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Viewpoint: Select Your Next HR Leader Based on These 6 Senses

A man and woman shaking hands in an office.

You're building a profile of the ideal HR executive and start with an inventory of compulsory attributes: technical and soft skills, a certain level of education, certifications, experience and proven accomplishments. Of course, this person must possess an understanding of the business and have talent that supports your company's strategy. Following an exhaustive search, you conclude you've chosen the perfect candidate.

In my experience with talent acquisition, considering sensory criteria is also critical.

Our senses help us understand and perceive the world around us. If you can determine where your next HR leader is positioned on the sensory spectrum, it will make all the difference in predicting future success.

Sense of Sight: Sharing the Vision

By "sense of sight," I mean that HR leaders must understand and execute the corporate vision. They must be keen observers of all that's happening within the organization. Have they taken the time to learn the value of all functions well enough to understand how they contribute to that vision?

Vision statements translate a company's dreams into reality. If an HR leader's words and actions support that vision, then that is a significant step toward attracting, motivating and retaining talented people. "When there is incongruence between your organization's mission and vision statements and what your employees actually believe, it is the HR leader's responsibility to understand this and close the gap," said Brendan Nicholls, SHRM-SCP, employee benefits advisor at HUB International, a global insurance broker specializing in employee benefits, health insurance, workers' compensation and risk management services, in Downers Grove, Ill.

Sense of Smell: Pivoting When Needed

Think about some of the idioms associated with the sense of smell: "smelling a rat" or having "a nose for trouble." An HR leader must be aware that initiatives won't always reap intended results. Failing to intuit this early on can lead to a waste of time, money and energy. "Today, talent needs change at a rapid pace, so HR executives must demonstrate agile leadership," said Janel O'Connor, partner and chief human resources officer with Sikich, a professional-services firm specializing in accounting, advisory and technology services, in Naperville, Ill.

Highly effective leaders use performance indicators to monitor an initiative and change course when necessary. Because they are creative problem-solvers and have a reasonable tolerance for error, they create a climate in which employees aren't afraid to make decisions.

Sense of Hearing: Respecting Others' Voices

Will your next HR executive give employees opportunities to express themselves? Being heard and understood is fundamental to a worker's self-worth and leads to a healthy work environment. "When the employees feel like their employer is keeping their best interests in mind and actually care, that's the environment where open and honest communication thrives," Nicholls said.

Strong HR leaders listen to employees and give them a voice. And when they solicit employee feedback, strong HR leaders follow up with a timely response.

Sense of Taste: Choosing Words Wisely

Is your HR executive's communication style salty, sweet, savory or bitter? At a minimum, it should be palatable. Optimally, it is nourishing. A good leader should be sensitive to today's diverse employee workforce and cater to a variety of palates. "Top HR leaders who are respected and earn the trust of the organization are truthful and candid, even when the message is difficult to hear," said Lisa Manegold, vice president of talent management at National Express, a North American subsidiary of National Express Group PLC, a transportation firm based in the United Kingdom.

Clear and consistent communication often rates as the most important factor contributing to employee satisfaction. Make sure your HR executive excels at communicating.

Sense of Touch: Making Human Connections

Does your HR executive touch lives by making real connections with employees? An effective leader will express genuine interest in people at all levels of your organization. It's critical that an HR leader demonstrates that employees are a company's most important asset, especially in our high-tech world where so much communication is electronic.

Most employees are interested in what's next for them in their career, but there is a need for clarity particularly with employees of Generations Y and Z. HR must communicate vigilantly about career development just to survive today's fierce competition for talent. Ensure that your HR leader shares that view and carries out that mission.

"The most rewarding and notable work I do is high-touch," Manegold said. "Today's workforce values and responds to connection, coaching and ongoing feedback. HR must model these important skills all day, every day."

Sense of Self: Always Staying True

This sense is the most critical of all. Your HR executive will be managing or interacting with a board of directors, a CEO, employees, employees' families, regulatory bodies, vendors and consultants—all with different and, at times, conflicting interests. The HR executive's mettle will be tested daily on issues of fairness, integrity and conflict resolution, just to name a few.

As a trusted advisor to the CEO, the HR leader must fearlessly challenge decisions or directions that may not align with the company's mission. That fearlessness requires a strong sense of self—which means having the strength of character to stand one's ground.

"The best HR leaders are stewards of their profession, employees and organization," O'Connor said. "It's a true balancing act. Those who can interact with and manage a diverse talent pool and accomplish strategic initiatives for their organization will always come out ahead."

Barbara Schultz is a human resource executive turned career coach and principal of The Career Stager. She is also a freelance writer, sharing perspectives with HR professionals on topics addressing today's diverse workforce.


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