What Separates Great HR Leaders from the Rest

HR seems to have become every manager and employee’s favorite corporate punching bag, vying with IT for the dubious title of most-irritating function. We have seen a parade of articles recently calling for HR to be blown up, split in two, or at the very least, redesigned.

Perhaps this is a good moment to evaluate what it is we really want from our HR leaders—and what we don’t. Over the last five years, Zenger Folkman has collected 360-degree feedback data on 2,187 HR leaders. These leaders are spread across hundreds of different organizations with 68% of those leaders located in the US, 11% in Asia, 8% in Europe, 7% in Latin America, 4% in Canada, and 1% in Africa. Comparing assessments of leaders in the HR function with those of leaders in other functions, our data suggest that the typical HR leader is seen as is six percentile points below average.

We analyzed the data in two different ways. First, we contrasted the results for the 2,187 HR leaders in our dataset with those of 29,026 leaders in other functions. We were able to identify a few key skills that were common strengths of those in HR and some that appeared fairly frequently as weaknesses. Second, we rank-ordered 49 leadership behaviors for all those in HR from the most negative to the most positive behaviors.
Strengths of HR Leaders

Developing and coaching others. One of the most positive areas for HR leaders in general was that they were truly concerned about developing others. This set them apart from leaders in other functions, who did not score highly on this skill. They were also rated positively on providing coaching, acting as a mentor, and giving feedback in a helpful way.

But is this skill valued by HR leaders’ colleagues? We asked raters to indicate the importance of each competency we measured, and they rated this skill eleventh of 16 for HR leaders. Perhaps the message here is, “We know you do this well already” or even “This is just table-stakes.” Or, it could be that developing others takes a back seat to other competencies that are highly valued by the other functional leaders.

Building positive relationships. This was another skill where HR scored much more highly than other functions. That makes sense; in most organizations HR is responsible for diversity and inclusion initiatives and for labor relations. HR leaders were rated well on being able to “balance results with a concern for the needs of others.” Another of their more positive items was being trusted and staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others. This competency was also more valued by our raters, who chose it as third in importance.

Role modeling. Some of the most positively rated items for HR leaders focus on their willingness to “walk the talk,” to be role models and to honor commitments and promises. HR leaders are frequently put into the position of ensuring that others in the organization do the right thing and follow established procedures. For those in the HR function, this competency is rated as second in importance. It’s also a skill that seems to be fairly common across all functions.

Having functional knowledge and expertise. Many HR leaders were rated positively on their functional knowledge and expertise. Most employees in organizations are unaware of labor laws, hiring rules, benefits and compensation issues. HR leaders were viewed as knowledgeable and helpful in these areas. This was another common skill across functions, and was rated as ninth in importance for HR leaders.


The 16 Key Leadership Skills

Great outcomes are connected to 16 leadership competencies that span five


1. Displays honesty and Integrity

Personal Capabilities:

2. Exhibits technical/professional expertise
3. Solves problems and analyzes issues
4. Innovates
5. Practices self-development

Getting Results:

6. Focuses on results
7. Establishes stretch goals
8. Takes initiative

Interpersonal skills:

9. Communicates powerfully and broadly
10. Inspires and motivates others
11. Builds relationships
12. Develops others
13. Collaborates and fosters teamwork

Leading change:

14. Develops strategic perspective
15. Champions change
16. Connects the group to the outside world


Weakness of HR Leaders

Focusing internally rather than externally. When comparing HR leaders to all other leaders in our database, they were rated significantly more negatively on their ability to understand the needs and concerns of customers. In many ways the function of HR is focused on internal problems, but the lack of understanding of the external environment often caused others to view some HR leaders as not in touch with the issues facing the organization. HR leaders were also rated more negatively on their ability to represent the organization to key groups.

Lacking strategic perspective. In general, HR leaders were rated significantly less positively on their ability to have a clear perspective between the big picture strategy and the details. Many were viewed as so focused on the “day-to-day” work that they lost perspective on the longer term broader business issues. HR leaders often complain that they “want a seat at the table” to engage more fully with other executives, but without clear strategy and focus they will never have that seat.

Not anticipating and responding quickly to problems. HR leaders were rated significantly more negatively on their ability to anticipate and respond quickly to problems. A number of items noted a general lack of speed and urgency to respond and react quickly.

