The Most Crucial Skill for HR Professionals Going Forward

today2022.02.01. 57


David C Forman, President, SAGE Learning System, Adjunct Professor at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University


The HR Profession has been rapidly changing in the past decade or so, constantly requires HR leaders to reinvent themselves. There is one skill that has proven to be critically important to learn.

For the better part of five decades, I have been thinking about the barriers HR professionals face in being more accepted and respected by business leaders.  These barriers, I believe, pertain across industries, and in business, government, and non-profit sectors alike.  The inklings I had back in the 1970s are even more pronounced today.  There is a skill set that I believe could make a measurable impact on HR’s role in the organization.

Let’s start by discussing what these skills are not.  As useful as these skills might be, they are not what is needed most.  The most crucial skills are not: 

  • A Technical Skill:  In a fast changing world, technical skills are constantly being redefined and shuffled.   The meta skill that’s important is learning agility—being able to learn new technical skills quickly—before they become obsolete (Forman, 2020).
  • An HR Skill:  While these foundations can be important, they are not sufficient to achieve breakthrough recognition and impact.  We must get out of our own silo and learn to speak the language appreciated by others.
  • A Personal/Clinical Skill:  While skills like empathy, belonging, and improved communications can be personally enriching, they don’t move the organizational needle quickly enough. 

Instead, it is the business skill of marketing that can make a huge difference in both the perception and effectiveness of HR within organizations.

As strange and as over-simplified as this sounds, let me clarify my meaning. By marketing, I mean the ability to:   position HR solutions vis a vis other alternatives; articulate the value provided to different audiences; demonstrate the business impact in $ (actual dollars); and communicate these messages regularly so that HR solutions are highly visible and credible to business colleagues.  Marketing goes way beyond communications, messaging, slogans, and spin.  It is at the heart of strategic positioning and value creation which is a capability not often demonstrated by many HR and other functional professionals.

Among the benefits for making HR professionals better marketeers are:

  • Demonstrating greater external focus by understanding the needs and priorities of other audiences.
  • Getting out of HR’s comfort zone, internal perspectives, and language.
  • Becoming more comfortable with the lexicon of the business.
  • Listening to others.
  • Gathering data from different audiences on priorities and barriers.
  • Asking questions to get at the root cause of problems and becoming more attuned to different ideas and priorities.  Pink (2012) describes value of attunement—being able to think (not just feel) like others as being core to influencing skills.
  • Thinking in terms of benefits, not just features of a solution.
  • Focusing on benefits for different audiences and defining the “why behind the what”  (Sinek, 2009).
  • Being able to monetize benefits so that the business impact of HR initiatives can be demonstrated (Forman, 2020).
  • Establishing priorities and being able to discern the critical few from the inconsequential many.
  • Simplifying practices so that the most important outcomes are achieved.
  • Demonstrating how HR drives organizational performance (Forman, 2015).

A good marketeer does all these things, and these activities can make a tremendous  impact on HR professionals, many of whom are not practiced in marketing.  They didn’t need to be in a world in which their role was administrative and supportive.  But now new demands are being placed on organizations during times of unprecedented change, growing global interdependence, and uncertain futures.  HR has become a true strategic capability, but many still view the profession as it was in the past.  A key to breaking this prism is to do a better job of increasing the visibility and credibility of the accomplishments we achieve. 

The evidence and research are clear.  We just have to be better at positioning and communicating these results.

This may be uncertain terrain for some, but I am convinced that those who make this journey will become the future leaders of the HR profession going forward.

Written by: Dave Forman

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