Recruiters reveal what it takes to reach the top in HR


The country’s top recruiters give their views on what really makes an HR professional stand out from the crowd.

Is it getting easier to fill senior HR roles?

Andrew Brushfield (Director, Robert Half, Victoria & Western Australia): No, it’s not getting easier, because HR plays such an important role in the strategy of the company. Senior roles have a big impact on the culture of the team.

David Owens (Managing Director HR Partners & Randstad Company): It’s never been easy, because CEOs are looking for the best fit, and people with the best competencies, and it will always be a challenge to find them.

Eliza Kirkby (Regional Director, Hays Human Resources): There’s been no change over the past few years. Our client base is very specific in what they’re looking for. It’s not just about technical skills and experience (and these are less tangible for senior HR), but about cultural fit.

Ryan Webster (Manager, National Executive Staffing Service, Chandler McLeod): We are seeing an increase in the volume of applications, especially in the public sector. There are some high-quality candidates in this space at the moment. One recent role attracted 75 applicants, with a mix of government and commercial experience (we usually attract around 40 applicants for a senior role).

Clare Johnson (Associate Director, Michael Page): It’s long been an employers’ market, and employers who are very particular about what they want, but that’s changing. Good candidates can now be getting more than one job offer.

Clare Williams (Managing Consultant, Human Resources Hudson): The market at the senior end is candidate heavy – there are a lot of people with the experience. But it’s getting harder to identify candidates that are aligned to a company’s culture, fit the CEO’s style and meet with their expectations, and are at the right level in terms of their career, and what the organisation is looking for.

Sinead Hourigan (Queensland Director Robert Walters): The biggest factor is that clients are now more open to a diverse range of candidates, as HR skills are seen as transferable across industries. As such, there is a wide range of candidates available, however it will always be a challenge to source top talent.

What are CEOs really looking for in an HR leader?

Owens: CEOs always want an HR leader who is a business partner, someone who understands the drivers of the business. CEOs now typically do strategic HR as part of their MBA – and if they don’t, their peers will.

Williams: Someone commercially minded who can support them in achieving business objectives through their people, rather than it being seen as an admin-heavy, control-style function.

Hourigan: Someone who can translate strategy into culture, a true ‘business enabler’. A person who can provide insights, who can offer unwelcome advice with clarity, and someone who really embraces technology to engineer efficiencies in the functional delivery of services. But, above all, someone who can attract and manage talent for the business.

Kirkby: We did some research, interviewing 461 HR directors, asking what their CEO required of them. Overwhelmingly, they said someone with strong stakeholder engagement skills, commercial acumen and also strategic planning skills.

Johnson: They are looking for exposure to a commercial environment – someone with a business mentality first and an HR one second.

Why don’t we see more HR leaders becoming CEOs?

Johnson: Financial know-how has been seen as essential to being a CEO and, traditionally, HR hasn’t been seen to excel in that area. But modern HR people are starting to have that financial background. HR is now seen more as a key business partner, rather than a cost centre.

Brushfield: CEOs have to be across everything, and although HR leaders today have a broader involvement across the organisation than before, typically the finance/strategic and commercial disciplines are seen as more relevant skill sets than the skills that HR directors have.

Kirkby: HR is becoming increasingly viewed as a commercial function (in addition to a ‘people’ function) and I believe this will lead to an increase in HR leaders becoming CEOs over the next decade. HR directors are playing a more commercial and critical role within a business.

Hourigan: This is coming, and is already happening in the US and UK. Five to 10 years ago, HR had not always been given a seat at the leadership table, but now it’s unusual not to have HR at the table. So, inevitably, we will see more HR leaders becoming CEOs as their worth and value become more recognised.

Webster: It’s changing. A client employed an HR leader, but within three months, that person took responsibility for the whole of the corporate functions in the business. We’re seeing more openness to bringing HR into more executive roles. But it will take time.

Does having a profile – whether through speaking at conferences or being active on social media – help advance your HR career?

Brushfield: Yes it does. It might open doors that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. But building a reputation isn’t a substitute for skills and experience.

Owens: It depends what you say! Australian HR people have always been interested in best practice and sharing what works. My advice is, share good stuff, but avoid over-exposure.

Webster: It helps advance anyone’s career at that level. Recruitment panels often look to involve an industry expert, and having a high profile helps this, helps spread the word that you know what you’re talking about.

