No experience required

Rant blog post alert.

Lucy Adams posted an article on LinkedIn this morning. It highlighted a FTSE Executive, who had been given responsibility for HR in his organisation. A large blue chip. Employing, I assume, a fair few folk. He has no experience at all of working in HR, or any relevant training. According to Adams, he sees his lack of experience as a positive asset in helping him deliver.

Erm…. What?

In what other profession would this happen? Can you see someone with absolutely no finance experience, or no financial qualifications, being given the FD role? What about the IT Director? Can you see an organisation thinking it is a jolly good idea to give such a position to someone who doesn’t have an IT background? No one would see a lack of experience as a ‘positive’ asset in this situation. I’d love to hear more about his rationale for this statement.

If I applied for an FD role, I can’t see anyone sitting around the shortlisting table thinking ‘Excellent. Someone with a Maths GCSE. I am sure that she will bring all sorts of new ideas to the function. Her lack of any relevant experience at all means that she won’t be restricted by traditional financial methods’. Of course they wouldn’t. Because they would then have to find someone else to do the P&L and the budget and all those other slightly important financey things.

So why is this acceptable when it comes to the people stuff?

Recruitment. Employee Relations. Learning and Development. Organisational Design. Employment Law. Reward. Engagement.

These are specialist fields.

I’m sure (or at least I hope) that this same organisation also has a team of experienced, qualified HR professionals that know their people stuff. Maybe that is enough.

But I still believe that the decision to appoint someone to lead a HR function in a large organisation, who has no experience at all in HR and (I assume) no relevant qualifications, should be unacceptable. It should be as unthinkable as the examples I gave above. It should be laughable.

So why isn’t it?

This is a challenge to HR. A challenge for our specialist experience and knowledge to be so valued that an appointment like this is seen as an implausible.

The only people who can change this is us.

I am off for a lie down in a darkened room.

18 thoughts on “No experience required

  1. I too became slightly enraged whilst reading your post – for someone who has worked hard to get to know the “people stuff” and hopefully is doing a fair job good of it!

    As a HR Consultant who is trying to challenge the dispel the myths and barriers that the term HR or employment law conjures up in small organisations it is exactly this kind of thing that really irks me. However, taking a step back and after just coming from reading your last post I did have the thought of – hmmmm maybe they are trying to break the norms in their organisation.

    While I am not onside with this there is, however, a small niggle that is making me thing that perhaps we need to know more of the story before making the final judgement. There is constant talk of HR professionals needing to be more in touch with the business, the operational needs, management issues, the finances etc. So here they have appointed someone who perhaps has all these skills but none in HR. But – if he has an excellent history of leading and managing his own team does he have enough experience and knowledge of “people stuff” to run the whole show?!? The organisation in question obviously thinks so…

    • Thanks for commenting Claire. You are right, we only have a small piece of the story. Maybe the person is the right person – if that makes any sense at all! Maybe that this organisation did feel that they needed to bring something different, and that there are plenty of other good HR folks within the team who have all the specialist people stuff. What stands out for me is the stark difference between HR and other business functions where it would not even be considered. Whatever the individual circumstances of this case, it is not the first time I have come across just this. For me, I just cannot shake that it says something fundamental about how HR is perceived and valued.

      • I agree, HR is perceived in what I would see as a negative way but I see it as my mission to change that perception. Trying to do something different, which is how I perceive the way in which you work from your blog, is something of an uphill struggle and we feel beaten and under-valued when someone dismisses our credentials or, perhaps worse, when an organisation doesn’t value its people at all and therefore only sees HR as a tool to manage employee relations issues.

        Its hard but I will keep plugging away at trying to change perceptions about our role as HR professionals that we add value and can bring something to the table that other executives can’t.

      • We all need to keep plugging away at it, as you suggest. We are the only people that can change the perception.
        As I often say at the conclusion of my blogs – let HR lead the way!

  2. Unfortunately it happens in Marketing too. People with no experience at all put in charge of marketing. At one global professional services firm it recently happened – where – ironically it was the HR Director that has taken over global responsibility for marketing! The world has gone crazy.

