Leadership in HR: 7 Tips for Advancing Your HR Career

Written by Andrea Boatman
9 minutes read

Great leadership in HR doesn’t only mean being the HR expert within your organization. It means being a strategic partner and advisor to the business and creating impact through HR strategies. It also signifies your ability to guide people in a way that makes them want to follow you. Let’s look at what you need to know about leadership in HR and how to develop and demonstrate it.

What is good leadership in HR?
What leadership skills are essential for HR professionals?
How do you develop and demonstrate HR leadership?

What is good leadership in HR?

The ability to lead well embodies many qualities that can transfer into virtually all leadership roles, but we’ll interpret it specifically for HR. 

Here are several illustrations of what good leadership in HR looks like:

Seeing HR in the business context

Strong HR leaders understand the forces that shape the business strategy and goals of their organization and how HR practices and their outcomes influence these. They are curious about each department’s responsibilities and connect with the different teams to see what people need to get work done efficiently. 

HR leaders who learn about how the business makes money and the different challenges it faces are able to see the implications for and impact of HR. This business acumen allows them to have conversations with leaders on their level. They can discuss the problems the business is facing and offer relevant solutions.

Strong strategic thinking

Successful HR leaders must know how to plan for the future and have a mindset of linking every initiative to business goals. They can translate the business context and the evolving world of work into short and long-term strategies that will help the company achieve its goals.  

They guide the rest of the leadership in operational discussions. For instance, scenario planning for what kind of talent is needed to take the business where they want it to go. In essence, strategic HR leaders build up and accentuate the crucial role HR plays in the organization’s success.

Problem-solving skills

Problem-solving is a significant part of the HR function, with decisions affecting multiple people.

A strong HR leader makes observations, sees the big picture of every challenging situation, and carefully considers different options and scenarios. They ask questions and gather information to uncover the root causes behind the problem instead of jumping to conclusions. HR leaders also use critical thinking to see patterns and detect potential risks before they happen.  

They are aware of available resources and can evaluate how to deploy them logically and quickly. However, they take political, organizational, and stakeholder situations into account while coming up with preventative measures and solutions.

Being a trusted advisor

HR leaders are basically consultants to business leaders and other managers. Therefore, they must know how to build relationships with them and how to gain their trust.

They do this by speaking their language, having the ability to demonstrate the business impact of their decisions and efforts, and being collaborative. 

Once the HR leader earns trust and respect, their advice will be well regarded. This gives them a great deal of influence within the business.

Championing organizational culture

HR is central in forming a positive culture for the organization. Strong HR leaders steward culture to promote the desired organizational values and inspire the workforce to follow suit.

This involves acting with ethics and integrity in mind, showing accountability and commitment to what you’ve set out to do, leading change, and being dedicated to DEIB.

Being results-oriented and taking initiative

Effective HR leaders set realistic goals with a clear path to them in mind. This allows them to operate with focus and decisiveness and get the results they’re working toward.

They also have a logical approach to problems and the confidence to speak out. They don’t hesitate to be proactive and will take the initiative in leading projects. 

Helping employees achieve their goals

A good HR leader is able to balance the interests of the organization with the interests of the employees, advocating for them where possible. 

They don’t treat employees like they’re a problem to be solved. Instead, they show a genuine desire to offer help and support. They emphasize employee learning and development opportunities and encourage internal hiring and promotion paths.

Leading with empathy

HR leaders who are willing and able to understand others’ needs and feelings without judging cultivate an environment of trust. They show respect for and a genuine interest in people with a willingness to take diverse perspectives into account. In turn, employees see HR as approachable.  

This atmosphere encourages people to speak freely about their needs or concerns and feel safe when they have sensitive issues to address.

Leadership in HR: How to Develop Leadership Competencies
Working on your HR leadership competencies is a continuous process. Learn what you can do to speed it up below.

What leadership skills are essential for HR professionals?

To stand out as a great leader, HR professionals need a combination of different types of skills and competencies for each area of their influence. 

Here’s a rundown of three leadership competencies categories with a couple of examples of what this looks like:

Leading the organization

HR should be participating in business decisions at the highest level. This means HR leaders must be able to hold their own with the other executives by having these important leadership qualities:

  • Decision-making – Making decisions is what leadership is there for, and they must do it well. Influential leaders are armed with solid reasoning and data for their decisions. They can make quick assessments and discern when to consult with others before going forward. Most business decisions will directly affect employees, so HR needs to factor in these considerations.
  • Change management – Businesses cannot thrive and stay competitive without adapting to continual changes. Human Resources leaders must have the flexibility to plan for and embrace change. They also need to be a stable force that guides employees through evolving modifications.

Leading others

In order to be a leader, you must have individuals who want to follow you. People who are guided well are much more likely to turn business goals into achievements. The following skills are indispensable for leading others:

  • Interpersonal skills – When you relate to and communicate well with others, you can earn their respect and build rapport. For HR leaders, this is especially important because people are what is front and center in your scope of responsibility. Excellent interpersonal or soft skills, such as empathy, emotional intelligence, authenticity, clear verbal expression, giving and accepting feedback, and active listening, set strong leaders apart.
  • Coaching skills – A coach is someone who not only leads but also brings out the best in each person on their team through instruction and encouragement. Since HR is all about finding and developing the company’s talent, its leaders must be able to coach well. They should provide constructive feedback, help employees find their place in the organization, and spur people on to expand their abilities and become more productive.