Resisting stretch goals. On a number of occasions we have watched as senior executives ask for a program or process to be rolled out quickly only to have HR respond, “It takes more time than that—we need to slow the process down.” While at times that is necessary advice, too often it is the first response given by HR without considering what could be done to speed the process and move quickly.


What the Best HR Leaders Do

We also found in our database that some of the best leaders in the world were part of the HR function. The graph below shows the four competencies that most consistently separate the top quartile leaders from the other HR leaders. It is worth noting that what separated the best HR leaders from the rest was their performance on the key competencies that were often weaknesses in HR, in addition to performing extremely well on HR’s traditional strengths.

If more HR leaders would add these four important competencies to their skill sets, we would see many more sitting at the table; and an increasing number seated at the head of the table.


Authors’ Note: There’s an interesting gender wrinkle in our data, although we’re not quite sure what to make of it. According to our data, HR has the highest percentage of female leaders (66%). Overall, female leaders were rated at the 45th percentile while male leaders were at the 43rd percentile, but at the very top levels it flipped, and the senior-most men in HR were rated more highly—male senior leaders were rated at the 52nd percentile, and female senior leaders at the 47th. These differences, while small, are statistically significant. When we look at the overall data for male versus female senior managers in the other functions, males are at the 48th percentile and females at the 53rd. Only in HR, Engineering, and Safety do male senior leaders score higher than their female counterparts.


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How to Get a New Employee Up to Speed

From a manager’s perspective, a new hire can’t come up to speed fast enough. Balancing the newcomer’s need to learn the ropes and your desire to have her quickly produce is a challenge for any time-strapped boss. What’s the best way to bring your new employee on board? Who do you enlist in the training? And how long should you expect it to take?

What the Experts Say
“If you want people to perform well, you have to get them off to a good start. That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” says Dick Grote, performance management consultant and author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals. It’s important to be thoughtful and deliberate about their first few months. “People are very excited and quite vulnerable when they take new jobs, so it’s a time in which you can have a big impact,” says Michael Watkins, author of the bestselling book, The First 90 Days. “Often the people who get the least attention are those making internal moves,” says Watkins, but those transitions, “can be terribly challenging.” Whether your new hire is joining the company for the first time or transitioning from another part of the organization, here’s how to make it as smooth as possible for everyone.

Focus on culture
Most managers focus on orienting the new hire to the business — strategy, formal structures­ — or explaining rules by going over the employee manual or sharing compliance regulations. All of that is important “but the focus should really be on culture and politics,” Watkins says. And you shouldn’t wait until the employee’s first day to broach the subject. Effective onboarding starts during the recruiting and hiring phase — when you’re interviewing the potential hire and assessing fit. Talk honestly about how things work and answer questions. Then, once the employee starts, set time aside in your initial meetings to continue the conversation. If your new hire is coming onboard from outside the company, don’t assume he knows the lingo of the organization and the industry. Take the extra time to translate for him. Help him understand meeting dynamics by debriefing afterwards, addressing some of the finer points of relationships between people that an outsider would have no way of knowing. Connecting socially will help your new hire better understand the culture or politics. So before he starts, consider: who does that person need to know to be successful? Start with three people, and facilitate introductions between them and the new teammate.

Get your entire team involved
Watkins recommends enlisting your team in getting their new teammate up to speed and sharing “collective responsibility” for his success. Ask one person to act as a sponsor, advises Grote, and designate him or her to be the go-to person when the new teammate runs into problems. This is good for the sponsor, for whom this is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills, and the new employee, who can get feedback without having to worry about asking his new manager (sometimes silly) questions. It also takes some of the responsibility off of your shoulders.

Set expectations early on
Your new employee needs to know job expectations from the start. Grote explains that at Texas Instruments, for example, each new or transitioning employee gets a copy of the performance appraisal. “On the first day, the manager goes over the form; they use it as a tool to explain how performance will be measured and what they’ll be held accountable for,” Grote says.

Don’t overlook the little things
Put yourself in the new hire’s shoes. “You want to make sure that his first day is memorable in a positive way,” says Grote. “Say an employee goes home at 5 PM on his first day, and his partner asks about his day. His response shouldn’t be that he filled out 37 forms.” Simple things make a difference. “Ask coworkers to coordinate so the new teammate doesn’t eat lunch by himself the first week,” Grote suggests. He acknowledges this may seem mundane but it makes a difference. Similarly, part of creating a welcoming environment includes having logistics like business cards, workstations, and access passes ready to go. Watkins explains that he’s seen companies forget to do this and it has an impact: “For the first week, the new hire had to walk around with a visitor tag, and that sent a particular message to the newcomer and everyone around him,” he says.

