What the CEO (Should) Want from the HR Senior Executive

Recently I was interviewed about what I considered the primary criteria for a senior executive of HR. Here are my summarized answers:

As a CEO, what are the three most important expectations you have of your HR organization?

First, the senior HR executive must be a business executive first and foremost. This means that the HR executive owns growing, driving market share, competitive advantage, and driving disproportionate profit just as much as the CEO, COO, CFO, etc. HR must be at its core strategically relevant to the financial success of the business.

Second, the senior HR executive’s primary role is to attract and retain better talent than the competition can attract and retain. This means that he or she must first identify the true talent needs and deficiencies in the company and subsequently devise the strategy to grow the needed talent within the organization or identify and recruit it from outside the organization. Once the talent is in the company having superior retention strategies is essential.

Finally, the senior HR executive must provide meaningful and useful management information that correlates the impact of HR policy, systems and data trends to the performance of the overall business. There is no question: as the people go, so goes the business. The senior HR executive is responsible to the executive team to put all of this information into context and lead the team to the appropriate conclusions and decisions that will drive exceptional enterprise performance through the talent.

What are the most critical characteristics you seek in a strategic HR leader?

It is difficult to find break through thinking in traditional HR executives. The legacy HR leaders often find themselves mired in compliance and the policing of the human interaction in the organization. Not to say this isn’t important— it is. But it doesn’t normally require the skills of a top level executive. Finding an HR executive that thinks from the market place in versus the HR department out is a huge advantage.

True of any executive position, you have to find people with the courage of their convictions. The ideal executive team has a unified commitment to the direction of the company and is willing to contribute their best efforts and thinking to the success of the business. The senior HR executive— and all executives— must fearlessly participate and contribute all the time.

When you read these thoughts it is easy to say that they are pretty common sense. But ask yourself, how often do you work with an HR executive that truly fits this mold? My guess is that you see this type of leader more often than you used to, but by no means consistently. Business has labeled, pigeon holed, and bounded HR leaders. And consequently, the HR leaders have readily (if not willingly) accepted being "back benched" relative to other executives.

And this is ridiculous. It doesn’t matter what business you are in, the one attribute of your enterprise that forever distinguishes you from your competition is the quality and engagement of your people. Even Steve Jobs acknowledged this about product icon, Apple. He knew that Apple was an idea company and an engineering/product design company, not a product company. Jobs was certain that revolutionary ideas and design are always the exclusive domain of highly talented people.

Think about the aforementioned expectations of the senior HR executive and think about the critical characteristics. Then stare out the window and ask yourself, "what would our company be like if we had ‘that’ HR executive?"