  3. If you’ll excuse the generalisations(!) I think most, if not all the other major departments have a predictive component and can show an ROI quickly and easily. While we can debate the specifics on a department by department basis, I’d suggest that there is a general consensus around this and unfortunately (although the sooner it changes, the better), HR isn’t typically seen as delivering or contributing to either of these two capabilities in a meaningful way.

    Of course, there are plenty of excellent HR Leaders, Practitioners and Directors, along with numerous HR success stories but given Lucy Adam’s initial generalisation, I’d argue that these two factors go to the heart of many of HR’s more challenging themes and currently unanswered questions.

    >This is a challenge to HR. A challenge to be so valued that an appointment like this is seen as an implausible suggestion. The only people who can change this is us.


  4. Can I play Devil’s advocate?

    I wonder if this tells us something about the qualifications which are normal for HR practicioners? Is there a perception that they are focused on process and transaction rather than participating in the strategic leadership of an organisation? I am not suggesting that the qualifications are lacking but is the perception that they are?

    What are the qualities required to lead a substantial department? Do you need expertise in leadership and the ability to get the most out of the subject matter experts you surround yourself with?

    I do think the appointment gives something to think about and I doubt it will be the last of its kind.

    Just pondering on your comment about the appointment of a Finance Director and the need for them to be financially literate. I seem to recall that someone did a Freedom of Information(FOI) request on what formal qualifications were required to be Chancellor of the Exchequer (for those outside the UK that’s our Finance Minister.) The FOI response was that there was no need for a formal qualification in finance!

    • Play devil’s advocate by all means! You are right – this won’t be the last appointment of its type and it isn’t the first I’ve heard of.

  5. Down to ‘us’ is true but I wonder if fighting the brand HR with its subsequent CIPD undercoat is but a busted flush Gem ? People-centric organisations will require smart people solutions now and in the future, maybe there is a school of thought that indicates that standing in a functional corner is counter intuitive to this march of progress rather than aiding it as I think so many positions are now hardened you won’t convince many of today’s leaders that they need to change their mind. Just a thought but more importantly are Cheese and Adams going to engage in the debate ? Surely that’s why it was put out there in the first instance ?

    • I don’t know if it is a busted flush. Despite the fact that I am sometimes critical on my blog, I still believe in what we do. Or I believe in doing good people stuff just for the sake of it, because it’s the right thing. Like your recent post suggests there is much we should do, could do to look after people. Like fight for a living wage.
      I have tweeted the post to the cipd. Is love to hear their views.

      • Good people like yourself doing good work will outlive the CIPD. That’s just a recognition of the power of people than a professional body’s agenda. That to me should override the labels. Hope that makes sense.

  6. I get the feeling that this is, at least partly, an anachronism. HR seems to be finding its place at the top table. Take it from those of us in Communications who look up to you guys as an example!
    (Although I like the idea of ‘untainted’ Finance Directors)

  7. I wrote a blog post 5 years ago about this topic, “Do you need a HR background to be a successful HR Director” which was inspired by Mary Barra becoming HR Director of General Motors, without a HR background. There was a good debate on this, and then Mary gets promoted to CEO. So maybe a follow up question in 2015 should be, “Do you need a HR background to be a Chief Executive Officer?”

  8. I wrote a blog post 5 years ago about this topic, “Do you need a HR background to be a successful HR Director” which was inspired by Mary Barra becoming HR Director of General Motors, without a HR background. There was a good debate on this, and then Mary gets promoted to CEO. So maybe a follow up question in 2015 should be, “Do you need a HR background to be a Chief Executive Officer?”

