What Does it Take to Succeed in HR?

If you’ve got someone in your business working in HR or responsible for HR, is their work helping you achieve your business goals?

If not, it could be that you haven’t got the right person with the right skills and experience supporting you, or perhaps their job description doesn’t reflect what you really need in your business from HR?

Having spent over 20 years in HR working in start-ups, scale ups and working for some blue chip corporates too like Porsche Cars and Harley-Davidson, I know what it takes to succeed in HR.

I met someone at a recent online HR conference, and we got chatting in one of the breakout sessions. This gentleman started his career as an Aeronautics engineer, moved into Finance, and now works in HR. I asked him about his transition into HR, and I loved his quote:

“I was surprised about how difficult HR is. Designing aeroplanes that won’t fall out of the sky is a lot easier than HR.”

What does to take to succeed in HR?

Over the years I have often had young talent come to me asking for mentoring because they want to work in Human Resources. I love to mentor, but I like to do it for the right reasons! When I ask the person interested in getting into HR why they want to work in HR, more often than not the answer goes something like this: “I love working with people, developing them and helping them”.

To which I usually respond: “If that’s what you want to do then you should work in operations or general management, not in HR.” This is often a shocking response, but it’s an honest one. The misperceptions that HR is a “nice” place to work because we work with people and love all people is pervasive, and often leads to the wrong kind of talent in the HR function.

To be fair, being nice is usually an expectation and requirement to be in HR. It’s hard for most people to imagine their HR partners as not nice people. But I think this is where some people get confused. They see “nice” HR colleagues and leaders, perceive that the role is all about helping people, and mistakenly assume that being a nice person is qualification enough for being in the HR profession and what will make you successful in a role within HR. However, “nice” is only a starting point – it is not nearly enough.

Fair, Not Nice

As I was speaking to a friend and former colleague about this one time, he validated my point by pointing out that in Human Resources “we aren’t in the nice business, we’re in the fair business”. I believe this is a very insightful statement. Let’s consider a few Human Resource key tasks or responsibilities as examples:

Restructuring – Whenever there is an organisational restructure there are winners and losers. Dealing with the people that land on their feet is easy. But in any restructure, there are those that lose their jobs, face demotions, or sometimes end up in a role that they don’t like. These people deserve a respectful and fair process. Nice is just not enough. During my HR career I have been involved in a lot of restructuring projects. There was a time that my husband began calling me “Grim Reaper” because during that time it seemed that I was always leading and executing really difficult restructuring efforts.

I remember one person in particular. A colleague that I knew and liked, but who didn’t have the right experience/capabilities for the revised organisational structure. When I informed him that there was no job for him, he took the paper I tried to give him with key data, crumpled it up, and threw it in my face. It was emotionally very painful, for both of us. I ran into him about a year later while shopping in Tesco’s. He saw me and called my name. I braced myself for what might come, but he was as friendly as could be. He informed me that he now had a great job and thanked me for making it possible for him to be in a position to get that. This is a rare and gratifying experience, as we never get the story of what happens afterwards. Sometimes they don’t always turn out that well. But whatever the case, we need to take satisfaction in treating our colleagues with fairness and dignity.

Recruiting. There are few things as enjoyable as telling somebody they got the job they were really hoping for. Unfortunately, for everybody that gets the job, there are many people who wanted it and didn’t get it. It’s not so fun to make those calls or have those meetings with people who have applied for a role internally and either lost out to a colleague or an external applicant. But we do it, and we make sure that we can take about a fair process and provide those that have been unsuccessful with full feedback that will hopefully help them for the next time they apply for a role.

Compensation is about paying people what the job is worth, not what they want. This often causes disagreement and friction. HR professionals must learn to explain facts and market data not only to employees at all levels, but also often to their managers or the leadership teams who feel they should just be able to pay more – “because we need to keep them”. Sometimes we get to give great news in this regard, but more often than not, we have to find ways to keep integrity and a robustness in the compensation structure.

Talent management is about differentiating top talent and investing in them disproportionally. Delivering that news to the selected individuals can certainly be enjoyable. But for every top talent decision made, there are many who are not selected to go into this pool, and we have to explain why we have earmarked others. Learning & Development should be about giving people the training they need, not what they want.

Employee relations is about ensuring we have a consistent and fair work environment, not to make everybody happy with their circumstances.

Culture is about creating a great and/or effective working environment, not necessarily a nice environment. Great and nice aren’t synonyms.

With just these few examples, it’s not hard to see that the common perceptions that HR is an easy place to work, nice, or fun, are completely misguided!  Of course, it can be fun. But when done well, it’s difficult and challenging work, but also incredibly rewarding.

What does it take to succeed in HR?

Empathy is Key

I believe that what HR professionals really need is not niceness, but empathy and emotional intelligence. That is, understanding and considering how people feel. We must do the work, sometimes tough work, that the business needs. Doing so with empathy, and helping other leaders and managers to have empathy, makes such a difference. As a function, we are often expected to give difficult news and feedback or help and coach other leaders or managers to give such feedback. It is always better to give it in an empathetic way and is likely to be better received far better when delivered in this way.


As HR professionals we have to keep our work balanced if we want to maintain sanity! Balance in life is critical, otherwise it can become overwhelming and tempting to slide into nice for nice sake in order avoid some of the tough work, which is not what the business needs. It’s important to take a breath sometimes and keep it all in perspective.

I love my job, not because it’s “nice”, but because I love to see the businesses we work with grow and succeed through their people.  It is strategic, but it is also an art that must be practiced daily to be truly good at it. Helping and watching people grow is great. But helping and watching the company grow through its people is even more important and more fulfilling.

So, if you have an HR person or someone responsible for HR in your business, then take note of what’s really required for success and make sure you are developing them and giving them the support they need to become a great HR professional! If you don’t have the time or the skills to develop your HR person, then why not let them join our HR Influencers Club, and we’ll make sure they’ve got the knowledge and support to become a great HR professional. Take a look at the HR Influencers Club

If you have a great HR person in your business, the last 12 months have been incredibly tough, so please make sure you go and thank them and show your appreciation for them and what they do for your business.

If you need to get HR right for your business, then why not book a call with me and we can have a chat about how the right HR support could benefit your business; Book a Call with Emma Browning