Leadership Skills for a Career in Human Resources

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Taking a career in human resources to the next level involves the conscious development of a set of skills that many people do not think about. That's why HR leaders stand out - they possess certain personal qualities that seem natural, but can also be developed with focus and training.

To excel in a career in human resources, you need to hone your leadership qualities and skills. For example, analytical skills are useful for selecting and developing employee benefit plans, and communication and conflict management skills are essential for managing a team and dealing with all kinds of employee and workplace issues.

If you're looking for a leadership role in your HR career, you'll find a range of positions, many with opportunities for advancement.

Why effective leadership skills are essential in HR

The human resources manager is an essential link between management and employees. A good HR professional is able to resolve difficult situations and consult with managers on employee issues. They manage an organisation's recruitment, interviewing, selection and hiring processes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Some human resources career managers oversee the overall human resources functions of the company, establishing compensation and benefits plans and directing training and development.

Large companies have compensation and HR managers in benefits, who plan, develop and oversee employee compensation programs, according to the BLS. In 2018, people in this role earned a median salary of $121,010.

HR managers in training and development supervise staff and plan and coordinate programs to improve the knowledge and skills of an organization's employees, according to the BLS. In 2018, individuals in this position earned a median salary of $111,340.

While strong analytical skills, management ability and program coordination are important, people who excel in human resources careers also have top-notch soft skills, such as the ability to listen and offer empathy to employees who might be difficult to manage.

Leadership skills for a career in human resources

So what are the most important specific skills you will need as a human resources manager?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, human resources skills include these five effective leadership skills that contribute to success:

Decision-making skills. Because a human resources manager's decisions have a significant impact on many people, the ability to balance the strengths and weaknesses of different options is a key skill in a human resources career. For example, hiring and firing decisions can have an impact on many people in an organisation.
Interpersonal skills. First-rate interpersonal skills are an important asset in a career in human resources. Working as part of a management team is more effective when the human resources manager has a positive working relationship with colleagues.
Leadership skills. Human resources managers oversee the operations of their departments and often coordinate their activities with others in management positions.
Organisational skills. Human resources managers must be able to manage several projects at once and prioritise tasks.
Speaking skills. Human resource managers need to communicate clearly with their staff and other employees. They must have strong public speaking skills to make presentations, communicate with leaders at all levels and lead their staff.
Empathy is a key skill in human resources

In addition to leadership, organisational and communication skills, soft skills such as empathy are essential for success, writes Mary Juetten in Forbes. A human resources manager must be willing and able to understand employees. This often requires personal empathy beyond the workplace.

Personal empathy enhances leadership qualities in human resources careers because it helps HR professionals to help employees who are facing personal crises. These crises can occur when an employee is dealing with a death in the family or when they find themselves in a difficult work situation. Juetten writes:

"The greatest empathy we can show is to offer others both our support in their personal problems, and the space to deal with these issues if necessary... Everyone, regardless of profession, wants to be understood and appreciated as a human, and as humans we will all face difficult circumstances with ourselves and our families."

She points out that empathy is one of the most important HR leadership qualities when dealing with a difficult or hard-to-like employee. Putting yourself in their shoes can turn such situations around. For example, imagine that there have been complaints about a difficult personality in the office. It may turn out that this person is going through something in their personal life that has contributed to off-putting behaviour. Empathy is a crucial skill at this point," writes Juetten. When we understand another person's perspective and pain, it is possible to avoid firing someone who is, at heart, a valuable asset.

An effective human resources manager demonstrates the importance of empathy and other soft skills to other managers in the company.

Emotional intelligence is a key HR skill

A 2018 study by Harvard Business Review (HBR) Analytical Services highlights the importance of transforming corporate culture through emotional intelligence (EI). In the report, The EI Advantage: Driving Innovation and Business Success through the Power of Emotional Intelligence, HBR defines EI as a combination of self-awareness, self-control, empathy and social skills.

To create the EI Advantage report, HBR surveyed 599 people, all of whom work in companies with more than 250 employees. Of these, 34% were senior managers and 19% were executives or board members. The functions represented by the respondents included 13% operations and 10% HR and training. The overall conclusion is that while most companies talk about the importance of EI, few feel that it is fully implemented in the culture.

