Are You A Strategic HR Leader?

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Achieving organizational greatness, leadership excellence and a great reputation.


There are some companies where HR is treated like a strategy centre. In others, HR is strictly a processing function with one of the main roles to simply hire people for the company. The likelihood is that the senior executive trusts HR to make the best hiring decisions possible, based on a set criteria for a position. But what happens if you come across a candidate who might lack the years of experience you’re asking for, but instead has outstanding experiences and a kind of drive and appeal you can feel in person? Should you go by the set criteria, or should you include outliers? What if you find out one of those outliers is the best candidate, despite missing some of the criteria you stipulated when you posted the job? Do you fight for that person’s inclusion in the competition, or do you simply keep to your criteria? What if you see, and feel, that this ‘black sheep’ candidate can offer more value to the company than the set list?

Your process is your process. But what would you do in this situation? Would you fight for the outlier or simply keep to the listed criteria? It really comes down to leadership, influence, and building a great business case.

I have often had the experience that there are ‘black sheep’ candidates, and sometimes they take more research to understand well. For instance, I have recently hired candidates for positions that didn’t fit the mold of our hiring criteria. Many times, understanding these candidates comes down to understanding and interpreting their resume and experience that might, on the face of it, not fit the fundamental criteria. This isn’t because the candidate has a ‘bad’ resume, or poorly communicated experience. It sometimes comes down to them having roles within organizations that you might not have been exposed to yet. Titles, job duties and other things can look very different if the candidate is coming from government, such as a Chief of Staff or Sergeant in the military, or a private public company. If you come across a very different sounding resume, it could be worth your while to see how that person aligns with what you’re looking for. It might be that they have skills beyond your criteria, which could make them an ideal candidate for the position. Additionally, a strategic HR leader looks past skill and looks for attitude and looks for a person who is not just great for today’s role but for the future of the company.

If you ever find yourself in this position, here are some things to think about and do to find more than you’re looking for:

1. Have the ear of senior executive, the President or CEO. Building trust and rapport with senior executive is an important part of being an HR leader. They need to trust you to do your job, but do they trust your opinions beyond that? Can you come to them and say, despite everything, this candidate might be worth looking at? You need to have the level of trust within the organization where you’re not just expected to stick to your knitting. You might be expected to knit a scarf, but what if you could knit the company a sweater and a scarf? With this person? You need to have trust within before you can fight for candidates still on the outside.

2. Listen. Yes, you know your job very well, and you know what you’re looking for. But one of the best-practices and most valuable skills of an HR leader is being an excellent listener. This of course doesn’t mean that you listen and take orders. This means you listen for what’s said, as well as the unsaid, and the things said between the lines. You will always gather the criteria for a new position and listen to those in the chain of command. But I find that if you really pay attention to improving your art of listening, that you will come away with even more information to help you find and position the candidates you need to create strategic value for your company. It could be something small, like understanding more about the candidates, because you have asked questions and listened to their work history and experiences more closely. There is always a nugget somewhere that you can pick up and use to your advantage.

3. Build your business case. Hardly any company on earth will hire on the ‘trust me’ basis. Yes, they trust you, but why should they? The way to building corporate trust for the candidates you love is to build your business case for that candidate. Let’s use our example of an outlier applicant. You might love this person more than those who seem to fit the qualifications most closely. They have an ‘X factor’ that goes beyond resume. In this case you need to build your case. The case could be that you can interpret their resume for the team, because you have spoken with her or him, and you know they will not just fit but they will excel. You need to back this up with all you have: interpret the resume history, speak with people they know, even if you aren’t yet at the references stage, and gather the evidence you need that vectors this person with the job. It might take just a little more work, but the rewards for the company can be extraordinary.

Being an HR leader isn’t about your job function or title. Being an HR leader means looking for the exceptional. And when you find it, fighting for it. Not every candidate works out, that’s just the name of the game. As the saying goes, the higher the risk, often the greater the reward. So once in a while, when you feel confident you have found that exceptional yet unique person that is outside the box, you need to fight for them and take the risk.  Along the way, you build your reputation beyond merely fulfilling a function to amplifying the strategic outcomes for the entire company.

Reputations and leaders are made of this.