  Lawler III, E. E., Levenson, A., & Boudreau, J. (2004). HR metrics and analytics: Use and impact. Human Resource Planning, 27(4), 27-36.

14.  Ibid.

15.  Den Hartog, D. N., Boon, C., Verburg, R. M., & Croon, M.A. (2013). HRM, communication, satisfaction, and perceived performance: A cross-level test. Journal of Management, 39(6), 1637-1665.

16.  Pfeffer, J. (1998). The human equation: Building profits by putting people first. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

17.  Becker, B., & Gerhart, B. (1996). The impact of human resource management on organizational performance: Progress and prospects. The Academy of Management Journal, 39(4), 779-801.

Huselid, M. A. (1995). The impact of human resource management practices on turnover, productivity, and corporate financial performance. The Academy of Management Journal, 38(3), 635-672.



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