Taking a human resources career to the next level involves the conscious development of a range of skills that many people don’t think about. That’s why human resources leaders stand out — they have certain personal qualities that might appear to come naturally, but which can be also developed with focus and training.
Excelling in a human resources career means honing your leadership qualities and skills. For example, analytical abilities are helpful in selecting and developing employee benefits packages, and communication and conflict management skills are essential in team management and in dealing with all kinds of employee and workplace challenges.
If you’re looking for a leadership role in your human resources career you’ll find a range of positions, many with room for growth.
Why Effective Leadership Skills are Essential in HR
The human resources leader is a key link between management and the employee workforce. A good HR professional is able to resolve difficult situations and consult with managers on problems with employees. They manage an organization’s recruitment, interviewing, selection, and hiring processes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Some leaders in human resources careers oversee all of the company’s human resources functions, setting up compensation and benefit plans as well as spearheading training and development.
Large companies have compensation and HR managers in benefits, who plan, develop, and oversee programs to compensate employees, according to the BLS. In 2018, people in this role earned a median salary of $121,010.
Training and development HR managers oversee staff and plan and coordinate programs to enhance the knowledge and skills of an organization’s employees, according to the BLS. In 2018, people in this position earned a median salary of $111,340.
While strong analytical skills, management ability, and coordination of programs are important, people who excel in human resources careers also have top-notch soft skills, such as the ability to listen and provide empathy to employees who might be difficult to manage.
Leadership Skills for a Human Resources Career
So, what are some of the most important specific skills you’ll need as a human resources leader? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, human resources skills include these five effective leadership skills that contribute to success:
- Decision-making skills. Because a human resources manager’s decisions significantly affect a large number of people, the ability to balance the strengths and weaknesses of different options is a key skill in a human resources career. For example, hiring and firing decisions can impact many people in an organization.
- Interpersonal skills. Top-notch interpersonal skills are an important asset in a human resources career. Working as a part of a management team is most effective when a human resources manager has positive working relationships with their colleagues.
- Leadership skills. Leaders in human resources careers oversee the operations of their department and often coordinate with others in management positions.
- Organizational skills. Leaders in human resources careers must be able to manage many projects at once and prioritize tasks.
- Speaking skills. Human resources managers must clearly communicate with their staff and other employees. They need strong speaking skills to give presentations, communicate with leadership at all levels, and direct their staff.
Empathy Is a Key Human Resources Skill
In addition to leadership, organizational, and communications skills, soft skills like empathy are crucial to success, writes Mary Juetten in Forbes. A human resources manager must have the willingness and ability to understand employees. This often calls on the manager to have personal empathy that goes beyond the scope of the workplace.
Personal empathy strengthens leadership qualities in human resources careers because it helps HR professionals assist employees who face personal crises. These crises might occur when an employee faces a death in the family or when they are in a difficult work situation. Juetten writes:
“The greatest empathy we can display is in offering others both our support in their personal problems, and the space to deal with those issues as needed … Everyone, regardless of occupation, wants to be understood and valued as a human, and as humans we’re all going to face challenging circumstances with ourselves and our families.”
She points out that empathy is among the most important HR leadership qualities when encountering a difficult or hard-to-like employee. Putting yourself in their shoes can turn such situations around. For instance, imagine that there have been complaints about a difficult personality in the office. It may turn out that this person is going through things in their personal life that have contributed to off-putting behavior. Empathy is a crucial skill at such a time, Juetten writes. When we understand another person’s perspective and pain, it is possible to avoid firing someone who, at their core, is a valuable asset.
An effective human resources leader demonstrates the importance of empathy and other soft skills to other managers in a company.
Emotional Intelligence Is a Key Human Resources Skill
A 2018 Harvard Business Review (HBR) Analytic Services study stresses the importance of transforming corporate culture with Emotional Intelligence (EI). In the report, The EI Advantage: Driving Innovation and Business Success through the Power of Emotional Intelligence, HBR defines EI as a combination of self-awareness, self-control, empathy, and social skills.
To create the EI Advantage report, the HBR surveyed 599 respondents, all of whom worked in companies with more than 250 employees. Of these, 34% were senior management and 19% were in executive managers or were board members. Job functions represented by those surveyed included 13% operations and 10% in HR and training. The overall finding was that while most companies talked about the importance of EI, few felt that it was being fully implemented in the culture.
- Only 18% of respondents strongly agree that their organizations have ingrained EI in their cultures.
- 37% vs. 8% of emotionally intelligent organizations report significantly stronger customer experiences and higher levels of customer loyalty (40% vs. 12%) and customer advocacy (31% vs. 8%).
- 64% of emotionally intelligent companies have a high degree of empowerment and tolerance for risk.
