Do HR careers attract the wrong kind of people?

Why do people choose HR careers? I know in my own case it wasn’t a conscious choice – at least not when I left full time education.

That might in part have had something to do with my grandfather. He was one of the early members of the Institute of Labour Managers – what would evolve eventually into the CIPD we know today. While he went on to head up an HR function he wasn’t always particularly kind about his peers. I remember him telling me in no uncertain terms “Personnel (as it was called then) often attracts the wrong kind of people”.

His argument, as I recall, was that it all stemmed from the CIPD’s roots in the Institute of Industrial Welfare Workers – the problem being summed up in that one word: welfare. The result, as he saw it, was a profession that attracted those who wanted to “help people” rather than “drive business results through people”. As a result, his argument went; some HR people clearly didn’t know which side they were on…

Which is perhaps part of the reason CEO’s and other senior Executives often express dissatisfaction with their HR function. HR, they feel, just isn’t unreservedly on their side.

Events in recent weeks have made me wonder if there is more to this “Managers are from Mercury, HR is from Pluto” idea. Is the very nature of the people who are attracted to the HR profession a big issue?

The first piece of evidence I stumbled across was an article blogged by the CIPD. Basically I took it to mean that senior Executives want a more logical breed of HR professional who makes decisions from the head not the heart. Now in terms of Myers Briggs that would be more Thinking (T) types. The opposite side of the dichotomy to those Feeling (F) types, for who people and relationships are the core focus of decision making.

A recent conversation with our own HR recruitment specialists – Tom Gale and Lesley Colella – about which are the hardest HR roles to fill resulted in the answer: HR Analysts and Reward Specialists. Both are areas where above average data skills are usually required. Digging deeper revealed that not many generalists fancy these types of roles. And few that do have the analytical competency to successfully make the transition.

A series of recent leadership development events gave me a chance to test out my evolving explanation for the Mercury v Pluto scenario. The events involved “A players”. All were hand-picked as high potentials and all completed the MBTI as part of the programme.

Now my sample is by no means big enough to be statistically valid. However the results were startling. Out of all the “high flier” managers I met only 20% were F types. The other 80% were T’s. Now here’s the sting in the tail. The F’s included all the HR professionals. Stripping out the HR contingent means that Feeling line managers were actually outnumbered ten to one by their Thinking peers.

If you read anything into this it might be that businesses have a strong preference for T types in their top teams. The groups I worked with came from a very wide range of businesses across multiple sectors. So it is not an “industry” thing. Perhaps though it explains why leaders so often don’t “get” HR…

Before everyone goes off and launches a major drive to get more T’s into the HR profession though think about this. One of the fundamentals of successful team building is diversity. If the HR profession replicates a T dominated management population what would the world look like?

Dismissals by text message for a start. I reckon that was dreamed up by a T type, as a logical and efficient solution to mass communication. No doubt they were working in a vacuum with no F types worrying about how that might actually feel to the people on the receiving end.

I’m worried that the population of Mercury want all the people on Pluto to be more like them. Equally though I am worried that without more T’s HR won’t “get” business leaders any more than they get our profession. Both populations could probably do with more of the opposite type.

One final thought. I’ve seen a lot of graduate CV’s recently from those wanting to join our scheme for trainee recruitment consultants. Many are from individuals who have completed HR related degree courses. The recurring theme in most of them is “I want to help people”. That’s great in all sorts of ways – not least candidate experience and client service. However it needs to be matched with a strong streak of commercial drive too. Making people happy is great, but if you don’t also deliver revenues and profits there’s a problem ahead. That, in a nutshell, sums up the challenge facing the HR profession as a whole.

Ian Gooden
Chief Executive

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