Leading yourself

If you struggle to lead yourself, your direct reports and peers will question your ability to lead others. An effective leader earns others’ confidence by setting an example with their conduct, habits, and knowledge.

  • Self-management – Everyone has their own way of handling themselves and day-to-day activities, but certain attributes reflect good self-management. Maintaining control over your emotions, being prepared and organized, and balancing work and personal life are some of the ways you can demonstrate responsibility and dependability. HR leaders who are proficient self-managers lay the groundwork for a productive, safe work environment.
  • Self-development – Self-aware people realize that they don’t know everything and that there’s always something they can be working on to grow and improve themselves. Leaders who consistently pursue learning opportunities and experiences that take them out of their comfort zones will become better at their jobs. This type of HR leader embodies the value of what’s offered through their organization’s L&D program.

How do you develop and demonstrate HR leadership?

Whether you’re aspiring to become an HR leader or want to increase your leadership development in your current role, taking certain actions can produce some wins that will support your progress. 

Let’s go over seven ideas:

1. Work on understanding the business, organizational design, and HR operating models 

The more you understand about your organization, the better equipped you are to lead it. Engage with people from different departments and get familiar with your company’s products or services and industry. Then you’ll be able to target HR services to specific needs and become a trusted contributor to the business.

Learn as much as possible about the company’s organizational design and structure. As you gain knowledge about how the systems, roles, and processes work together, you can tailor HR programs (e.g., performance management and recruitment) to be the right fit.

You should also get to know different HR operating models and examine them in the context of your organization. Armed with the knowledge you have gained about the business, you’ll be able to see which model is the optimal way to organize your service delivery and provide the most value.

2. Build credibility and trust

When you gain people’s trust, they feel confident following your lead. Be authentic. Form sincere relationships by building your stakeholder management acuity. Develop your communication and interpersonal skills and your ability to manage expectations.

You should aim to establish trust with senior executives, employees, managers, the HR team, as well as tech vendors, consultants, and other external stakeholders. Everyone should see consistency between what you say and what you do throughout your work life. This, combined with your competence, will encourage others to look up to you. 

3. Lead by example

Demonstrating a positive example for others goes hand-in-hand with building trust and credibility. If your employees see you living up to high standards and doing what you’re asking of them, you’ll reinforce a culture of mutual respect and teamwork.

Here are some ways you can lead by example:

  • Educate yourself about ethical matters in HR to ensure sound practices and precedents. 
  • Honor the commitments you’ve made.
  • Face and resolve conflicts consistently.
  • Accept feedback and learn from mistakes.
  • Display organizational values in your work and interactions with others.
  • Model inclusive behaviors such as active listening, avoiding assumptions, and allyship.
  • Practice personal wellness and work-life balance.

4. Develop change management skills

Change can be one of the biggest challenges businesses face, and it is inescapable. With the pace organizations are shifting these days, you need to learn how to lead and support the changes taking place within your organization.

If you have a grasp on the structured approach of change management, you can step up to tackle the setbacks or projects that come along with unforeseen circumstances or new endeavors. This is your opportunity to shine. Your steadiness and well-thought-out decisions while navigating change will set you apart as a leader.

5. Adopt an agile and project-based approach to HR

An HR leader cannot be fixated on practices of the past. You need to be able to deal with modern challenges by staying up on the latest HR approaches that foster innovation and adaptability. 

Learn about the principles of agile HR and lean HR, as well as HR project management. That way, you can design a future-ready HR function that is able to anticipate and respond to your organization’s needs in an ever-evolving business and employment landscape.

6. Set goals for yourself

As we’ve already mentioned, leadership isn’t only about leading others but also yourself. That’s why it’s essential not only to set goals for the Human Resources function but also for your development. Goals give you direction and priorities to focus on and a way to define your accomplishments.

Even the process of goal setting helps you define who you want to be as a leader. Ask yourself, “What do I want to learn?” “What do I want to achieve in your career?” 

Think about setting SMART goals for yourself. For example, “Within the next two weeks, I will establish a mentor relationship with someone I trust and respect who is willing to share wisdom and invest in helping me grow in my career.”

7. Get certified

Getting certified means you’ll have this valuable knowledge and skillset, but it offers more than that. Being willing to devote time and effort to an HR leadership development program demonstrates your commitment to professional growth and the HR field. This distinction can give you a competitive advantage over others when you’re pursuing leadership opportunities.

AIHR’s Strategic HR Leadership certificate program helps you gain competencies and knowledge to become an effective HR leader with a deep understanding of business and influence within the organization.

Take it from here

Becoming a great HR leader takes time and effort. It’s not only about building your skills. You also need to nurture relationships and trust within and outside the organization. 

Effective leadership translates into a prosperous company and happy employees. As a trusted advisor, you’ll help steer your organization through whatever the future holds. 

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Andrea Boatman

Andrea Boatman is a former SHRM certified HR manager with a degree in English who now enjoys combining the two as an HR writer. Her previous positions were held with employers in the education, healthcare, and pension consulting industries.

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