The Top Qualities and Characteristics of Great HR Leaders

Don’t be shocked, but Dr. John Sullivan has some strong opinions about what leadership means to HR.

He says he’s frequently asked, “is there a shortage of HR leaders?” and, “what does it take to be a leader in HR?” Here are some of the characteristics he believes are essential for all HR leaders:

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  1. HR must be a leader, not simply a business partner. You have to be out in front and going first, but when you do go first “there’s no manual to read, there’s no book to read, there’s no one to benchmark against … so if you are the first organization doing something, it’s difficult … there’s some risk involved,” he says.
  2. They’ve worked in business. Dr. John points to a University of Michigan study that dug into what causes success in HR, and the No. 1 thing was knowledge of the business. “If you’ve worked in business, you are automatically more credible … your ideas are listened to because you have worked in the trenches with employees.”
  3. Your top goal should be to increase productivity. “Label yourself as a productivity consultant,” Dr. John says. “You should be able to give advice on how to improve productivity (and) take advantage of productivity opportunities.”
  4. You need to be proactive. Seek out problems and opportunities, he says; don’t just wait for things to happen.
  5. You make fact-based decisions. “Instead of just guessing or doing what we did last year … you make decisions based on (the current and relevant) facts,” he says.
  6. You convert your HR results to dollars. “If you’ve retained five people,” Dr. John says, “you can say your turnover rate went down, but what if you said you saved the company millions of dollars?
  7. You innovate and take risks. You are always ready to try new things.
  8. You prioritize and don’t treat everyone the same way. The focus is on what business unit or what jobs are the most important. It’s a narrower approach where only about 20 percent of the work gets a high priority.
  9. You’re metric-oriented. You rely heavily on measures because that’s how you improve.

“What is a great leader?” Dr. John asks. “It’s not a business partner; it’s not someone who is trying to be equal … it’s someone who leads — who leads the business, not just HR … and they produce superior results as a result of that.”

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.