Give them time to grow
So, how long before your new hire is fully assimilated into her position? “90 days and not a minute longer,” Watkins jokes. Humor aside, Watkins explains there is no one-size-fits-all answer. “When you look at high-level employees transitioning within a company, research indicates they feel they add value by about six months,” he says. “But if you’re coming into a challenging job from outside the company, it may take a year.” Grote agrees: “Onboarding time is a function of the job.” The idea of a new employee “hitting the ground running” is a farce, he says. “You know what happens if you do that? You fall on your face.” Grote says new teammates need to start at a reasonably paced walk and accelerate as quickly as is comfortable.  “Ask your existing employees how long it took before they felt they were part of the team. What they say is the best data you’re going to get,” he advises. While you’re at it, ask them about their overall onboarding experience. “The old-timers won’t remember, but those hired two months ago will have feedback about what they wish they’d learned earlier,” Grote says.

Principles to Remember


  • Take time to explain and answer questions about the company’s culture
  • Create collective responsibility for the success of the new teammate by sharing onboarding duties with their peers
  • Ask current teammates about their onboarding experiences to gain insight into the process


  • Bury your new hire in paperwork on the first day — make her feel welcome and happy to be there
  • Forget to handle simple logistics like workstation set-up and business cards
  • Expect your new teammate to “hit the ground running” — understand that the time it takes to get up to speed is a reflection of the position

Case Study #1: Stay organized so things don’t fall through the cracks
Emily Burns has worked for Ruan Transportation Management Systems for nearly four years, and currently works in human resources. After a year on the job, she noticed her team’s onboarding practices were too informal. “We often didn’t have everything ready for the new teammate on his or her first day,” she explains.

Emily set out to standardize the process. She created a master checklist that managers could go through and put all the relevant new hire documents in a shared file on the company portal. “These files document every single thing that has to happen, and by what day, in order for everything to be ready on the day the new hire starts,” Emily says. The list of tasks begins 14 days before the new hire starts and ends six months into their employment.

Have Emily’s efforts helped? “Well, turnover has decreased, and our new team members can start training and contributing on day one,” Emily asserts. Emily notes the new process makes new employees feel taken care of and more satisfied with their new job, manager, and company. “When they experience this type of security and stability on their first day and their onboarding has been seamless, they can better focus on learning their job and doing their work.”

Case Study #2: Help them learn the lingo
In the fall of 2014, Ryan Twedt, owner of Be Always Marketing, hired a new salesman, Justin Thompson, to join his team of seven employees. Because marketing terms seemed like such basic concepts, he didn’t think to incorporate them into Justin’s training, even though Justin was coming from a different industry.

He soon realized his mistake. When they went into their first sales meeting together, “Justin was using industry lingo at the wrong points in conversation, and it became clear there were basic definitions he didn’t know,” says Ryan. “It hurt our ability to close, and it impacted our client’s trust in us.”

Before he could train Justin, Ryan needed to set expectations. He created a formal description for Justin’s role, including accountability metrics. Then Ryan worked with Justin to help him practice sales techniques. “Justin had to call me every day and act as if he was trying to close a sale with me, and I would take on the role of a different industry leader each time,” Ryan says. Through practice, Justin learned the lingo and the techniques he needed to approach a potential client.

Justin’s performance improved rapidly as a result of Ryan’s efforts. “I saw a major improvement within the first week, but the tangible results started coming in about three weeks later.” Ryan noticed Justin’s closing rate increased, overall leads increased, and Ryan started to hear about Justin’s sales calls from people outside the company who were impressed with his skills. As a result of his experience with Justin, Ryan now takes the same approach with each new hire.

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The headhunter’s role in the digital age

Headhunters used to be the source for smart, talented employees who were open to new opportunities. They had a database – or a rolodex – of people at their fingertips and they could quickly present clients with a short list of qualified potential workers.

But how relevant are headhunters in the digital age, when a human resources specialist can search using specific keywords on LinkedIn – the biggest job search engine in the world – and connect to hundreds of potential employees with a click of the mouse? Job seekers can leverage their contacts or apply directly to a hiring manager. All of this can be done without paying a headhunter a dime, so why contract one?

Here’s a test: search for “environmental engineer” in Canada on LinkedIn and you get more than 2,000 names – there’s the key problem. That’s a lot of LinkedIn résumés to read and that’s where headhunters say they can provide added value to a company looking to narrow the numbers down to a handful of candidates.

