Odgers Berndtson’s Australia office recently conducted some primary research that attempted to understand which key characteristics determine high performing HR teams.

Here’s a précis of what they found

1. A business agenda at the heart of what they’re doing

It was agreed unilaterally that all high performing HR teams have strong commercial acumen and a deep knowledge about the business.

HR needs to be central to business decisions, not an ancillary influence.

Most said they want their team to comprise all HR backgrounds – from strategy, project management, technology – and to have a deep understanding of what it really means to be doing various roles.

They take every opportunity to make sure people are coming from a position of knowhow, founded on ‘actually doing’ rather than theoretical understanding.

“You have to understand the business and understand the financials of the business because you have to be seen to understand what people are working towards and the pressures the businesses are facing – it adds to your credibility and your level of engagement with the business.”

2. Customer focused and actively contributing to the big goals of the organisation

Great HR teams have moved away from the transactional and operational to the strategic. Key hallmarks of a good HR team are responsiveness, agility, collaboration, a self-managed team and individual accountability.

“Responsiveness is key – if HR are asked and don’t respond for three to four days, it’s not acceptable. People think you’re payroll, hire and fire. We’re not the soft touchy feely brigade here for a hug, we’re here to drive the business forward.”

3. Full accountability and measuring success by business outcomes

High performing HR teams are closely aligned with where the business is heading, put measures in place to achieve the wider business goals and then track performance in a measurable and timely way.

It’s all about action and showing HR can deliver – and using commercial data to drive change.

“We can help with diversity, inclusion, flex work practices, behaviours and culture. And many would see that as fluf but we can showing commercially why you would do it. It’s not enough that it might be a nice thing to do – we need to show it’s about the employer value proposition.”

4. Deliver a great employee lifecycle of experience that is aligned with the company vision and strategic plan

Great HR teams support over the horizon employee needs, not just today’s. A competitive and attractive employer must pre-empt not respond to changes in employee aspirations. HR must recognise the employee’s needs: a greater desire for flexibility, the need to contribute in a meaningful way, career development – more than just remuneration. Employee needs must be integrated with business aspirations.

“HR is the voice for employee experience. HR is often seen as aligned with management – and we are – but ultimately it’s about whether employees have a good experience at work. Are they treated with dignity, are we developing their careers, do our leaders care about them? HR can influence that and maybe that’s something that’s not front and centre for managers.”

5 Act as the voice and conscience of the organisation as well as great leadership coaches

They take ownership around people practices and are vocal enough to challenge when something is not right. The best HR departments have the trust of the CEO to such an extent they can fearlessly share the challenging feedback they most need to hear.

Alongside this, to build the capability, most leading teams have a number of development programs in place and invest significantly in training and development.

“If an HR director is going to be really effctive one thing you have to accept is you have to make yourself one of the loneliest people in the business – you need to be able to stand above and to the side in terms of objectivity, more than anyone else.”

“HR needs to be the one who will have the rough conversation – and it takes balls. You have to risk any career ramifications that may come from that. But other leaders look to us to have that tough conversation".

Questions asked

  1. Please can you share a brief overview of the structure and some broad brush metrics of your business?
  2. What is your total headcount in Australia, and if applicable, globally?
  3. What role does the HR team play in your organisation? Does HR have a seat at the leadership/executive table?
  4. Does your strategic plan include people-related goal(s) as a key priority?
  5. What are the most significant challenges you are facing as a business?
  6. What are your most pressing short and long term HR challenges specifically?
  7. How does HR respond to those challenges?
  8. Do you think the challenges reflect the market generally or your execution?
  9. Looking over your career, what in your experience are the most important attributes that distinguish a high performing HR team from the pack?
  10. Knowing what you know, would you design or structure companies diffrently in order to maximise the potential of their people?
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