The New Norm in Global HR Competencies

Andrew Hazelton, Thomas Mielke | GENERAL COMMENTARY, HR STRATEGY


The competency profile of professionals in Human Resources (HR) roles has always been a moving target. Consider the various names the function has taken over the decades – staffing, personnel, human resources, and more recently, more creative monikers like ‘people and culture’ to ‘human capital managers’ and ‘talent resources’. These changing names typically reflect the changing market or business conditions impacting organizations.

For example, unions formed in the mid-19th century in response to social and economic effects of the industrial revolution, which subsequently motivated businesses to think and act beyond simply hiring and firing in order to consider the broader and more complex issues of managing both labour pipeline and relations. As the “war for talent” blossomed in the 1980s and became fierce from the 1990s onward, companies often faced a job-seekers’ market and found themselves needing to “sell” themselves and the opportunities they offered to the marketplace of workers. As a result, many forward-thinking organizations invested in specialists to help build engagement via learning and development programs, as well as working with organizational leadership to maximize effectiveness.


Despite the occasional advances, HR has been traditionally perceived and treated as an administrative cost centre versus a strategic profit centre – sadly a trend that has continued in recent times. Indeed, even Wikipedia defines a human resources department in this day and age as, “overseeing various aspects of employment, such as compliance with labour law and employment standards, administration of employee benefits, and some aspects of recruitment and dismissal.” Up to about five years ago that characterization, at least in the hospitality industry, was perhaps justified by independent psychometric profiling of HR pros across their Execution, People, and Cognitive skills. In particular, Aethos’ prior global testing of HR leaders (conducted 2011, n = 1,000) using the 20|20 Skills™ assessment showed that most profiled as “Motivators” – those especially effective in general people skills and motivating team work with a focus on producing tangible outcomes. Of course, missing from that equation was the Cognitive skills element, given that often HR often did not exhibit or rely on its own decision-making but rather conformed to the directives, rules, and regulations set by senior management or government requirements.

Of course, that prior equation is changing too. Organizations are facing increased consolidation and culture merges, competency issues, as well as evolving employee expectations. HR pros are increasingly becoming to be seen as subject matter experts in the care and feeding of organizational culture and as a result their job descriptions have graduated from administrative levels to strategic ones to include responsibilities such as:

  • Competency modelling, bench-strength, organizational structure and retention
  • Proactive talent pipeline and succession planning for leadership roles
  • Team member engagement and culture branding to external audiences
  • Learning, development, mentorship, coaching programs within and across functions
  • Facilitation of IT and other technology to streamline all of the above

Current psychometric studies support the idea that today’s HR leaders need to function less as “Motivators” and more as “Achievers” – those endowed with strong Cognitive ability along with Execution and People skills. Cognitive ability is more than being “book smart” and involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas and learn quickly). It is a competency that all modern leaders (notably C-suite) exhibit, and its especially pertinent in today’s market which is dominated by dynamically changing variables and substantial ambiguity.

Aethos™ has recently profiled more than a 1,200 HR leaders from around the world. Figure I gives their scores (scaled 0-100, mean of 75) across ten core competencies that independent studies validate as significant predictors of performance in the service-hospitality industry. The graph surprisingly indicates that modern HR pros look increasingly like CEOs and decreasingly like their peer set from five years ago. In particular, 20|20 Skills psychometric testing reveals that today’s HR industry leaders are adept generalists across Execution, People and Cognitive skills, with particular strengths in Cognitive ability and process-orientation. Indeed, HR leaders have become – or perhaps finally have freedom to act as – balanced and independent thinkers and problem-solvers. Rather than administrative tacticians, this is the profile of organized, measured, confident leaders with the mental acumen to contribute meaningfully to strategic business discussions.


As long as business conditions remain in constant flux, involve lingering ambiguities and present new complexities that require right- and left- brain thinking from HR, it seems unlikely the new competency profile for HR pros presented here will change dramatically. If anything, we predict that both the Problem-Solving and Creativity aspects of Cognitive skills will only increase in order to meet the challenges and opportunities yet to hit the industry. Therefore, we strongly recommend that organizations screen and select candidates for HR leadership roles, in part, with tools or processes that test for balanced and effective competencies in critical-analytical thinking and strategic-big-picture orientation. The idea is to identify individuals who are effective general problem-solvers, as opposed to merely subject matter experts.

This all ties to the foremost topic that seems to dominate conversations and presentations at industry conferences, i.e., the idea of trying to identify the most likely industry disruptors coming to the industry and how businesses should best prepare to navigate them from business and leadership perspectives. Since it is impossible to predict confidently specific changes or challenges, it is more important to identify and add to an organization’s talent base those individuals who can effectively and efficiently deal with dynamic and uncertain variables and forces, regardless of origin. This translates to high levels of tolerance of ambiguity, grit-resilience, emotional intelligence, behavioural integrity, and as shown in the graph, both balanced and high levels of general cognitive ability.

Perhaps this new norm in global HR competencies is not so surprisingly after all. Ultimately, organizations need HR leaders who think and act like business owners and apply their subject matter expertise systemically or cross-functionally, as the behind-the-scenes dynamics and corporate cultures are more open, transparent, and indeed public in a social media sense than ever before (think Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.). HR expertise offers significant value to inform other functions from sales and marketing/PR to Boards of Directors and the senior-most leadership who set strategic direction for the company. The new competency norm understandably follows from new business norms. Who knows what new names for HR will be introduced in the decades ahead, but given the changes we have seen, HR leaders in our view fundamentally add enterprise value by serving individuals and teams within organizations as “cultural strategists”.