Veronica Pastor, a partner with Toronto-based W.P. Osborne Executive Search Inc., says headhunters can find and assess candidates to find the perfect person for a particular job. This saves companies a lot of time, she adds, making it worth their while to pay for a headhunter’s services.

“We identify the talent pool for that specific [job] requirement,” Ms. Pastor explains. “We want to find people who don’t contact us. LinkedIn is one tool and there is a small per cent of talented people there because not everyone is on it.”

Allan Jones of Calgary-based Clear Road IT has been a headhunter for 16 years and he helps find and place information technology candidates. Working as a headhunter is not for the faint of heart, he says.

“You only eat what you kill,” he adds, explaining that companies don’t pay when headhunters fail to bring the right candidate to the table.

Delivering someone who gets the job is only the beginning of a headhunter’s compensation, which can range from 10 per cent to 30 per cent of the position’s first-year salary. Most headhunters are paid in thirds: a third once they’ve compiled a short list of candidates, a third when a candidate is interviewed and the final third when the position is filled with the headhunter’s candidate.

While anyone can be a headhunter, good ones differentiate themselves by staying in constant contact with both the company and the candidates, Mr. Jones says. A company may need time to consider its options but candidates can interpret silence as disinterest.

For workers who are contacted, headhunters can help them prepare for interviews and they can provide details about a company’s culture, the salary and the job position. Some will also review résumés and conduct personality tests to ensure the candidate is the right fit for the role and the company.

Another reason companies use headhunters is because LinkedIn and other job sites can’t offer access to “passive candidates” – those who are not currently looking for work or don’t have a profile online.

That’s why Sachi Kittur, vice-president of human resources at Mercatus Technologies Inc., a Toronto-based company that provides shopping technology to retailers, has used headhunters for 15 years. The value of headhunters for Ms. Kittur is the relationship she has with them and the relationship they have with their candidates.

“To make the relationship work, you have to invest some time in researching the best firms to partner with and give them access to your company, executives and hiring practices so that they can understand your culture,” she says. “Once they have [done that] they have a better chance of succeeding in helping you scout out talent.”

But sometimes a headhunter can be a hindrance. Patti Bond, 44, has been looking for work as a legal assistant for the last nine months after IBM eliminated her position. She is looking at job boards and company websites as well as contacting headhunters attached to relevant positions. It’s been a frustrating experience for Ms. Bond, who met three headhunters who contacted her after she submitted her résumé to various job boards.

“I walked out of there feeling good about myself and my résumé,” she says. “Then I’d hear from them for the first couple of weeks, then nothing.”

She’s had better luck securing interviews by applying directly to certain companies. A headhunter accidentally revealed a client’s name and Ms. Bond sent her résumé directly to the HR department – and then was interviewed by the company.

Whether headhunters are truly the gateway to a job is still up for debate. “Headhunters are often expert in the particular field that they recruit for – which can be useful. I’ve heard of more than one case of an employee actually applying for a job – and having that application be ignored – only to later be recruited for the very role by a headhunter,” the editor-in-chief of Workopolis, Peter Harris, said in an e-mail.

However, if you really want to get the role, Mr. Harris suggests trying to get your résumé on the desk of the person you’ll be working for. He says they are the ones who will know best how to evaluate and appreciate your skills.

Ms. Kittur doesn’t see an end to headhunters in this digital age but as Ms. Bond continues to look for work, she remains disenchanted. “Headhunters are valuable for networking on LinkedIn,” Ms. Bond says. “But I have never gotten a job using a headhunter.”


Allan Jones of Clear Road IT suggests candidates ask headhunters these questions:

• Who is the client who will receive my résumé?

• How well do you know the company?

• Do you have a detailed job description?

• What are the client’s candidate requirements?

• Are there other headhunters submitting candidates, or do you have an exclusive arrangement with them?

• What is the salary or hourly rate being offered?

• How fast should I expect to receive feedback about my résumé?

For companies using a headhunter:

Sachi Kittur, vice-president of human resources at Mercatus Technologies Inc. says the headhunting industry has changed in the last 15 years, when it was more standardized.

• Check out who the headhunter is. “There is no umbrella organization. Anyone can be a recruiter,” Ms. Kittur says.

• Ask the headhunter to provide examples of people they have placed. “Let me talk to the CEO and HR,” she says. “I need to see a long-term track record.”

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