Williams: It will get you out there in the market, if you’re looking for an opportunity. But what impacts more is the legacy that you leave behind in your previous organisation. The HR professionals who are well known in the Sydney market are those who have added a lot of value in their past roles.

What role does coaching and mentoring play in HR career advancement?

Brushfield: For senior HR roles in bigger organisations and big teams – well, you wouldn’t get these roles if you couldn’t coach and mentor people. It’s also vital to get coaching and mentoring yourself.

Williams: You should have a coach or mentor at any level. HR professionals that don’t continuously evolve in what is a rapidly evolving world are finding their skills quickly becoming outdated.

Owens: Targeted mentoring and coaching is very valuable and is a good way to build skills, reputation and networks.

Kirkby: Thirty-one per cent of HR directors that we spoke to had mentors, and some had several, accessing particular mentors for particular problems.

HR is overwhelmingly female, but are women moving into the top jobs?

Hourigan: This is changing. It’s been a challenge for women to ‘get to the table’, as there’s less flexibility at the top level. Also, CEOs can sometimes recruit in their own likeness which can impact on decision making when considering female talent for the top job.

Kirkby: In the research that we conducted at Hays, 64 per cent of senior HR interviewees were female.

Williams: Sadly, HR is still not the best at adopting flexible working practices into their own function. This is changing slowly, and there are certain HR positions where it’s possible to operate in flexible working arrangements. But once you start aiming for that senior level, there’s a higher expectation of that person’s time and dedication, and those potential female leaders may be opting out. This is mainly driven by the CEO.

Webster: We have seen a change in the number of females appointed to senior HR roles in recent years. At a number of our public and private sector clients, senior HR are majority female. In the last year, we’ve placed 60 per cent female in senior HR positions. It’s not just about clients wanting to increase diversity – they were the strongest candidates.

Johnson: There is a perception that men dominate senior jobs in HR, but it depends on the industry. In manufacturing, even lower level HR positions are largely male. But over the past 12 months, 70 per cent of the people we placed in senior HR roles were women.

Is it necessary for HR to be professionally certified and, if so, why?

Brushfield: Certification is a good thing for the profession, assuming that the criteria to achieve it is connected to study and experience. It enhances the reputation of HR and provides AHRI members with a community in which to share best practice.

Johnson: Yes, HR certification is a great thing for the profession and is well overdue. Having recruited for HR in the UK, I know that a CIPD qualification was paramount for career progression. It is definitely a progressive step forward for HR in Australia, to have a strong development path to follow and a foundation of best practice, as in other professions.

Williams: The need for HR to truly influence business performance and success continues, yet it seems that a high percentage of the HR professionals steering these changes across Australia are not fully educated in how to do this effectively. I am a huge advocate for AHRI professional certification. It doesn’t matter what level you are, or how much experience you have, you should continue to develop skills and knowledge so that you can continue to improve the business you are working with.

Owens: I think certification of HR professionals is a very good thing. It’s good to have a documented standard for technical competence. We live in a highly credentialled world which expects certainty and accepts advice from those with proven skill sets. Law, engineering and medicine have formal standards and HR can have them too.

Discover the best HR certification pathway for you with the AHRI Certification Pathfinder or visit ahri.com.au/hr-certification

What is the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring HR director?

Johnson: Keep current, keep across the trends. Be on top of best practice, and not just in the industry that you’re in.

Kirkby: Develop the key skills that CEOs are looking for. You’ve not going to be effective if you’re in an HR bubble – you need to understand the wider business. In the next five years, managing and designing organisational change will be a key component of HR leadership.

Brushfield: Surround yourself with good people who will challenge you – both inside and outside the organisation. Ensure you stay up to speed from a qualifications perspective. But ultimately, it’s about being able to add value, from the strategic and leadership perspective.

Owens: Be ambitious. I’m a huge believer in having a strong sense of purpose and knowing where you want to go.

Webster: Always be open to opportunity, and to expanding your network – and not just in your own industry. Be willing to consider alternative ideas and other industries, whose ideas can be tweaked to suit you.

Williams: Don’t become complacent, and always be looking for new experiences and exposure, because 20 years’ experience in one role doesn’t mean that you could automatically slot into any organisation.

Hourigan: Always look at the return on investment. HR professionals need to be able to demonstrate that they have commercial value to add to the business, not just in the HR division but across the organisation.

