What Companies Are Looking for in their HR Leaders

In the executive search world, I often hear several “ideal profiles” when companies are looking for new human resources leaders; however, most companies have one thing in common: they want a solid human resources generalist who “knows their stuff” across a variety of functional areas.


In addition to broad-based human resources skills, talent management, leadership development and sometimes executive compensation expertise are critical.  While the most frequently discussed traits in the ideal description include business-oriented, passionate, trusted advisor, emotionally intelligent and high-energy, the importance of these competencies vary based on the business – is the company global or domestic?  Growth-oriented or contracting?  Publicly or privately-held?


Some questions you may want to ask to help clarify the ideal human resources profile for your company may include:


  • Do we need an executive who will be a confidante and advisor to the CEO and senior team?
  • Will the leader need experience in evaluating potential mergers and acquisitions as well as being engaged in integrating new businesses?
  • How involved will the leader be in increasing the level of engagement with the workforce to ensure the company retains its talent?
  • Will this person inherit a seasoned team or will they need to develop employees and identify new team members?
  • How much building or reshaping of the organizational structure will be needed?
  • Will benefits need to be scrutinized to ensure there is a balance between quality of offerings and cost efficiencies?
  • How much time will this individual spend on major succession planning initiatives, including a potential CEO transition in the near future?
  • Will this leader need to make presentations to the Board of Directors on compensation and other critical human capital issues?
  • How much involvement will the Vice President of Human Resources have with talent management, including attracting, developing and retaining top talent?


Depending on the answers to these questions, the profile of the human resources leader may be different from company to company.  However, although each senior HR candidate may have their own unique nuances, almost all companies are interested in identifying talented human resources leaders who possess core functional expertise, business focus and “softer skills.”  While this may not sound like a tall order, finding executives with the appropriate functional qualifications, interpersonal skills and leadership style is very difficult – especially human resources leaders who have a strong business focus.


If you have human resources leaders matching this description, you should keep them close, as they are most likely on the radar screen of the retained executive search community.  How should you go about this?  Engage them.  Give them challenging assignments.  Recognize them for their contributions.  Reward them.  If you do that, it may prevent you from having to replace them.  You might even thank me for it.

Sally Stetson
Sally brings more than two decades of experience as an executive search consultant. She has worked across diverse industries including life sciences and pharmaceutical, healthcare systems, manufacturing, telecommunications, non-profit and professional services. The Philadelphia Business Journal named Sally as one of its "2006 Women of Distinction", and as one of SmartCEO Magazine's 2010 BRAVA! Women Business Achievement award winners.

4 Responses to 'What Companies Are Looking for in their HR Leaders'

  1. Great piece, Sally. I am often asked what is required of HR managers; this is a terrific place to start. Thanks.


  2. Sally,

    Thanks for a concise framework to define the HR leaders’ profile! It is a great starting point to the conversation when searching for top HR talent as well as re-evaluating the organizational need as the company transitions through phases.

    I also recommend organizational leadership teams revisit this needs assessment periodically. As a company progresses through life cycles and responds to environmental factors, this framework might also act as a fundamental tool to determine what impact the evolution has on the current leadership team…not just HR. I would expect an organization experiencing downsizing requires a stronger confidant/advisor role than, say, an organization going through rapid expansion where the cultural institutionalization is more critical.

    Ginger Edwards, SPHR

  3. Ginger,

    Sorry for the slow response – the holidays captured my attention!

    I agree with your insightful comment regarding how important the advisor role becomes during an organizational downsizing. At the same time, serving as a confidant during times of growth is equally important to ensure growth is managed effectively and employee engagement remains high.

    Sally Stetson

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