  • Only 18% of respondents strongly agree that their organisation has integrated EI into its culture
  • 37% versus 8% of emotionally intelligent companies report significantly stronger customer experiences and higher levels of customer loyalty (40% versus 12%) and customer advocacy (31% versus 8%)
  • 64% of emotionally intelligent companies have high levels of accountability and risk tolerance
  • Almost 70% of companies measure employee satisfaction. Only 10% assess EI skills on a company-wide basis

Human resource managers have an advantage when EI is understood and integrated into the work culture. Far from being a nice-to-have skill, the soft skill of EI is essential in the modern work environment. When decisions need to be made quickly, there is not always time to wait for communication from above. Team members often have to work together to solve problems and find their own solutions. This means that the mastery of interpersonal skills must be modelled at senior levels and implemented throughout the organisation at all levels.

Tom Starner writes about the results of this study in Human Resource Executive, saying that the overall results illuminate the values often demonstrated in human resource careers: employees want more attention to EI because it makes their jobs easier, but sometimes senior management is slow to adopt EI practices.

Emotional intelligence gives a career in human resources lasting power

Martha Finney writes in Human Resources Executive that many HR managers struggle to maintain their own internal emotional balance when they are frequently faced with difficult emotional situations. Drama in a company may start elsewhere, but it inevitably ends up in HR, and the HR manager needs to have the emotional resources to help resolve conflicts, workplace maladjustments and other situations.

She cites several executives who have experience of staying involved in HR management. As Ed Martin, former vice president of learning for Pandora Internet Radio, advises, "Know when you're getting cynical and find a way to breathe a little."

Another anchor for HR leaders who want to maintain emotional balance is to understand your own and your company's ethical standards, and stick to them.

Not only is EI an important leadership quality, but it also contributes to the clarity of ethical standards and the ability of HR leaders to communicate with others throughout the organisation.

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Ethical standards and clear communication are ranked highest

Human resource managers need to communicate clearly with groups and individuals during a company's transition. This is especially true when the changes have a significant impact on workers.

Sunnie Giles writes in HBR that when she asked 195 global companies to rate 74 leadership qualities, 67% ranked 'high ethical standards' as the top quality of effective leadership and 56% ranked 'communicating clear expectations' as the top quality.

Giles writes that her findings have a direct effect on employees, as it is about creating a safe and trusting environment. Human resource managers with high ethical standards show employees that they are committed to fairness. Communication is also a key skill, because when an HR manager clearly communicates expectations, employees feel safe because they know what to expect. "In a safe environment, employees can relax, invoking the brain's superior capacity for social engagement, innovation, creativity and ambition."

Leaders in a human resources career can create a work environment that allows people to feel safe at a deep level. "This skill is about behaving in a way that is consistent with your values. If you find yourself making decisions that feel at odds with your principles or justifying actions despite a nagging sense of discomfort, you probably need to reconnect with your core values."

Giles' study also found that strong leaders :

Empower others to self-organise: While leaders believe their decision-making and leadership skills are essential to a business, sometimes empowering people in the company allows them to be more productive and proactive. In turn, job satisfaction and commitment to the company often increases.

Fostering a sense of connection and belonging: Leaders are sometimes distant from the people they manage, but Giles concluded from his study that leaders need to connect with the people they manage. Friendly behaviour, such as smiling, calling people by name and remembering details about them, can be very helpful.

Be open to new ideas and encourage organisational learning: Leaders are most effective when they are open to changes of opinion and new ideas, and create an environment that encourages trial and error. Leaders must first ensure that they are open to change and ideas before encouraging the same in the individuals and teams they lead.

Human resource leadership qualities include cultural fluency

In today's workplace, effective human resource skills must include working with people from diverse backgrounds in the United States and, potentially, globally. A study entitled "Two Key Success Factors for Global Project Team Leadership: Communications and Human Resource Management" highlights cultural fluency as a key human resource management skill. Technology and the Internet have made it easy to work with colleagues and employees around the world, adding new dimensions to leadership and teamwork.

International teams face a different set of challenges to those in the same location, including bridging cultural differences, adapting to time zones and mastering effective communication between people whose primary language may be different. "It is important to establish easy communication, understand the technology and training required, and create standards and expectations for international team members," the study concludes.

Human resource managers need to understand and be sensitive to cultural differences and be able to help an international workforce work together seamlessly. Intercultural communication is a critical leadership skill in today's global marketplace. It is important to avoid cultural misunderstandings that can disrupt the workplace.

You can learn more about human resource management on our blog.

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