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Recruiters reveal what it takes to reach the top in HR


The country’s top recruiters give their views on what really makes an HR professional stand out from the crowd.

Is it getting easier to fill senior HR roles?

Andrew Brushfield (Director, Robert Half, Victoria & Western Australia): No, it’s not getting easier, because HR plays such an important role in the strategy of the company. Senior roles have a big impact on the culture of the team.

David Owens (Managing Director HR Partners & Randstad Company): It’s never been easy, because CEOs are looking for the best fit, and people with the best competencies, and it will always be a challenge to find them.

Eliza Kirkby (Regional Director, Hays Human Resources): There’s been no change over the past few years. Our client base is very specific in what they’re looking for. It’s not just about technical skills and experience (and these are less tangible for senior HR), but about cultural fit.

Ryan Webster (Manager, National Executive Staffing Service, Chandler McLeod): We are seeing an increase in the volume of applications, especially in the public sector. There are some high-quality candidates in this space at the moment. One recent role attracted 75 applicants, with a mix of government and commercial experience (we usually attract around 40 applicants for a senior role).

Clare Johnson (Associate Director, Michael Page): It’s long been an employers’ market, and employers who are very particular about what they want, but that’s changing. Good candidates can now be getting more than one job offer.

Clare Williams (Managing Consultant, Human Resources Hudson): The market at the senior end is candidate heavy – there are a lot of people with the experience. But it’s getting harder to identify candidates that are aligned to a company’s culture, fit the CEO’s style and meet with their expectations, and are at the right level in terms of their career, and what the organisation is looking for.

Sinead Hourigan (Queensland Director Robert Walters): The biggest factor is that clients are now more open to a diverse range of candidates, as HR skills are seen as transferable across industries. As such, there is a wide range of candidates available, however it will always be a challenge to source top talent.

What are CEOs really looking for in an HR leader?

Owens: CEOs always want an HR leader who is a business partner, someone who understands the drivers of the business. CEOs now typically do strategic HR as part of their MBA – and if they don’t, their peers will.

Williams: Someone commercially minded who can support them in achieving business objectives through their people, rather than it being seen as an admin-heavy, control-style function.

Hourigan: Someone who can translate strategy into culture, a true ‘business enabler’. A person who can provide insights, who can offer unwelcome advice with clarity, and someone who really embraces technology to engineer efficiencies in the functional delivery of services. But, above all, someone who can attract and manage talent for the business.

Kirkby: We did some research, interviewing 461 HR directors, asking what their CEO required of them. Overwhelmingly, they said someone with strong stakeholder engagement skills, commercial acumen and also strategic planning skills.

Johnson: They are looking for exposure to a commercial environment – someone with a business mentality first and an HR one second.

Why don’t we see more HR leaders becoming CEOs?

Johnson: Financial know-how has been seen as essential to being a CEO and, traditionally, HR hasn’t been seen to excel in that area. But modern HR people are starting to have that financial background. HR is now seen more as a key business partner, rather than a cost centre.

Brushfield: CEOs have to be across everything, and although HR leaders today have a broader involvement across the organisation than before, typically the finance/strategic and commercial disciplines are seen as more relevant skill sets than the skills that HR directors have.

Kirkby: HR is becoming increasingly viewed as a commercial function (in addition to a ‘people’ function) and I believe this will lead to an increase in HR leaders becoming CEOs over the next decade. HR directors are playing a more commercial and critical role within a business.

Hourigan: This is coming, and is already happening in the US and UK. Five to 10 years ago, HR had not always been given a seat at the leadership table, but now it’s unusual not to have HR at the table. So, inevitably, we will see more HR leaders becoming CEOs as their worth and value become more recognised.

Webster: It’s changing. A client employed an HR leader, but within three months, that person took responsibility for the whole of the corporate functions in the business. We’re seeing more openness to bringing HR into more executive roles. But it will take time.

Does having a profile – whether through speaking at conferences or being active on social media – help advance your HR career?

Brushfield: Yes it does. It might open doors that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. But building a reputation isn’t a substitute for skills and experience.

Owens: It depends what you say! Australian HR people have always been interested in best practice and sharing what works. My advice is, share good stuff, but avoid over-exposure.

Webster: It helps advance anyone’s career at that level. Recruitment panels often look to involve an industry expert, and having a high profile helps this, helps spread the word that you know what you’re talking about.