- Nearly 70% of organizations measure employee satisfaction. Only 10% assess company-wide EI skills.
Managers in human resources careers have an advantage when EI is understood and incorporated into the work culture. Instead of just a skill that is “nice to have,” the soft skill of EI is essential in the modern workplace environment. When decisions need to be made quickly, there is not always time to wait for communication from above. Individuals on teams often need to collaborate to solve problems and come up with their own solutions. This means that mastery of interpersonal skills must be modeled at the top levels and implemented throughout a company at every level.
Tom Starner writes about this study’s results in Human Resource Executive, saying that the overall results illuminate the values often demonstrated in human resources careers: employees want more attention given to EI because it makes their jobs easier, but sometimes top management is slow to adopt EI practices.
Emotional Intelligence Gives a Human Resources Career Staying Power
Martha Finney writes in Human Resources Executive that many human resources leaders struggle to keep their own internal emotional balance when frequently encountering difficult emotional situations. The drama in a company may start somewhere else, but it inevitably ends up in HR, and the HR leader must have the emotional resources to help resolve conflicts, poor job fits, and other situations.
She quotes several executives who have experience with staying involved in human resources leadership. As Ed Martin, the former vice president of learning for Pandora Internet Radio advises: “Know when you’re getting cynical and find a way to get some breathing room.”
Another anchor for human resources leaders who want to maintain emotional balance is understanding your own and your company’s ethical standards and staying close to them.
Not only is EI an important leadership quality, but also it contributes to clear ethical standards and the ability of human resource leaders to communicate with others throughout a corporation.
Ethical Standards and Clear Communication Are Ranked High
Leaders in human resources careers need to communicate clearly with groups and individuals during a company transition. This is especially true when the changes have a significant impact on workers.
Sunnie Giles writes in HBR that when she asked 195 global companies to rate 74 leadership qualities, 67% ranked “high ethical standards” as the top effective leadership quality and 56% ranked “communicating clear expectations” as the top quality.
Giles writes that her findings have a direct effect on employees because they are about creating a safe and trusting environment. Human resources leaders with high ethical standards show employees that they are committed to fairness. Communication is a core skill too, because when an HR leader communicates expectations clearly, employees feel secure because they know what to expect. “In a safe environment, employees can relax, invoking the brain’s higher capacity for social engagement, innovation, creativity, and ambition.”
Leaders in a human resources career can create a work environment that allows people to feel safe on a deep level. “This competency is about behaving in a way that is consistent with your values. If you find yourself making decisions that feel at odds with your principles or justifying actions in spite of a nagging sense of discomfort, you probably need to reconnect with your core values.”
Giles’ study also found that strong leaders:
Empower Others to Self-organize: While leaders believe in their decision-making and leadership skills as essential to a company, sometimes giving some power to people in a company allows them to be more productive and proactive. In turn, job satisfaction and commitment to the company often increase.
Foster a Sense of Connection and Belonging: Leaders sometimes are aloof from the people they lead, but Giles concluded from her study that leaders need to create connections with the people they manage. Friendly behavior such as smiles, calling people by their names and remembering details about them can go a long way.
Show Openness to New Ideas and Foster Organizational Learning: Leaders are most effective when they are open to changing opinions and new ideas, and create an environment for trying new things and making mistakes. Leaders must first be sure that they are open to change and ideas before encouraging the same mindset in the people and the teams that they lead.
Human Resources Leadership Qualities Include Cultural Fluency
In today’s workplaces, effective human resources skills must include working with people from diverse backgrounds in the U.S. and potentially, on a global scale. A study titled “Two Key Success Factors for Global Project Team Leadership: Communications and Human Resource Management” emphasizes cultural fluency as a key human resources leadership skill. Technology and the internet have made it easy to work with colleagues and employees across the globe, and as a result, leadership and teamwork have new dimensions.
Global teams face a different set of challenges than teams in the same location, including bridging cultural differences, making accommodations for time zones, and mastering effective communication among people who may have different languages as their primary languages. “It is important to establish easy communication, understand the technology and training required, and create norms and expectations for global team members,” the study concludes.
Human resources leaders need an understanding of and sensitivity to cultural differences, and the ability to help a global workforce collaborate seamlessly. Cross-cultural communication is a key leadership skill in today’s global marketplace. It is important to prevent cultural misunderstandings that can disrupt the workplace.
Pursuing an MA in Human Resources Management
Recognized by SHMR, the Master of Arts in Human Resources Management program at National University addresses today’s most relevant workplace concerns. Students learn a range of effective leadership skills that will expand their knowledge and improve their professional outlook.
You can learn more about careers in human resources management on our blog and by visiting our program page for the Master of Arts in Human Resources Management to request additional information or to speak with an advisor.