How Is the Role of HR Deepening? We Spoke With Anna Penfold, Global HR Practice Lead at Russell Reynolds Associates 

The past few years have dealt successive challenges for companies to navigate: from Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic to the ongoing cost of living crisis. Just as we get our heads above water, another wave hits. HR has been central to the business response to every challenge. So how has this affected the role of the HR leader and how are companies responding? To find out more, our CEO Annastiina Hintsa sat down with Anna Penfold to discuss the issues.

Having collaborated with Anna on a series of recent joint events, I was thrilled to be able to talk with her in more detail about what she’s seeing in her role as HR lead at Russell Reynolds Associates. I asked her about changing HR roles, pressures and innovations, and the skills and characteristics she looks for in a talent leader. 

Companies have faced multiple crises over recent years and HR has been at the centre of their response. What does this look like from the HR talent perspective? 

That’s a fascinating question. I think if you’re sitting in the middle of an organisation, with an HR hat on it must be because you enjoy the adrenaline! Of course, we’re always going to need processes and guidelines, with governance underpinning everything, but I think the role has become broader, more complex, and because of that, less easy to define. But all of these things lead to it being much more interesting and important for organisations than it used to be. In fact, I think there’s never been a better or more important time to be an HR leader. 

There’s been a lot of talk about the relative importance of HR roles for a long time now, but what are you seeing? 

I’m delighted to say that the whole “Are we at the table? Are we not at the table?” is just an irrelevance now. There is no question about whether this is an important role for businesses anymore. I’m in the wonderfully lucky and privileged situation where I get to work with organisations day in day out, to help them recruit, develop, assess and retain their HR leaders.

In pre-Covid times, I would spend a lot more of my typical day talking to CEOs and executive committees about why it was important to have a strong HR leader. Now the discussion is about what type of HR leader you need; what’s the business context; what are you looking to a leader to drive through in this space? Context is key. 

You mentioned that the role is more interesting now, and more important within a company. Can you explain how you’ve seen the role evolve? 

What’s different now is the perpetual state of challenge. We’re in an era where we need to have the dots joined up between how an organisation looks and feels on the outside compared to how it looks and feels on the inside. So the role of ‘the people person’ is not just focused on talent but increasingly on employee engagement, culture, rewards and retention – there are so many multifaceted elements. People, place, purpose; all of these now intertwine. 

I like your notion of there being no question about HR leaders having a seat at the table. But what skills do they need to make their voices heard there? 

The skills range from measuring very financially driven metrics around how much we are going to pay people or what’s the ideal pay increase – so pretty hard and fast numbers – all the way through to what’s the purpose of the organisation and how does that flow through to how people feel, which with today’s improved HRIS [human resources information systems] you can start to measure. 

The notion of bringing a group of business leaders to a table to talk about how they and their employees feel is a relatively new topic to have front and centre on the business agenda. But we all know that what gets measured gets done. And ultimately, if your employees are also your consumers, and have a point of view that they’re voicing, all of those dots need to be joined up. 

You are there to support the organisation, challenge the organisation, and in particular, to influence the direction; you need to be able to do that around the executive committee table, both as a group and then one on one. So when we measure leadership capability in great HR leaders, we’re looking for the broadest and most deft set of influencing skills. This might be one on one with a difficult stakeholder who has an entrenched point of view, or with the CFO, or sitting across the table with a union representative. But it’s just as likely to be being able to listen to teams, being able to speak on stage and being able to engage with multiple employee groups simultaneously and authentically. 

Can you identify one critical skill or trait that you look for? 

I think that authenticity is the critical word for me. It’s a massively overused word, but incredibly important to people. People can call out BS very quickly. And I think it’s incumbent in particular on the CPO [Chief People Officer] or the CHRO [Chief Human Resources Officer] to be that voice of integrity and authenticity, reflecting the organisation. In essence, you are the voice, the temperature taker or pulse checker and cultural ambassador of the organisation. 

There’s a lot on the HR plate at the moment, not least the potential effects of AI. Some HR leaders may even have teams working in war zones. But one key message that we’re hearing is that people are being asked to do more with less. Can you share any kind of creative ideas that might help? 

I’ve seen a couple of patterns emerging. One is around acknowledging that initiatives might need to be piloted first, with a move towards having more of a consulting model in the organisation. This could be staffed with clever, curious people from across the organisation who can do a deep-dive diagnosis to test something out – almost a greenhouse type concept. If you have a group of high potentials, why not get them to do the work on a change programme, which then improves their engagement, improves the inclusion and the buy-in? It’s a change in the organisational maturity curve that I’ve noticed – an increasing understanding of how to harness and retain great, high-potential individuals at whatever level. 

There’s also the acceptance of the need for a more agile way of working – something we saw quite a lot of during Covid times. It’s the notion that you might be in peak or in trough recruitment mode, but if you’ve got bright, engaged people, you don’t necessarily need to move them out of the organisation – you could redeploy them. One idea I’ve seen from a couple of big organisations that we work with is the creation of a much smarter internal jobs board, which involves being overt about the skills that you need, or you would like to build, or that you bring. 

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Before this interview today we were talking with other HR leaders in a joint event about organisational, team and individual resilience. The shifting HR role, and new skills required, are underpinned by sustainable human performance. HR have been there to support others. But who’s supporting the HR team? 

I think we’ve seen more of a coaching culture developing – there are individuals out there who specifically support HR leaders, whether that be with technical knowledge or as a coach and sounding board and mentor. There are organisations growing up specifically to support HR, because as Boards are more focused on people topics, we recognise how important HR leaders are to purpose and profit.

I’m sure that if we look at the sort of stress and resilience levels needed for roles around the C suite, I would very happily bet that the HR leader is among those at the top. And looking at things with a Hintsa mindset, building your rest time and your downtime is important as well. 

Leading on from that idea of self-awareness, another interesting idea that’s surfaced in our events is the notion of the HR community – who better to understand what you’re dealing with than another HR leader. Does that resonate with you? 

Yes, I think it’s a very lonely role being an HR leader. The closer to the top of the organisation you are, clearly the more accountability and responsibility you feel. But I think as an HR leader, in particular, you’re responsible for the people fabric of the organisation – and so the coach, confidant and counsel for many.

Recently I’ve been bringing together and facilitating groups of talent leaders, the point being to provide a sort of group therapy. Ultimately, they’ve been supporting each other, maybe coming up with new ideas and innovation, or often just being sounding boards and listening, because that’s incredibly important. 

Looking forward, what do you see as the future focus of the HR leader? 

We always used to talk about HR as being tea and sympathy or about process. Ultimately, you still need to be able to put in good governance guidelines in place and be empathetic. But the key is what do you do with the output of the processes that are driving your business forward, and with the output of the listening that will make a difference to your business. 

So, I think HR leaders will increasingly be focused on the very tricky balance between purpose and ethics and profit. Research is telling us that people look to others for a value-based direction. Computers can’t give us that. I think it’s incumbent on leaders, and particularly the people leader, to be able to provide a sense of direction and articulate what that means.

Thank you Anna for having a chat with us! Read more about Russell Reynolds Associates’ work on their website.