Williams: It will get you out there in the market, if you’re looking for an opportunity. But what impacts more is the legacy that you leave behind in your previous organisation. The HR professionals who are well known in the Sydney market are those who have added a lot of value in their past roles.

What role does coaching and mentoring play in HR career advancement?

Brushfield: For senior HR roles in bigger organisations and big teams – well, you wouldn’t get these roles if you couldn’t coach and mentor people. It’s also vital to get coaching and mentoring yourself.

Williams: You should have a coach or mentor at any level. HR professionals that don’t continuously evolve in what is a rapidly evolving world are finding their skills quickly becoming outdated.

Owens: Targeted mentoring and coaching is very valuable and is a good way to build skills, reputation and networks.

Kirkby: Thirty-one per cent of HR directors that we spoke to had mentors, and some had several, accessing particular mentors for particular problems.

HR is overwhelmingly female, but are women moving into the top jobs?

Hourigan: This is changing. It’s been a challenge for women to ‘get to the table’, as there’s less flexibility at the top level. Also, CEOs can sometimes recruit in their own likeness which can impact on decision making when considering female talent for the top job.

Kirkby: In the research that we conducted at Hays, 64 per cent of senior HR interviewees were female.

Williams: Sadly, HR is still not the best at adopting flexible working practices into their own function. This is changing slowly, and there are certain HR positions where it’s possible to operate in flexible working arrangements. But once you start aiming for that senior level, there’s a higher expectation of that person’s time and dedication, and those potential female leaders may be opting out. This is mainly driven by the CEO.

Webster: We have seen a change in the number of females appointed to senior HR roles in recent years. At a number of our public and private sector clients, senior HR are majority female. In the last year, we’ve placed 60 per cent female in senior HR positions. It’s not just about clients wanting to increase diversity – they were the strongest candidates.

Johnson: There is a perception that men dominate senior jobs in HR, but it depends on the industry. In manufacturing, even lower level HR positions are largely male. But over the past 12 months, 70 per cent of the people we placed in senior HR roles were women.

Is it necessary for HR to be professionally certified and, if so, why?

Brushfield: Certification is a good thing for the profession, assuming that the criteria to achieve it is connected to study and experience. It enhances the reputation of HR and provides AHRI members with a community in which to share best practice.

Johnson: Yes, HR certification is a great thing for the profession and is well overdue. Having recruited for HR in the UK, I know that a CIPD qualification was paramount for career progression. It is definitely a progressive step forward for HR in Australia, to have a strong development path to follow and a foundation of best practice, as in other professions.

Williams: The need for HR to truly influence business performance and success continues, yet it seems that a high percentage of the HR professionals steering these changes across Australia are not fully educated in how to do this effectively. I am a huge advocate for AHRI professional certification. It doesn’t matter what level you are, or how much experience you have, you should continue to develop skills and knowledge so that you can continue to improve the business you are working with.

Owens: I think certification of HR professionals is a very good thing. It’s good to have a documented standard for technical competence. We live in a highly credentialled world which expects certainty and accepts advice from those with proven skill sets. Law, engineering and medicine have formal standards and HR can have them too.

Discover the best HR certification pathway for you with the AHRI Certification Pathfinder or visit ahri.com.au/hr-certification

What is the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring HR director?

Johnson: Keep current, keep across the trends. Be on top of best practice, and not just in the industry that you’re in.

Kirkby: Develop the key skills that CEOs are looking for. You’ve not going to be effective if you’re in an HR bubble – you need to understand the wider business. In the next five years, managing and designing organisational change will be a key component of HR leadership.

Brushfield: Surround yourself with good people who will challenge you – both inside and outside the organisation. Ensure you stay up to speed from a qualifications perspective. But ultimately, it’s about being able to add value, from the strategic and leadership perspective.

Owens: Be ambitious. I’m a huge believer in having a strong sense of purpose and knowing where you want to go.

Webster: Always be open to opportunity, and to expanding your network – and not just in your own industry. Be willing to consider alternative ideas and other industries, whose ideas can be tweaked to suit you.

Williams: Don’t become complacent, and always be looking for new experiences and exposure, because 20 years’ experience in one role doesn’t mean that you could automatically slot into any organisation.

Hourigan: Always look at the return on investment. HR professionals need to be able to demonstrate that they have commercial value to add to the business, not just in the HR division but across the organisation.

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