  9. An interesting blog and trail of discussion. I have been meaning to engage in this since Gem tweeted it to me and was spurred to do it now having just come from meeting another top HRD new in to the role and first time in HR.
    Some of the wider issues raised such as the future of the profession and isn’t everyone in HR end of the debate are very important and we are calling out this debate with the top of the profession – I do believe incidentally there is a role for the professional body now and in to the future! Professional bodies are part of any profession (whatever you may think of the CIPD and yes I do understand we have to change and improve as well) and in many ways are what helps to define these professions.
    The reality is that HR has to get closer to the business, and on the other side every leader at every level has to get better at the people management and understanding the people and cultural dynamics. Absolutely every top leader should have a real understanding of this stuff which might also mean that as part of their building their own capabilities that they spend time in HR itself. The development of leaders in the past has included moving them around different functions and parts of the business and that is one reason why you do indeed see ‘business’ people coming in to run Marketing, IT etc, so why shouldn’t this be true for HR as well. What we have to work on in this world where the ‘walls’ of traditional HR start to soften (as they should), then what are going to be the real core competencies and capabilities we need and how will this shape the future of the profession (and of course the CIPD).
    We also have to recognise that different businesses need different things at different times. Mostly what I see when someone from outside HR comes in to run it is that there is a big strategic agenda of change across the business (culture, organisation, direction etc) and push from the top and the CEO is looking for someone who is credible right across the business, really understands the business, and can lead the HR team forward with confidence. All of the HRDs I meet in this context usually start by talking about their experience in managing people and teams, leading change etc and that they bring this understanding in (hence I agree with the comments about not hearing the whole story on Lucy’s vignette and if this is what was really said then I think he is missing the point). Of course they will surround themselves with the HR expertise they need and they are usually active in trying to connect to senior HR communities and other forms of learning to up their own understanding.
    Given this line of thinking, then it can also be argued that in these organisations we havnt yet built the top capability and credibility up through the HR function and that is probably also true. So as several have noted, that particular solution is in our hands but I also don’t believe we should act as ‘victims’ of some travesty and recognise that actually there can sometimes be real value in having someone from the outside run HR from a different perspective – just as would be true and has been true in other functions and areas of business.

    • Hi Peter,

      Great post and I think you’re doing a great job in drawing together a lot of the threads inside and outside of the profession which is very encouraging to see.

      Although I wouldn’t take issue with anything you’ve written, I think there’s another interesting nugget. In essence and admittedly playing devil’s advocate, much of what you’ve written was being talked about 20 or more years ago. Clearly the CIPD is moving in a new and positive direction but regarding the profession and function as a whole, it’ll be interesting to see if, where and how a genuine shift in the value contributed by and perception of HR will occur.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Peter. I agree that non HR experience can add value to the HR practitioner. On a personal level I also hold some marketing responsibilities where I work now, and being outside the function, even for a short while, does give you a different perspective and adds to your ability to engage with the wider organisation.
      But I will still always argue that the best person to lead the people stuff, is someone with a HR background. But that’s probably to be expected…,

  10. Hi Gem,

    One or two of your previous respondents have unintentionally hinted at what I think might be going on here. Senior HR positions are highly political roles, and never more so than during the recent financial crisis. Newly appointed Heads of HR in large organisations had to hit the ground running and make it their business to introduce themselves around and find out everything they could about their organisation whilst simultaneously taking great care to get fixed firmly in their heads the current nature and substance of sensitive information regarding job roles, requirements and future plans.
    In such times, as today, senior HR people in medium and large companies must be relied upon for their discretion and be comfortable with the fact that they may be expected to shoulder the foreknowledge of bad news for some considerable time before said news is allowed to be shared (officially). Those brackets are important too because senior HR people are also called upon to have a friendly yet poker-faced demeanour when asked direct questions by people lower down the pay scale who may already have correctly guessed the bad news. Failure in this regard can lead to accidental disclosure, the knock-on effects can destabilise an organisation’s necessary but ‘difficult decisions’ (another common political term).

    Since 2008 particularly, the highly ‘political’ nature of senior HR roles has arguably not been fully catered for by HR qualifications. Internal candidates for such roles may well be blessed with the right bits of paper but not the right persona. If they regularly socialise with colleagues they may even be, bluntly put, regarded as a potential leak risk. External candidates with the right demeanour and lack of prior social connections with the workforce may well be preferred and better trusted to remain ‘on-message’ – about rationalisation rather than redundancy. Perhaps the need for such considerations will lessen, but we shouldn’t count on it.

    Finally and frivolously, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are some workplace roles for which relevant qualifications are not nearly enough. After all this is how government works, no less. Career politicians can be Transport minister one minute, Defence the next, then Foreign Secretary, then Work and Pensions. And definitely the right person for the job on every occasion…

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