New HR Competencies for Future HR Leaders
Par : Dave Ulrich and Dani Johnson

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New HR Competencies for Future HR LeadersDave Ulrich and Dani Johnson

Leadership is all about turning what should be done into what is done. In our work on leadership brand[1], we have found that successful leadership begins by understanding customer expectations and then creating leadership competencies or behaviors consistent with those expectations. A firm has leadership brand when leaders throughout the organization think and behave in ways consistent with the customer experience.

HR leaders are more important than ever in building the firm’s leadership brand. HR practices touch every employee at least weekly (salary, training, compensation, communication). HR leaders should embody the soul or essence of the firm and demonstrate by their actions what customers want. HR leaders are visible to everyone. These practices should also communicate to employees what customers want and expect.

In our work on HR leadership, we have started with what competencies (value, knowledge, behavior) are needed. For over 20 years, we have chronicled the evolution of the HR leadership role, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Each five years, we conduct a major study, identifying the competencies HR professionals need to possess to lead. In the last round of the research, we had over 10,000 people respond from six regions globally.

Based on this data, we believe that we can confidently state what competencies HR professionals must possess to lead.

HR Competencies Overview
HR leaders with the right competencies not only perform better individually, they raise the level at which their entire organization functions. They are more likely to engage employees, to serve customers, and to create intangible shareholder wealth. HR competencies define what is expected from those who work in HR, and through this, form a basis for assessment and improvement in the quality of HR professionals.

Since 1988, we have been working to track the ever-evolving competencies of HR professionals. We began our research on competencies with the desire to resolve three issues:

  1. Define the competencies that add greatest value to key stakeholders.
  2. Figure out how HR professionals develop these competencies in the fastest and most effective ways.
  3. Determine how HR competencies and HR practices align to business performance.

To address these issues for the HR profession, we chose to do a large-scale survey (Human Resources Competency Study, HRCS) of HR professionals and their HR and non-HR associates. This work has resulted in five waves of data collection (1988, 1992, 1997, 2002, and now 2007)[2]. At each “wave” we used the same basic methodology for data collection based on a 360 methodology. We sent surveys to HR professionals (participants) who then gave them to their colleagues (associates). These surveys asked about the competencies and performance of the HR professional and the performance of the business where the HR professional worked.

The fifth and latest round of our research has about 1,700 HR participants and 8,300 associate raters in six regions around the world[3].

The New HR Competency Model for Round Five HRCS
To determine the new HR competencies, the 132 questions about behaviors or knowledge that an HR professional might demonstrate were statistically analyzed. This analysis grouped the questions by likeness to yield six distinct competency domains. These domains are defined with the idea in mind that HR competencies include not just knowledge, ability, and values, but the ability to use this knowledge for the benefit of the organization. We see HR professionals as needing to know, but more importantly, needing to do what they know. Exhibit 1 shows the Round 5 HR Competency Model, which is explained further below.

This figure suggests that HR professionals must master competencies dealing both with people and business issues (large arrows). In the changing business conditions, HR professionals should serve the organization's people, communicating care, concern, and compassion for employees. Some have called this the human in human resources. But the business conditions also require that HR professionals be attuned to customer and investor expectations by making sure that strategies are designed and delivered. Following one of these two paths independently of the other leads to failure. Within these two dimensions, we arrayed six domains of HR competence, dealing with relationships, processes, and capabilities. Each competency domain is defined further below.

  1. Credible Activist. Good HR leaders are both credible (respected, admired, listened to) and activists (offer a point of view, take a position, challenge assumptions). Some have called this HR with an attitude. HR leaders who are credible but not activists are admired but do not have much impact. Those who are activists but not credible may have ideas but will not be listened to. This competency showed itself statistically to be the most important of the six. Being seen as a competent HR leader is no longer about getting a seat at the table; it is now about making sure that once you are at the table you’re contributing – doing more than being the note-taker in strategic discussions.
  2. Culture and Change Steward. HR leaders appreciate, articulate, and help shape an organization’s culture. Good Culture and Change Stewards understand that culture starts with clarity around external customer and shareholder expectations (something referred to as the firm identity or brand) and then is able to translate these expectations into employee and organization behaviors. As stewards of culture, HR professionals respect the past culture and understand how the culture must be shaped to meet current and future challenges. They facilitate this transformation by turning what is known (how the firm needs to change, strategy initiatives, etc.) into what is done.
  3. Talent Manager /Organizational Designer. Good HR leaders master theory, research, and practice for both talent management and organization design. Talent management focuses on how individuals enter, are developed, move up, across, or out of an organization. Organization design focuses on how a company embeds capability (for example, collaboration) into the structure, processes, and policies that determine how that organization works. HR leaders understand that a balance must be struck between the two facets of this role. HR is not just about talent or organization, but about managing the two of them together to deliver the strategic goals of the company. Good talent without a supporting organization will not be sustained, and a good organization will not deliver results without talented individuals with the right competencies in critical roles.
  4. Strategy Architect. Good HR leaders have a vision for how the organization can win in the future and play an active part in the establishment of overall strategy that will deliver on this vision. This means recognizing business trends and their impact on the business, forecasting potential obstacles to success, and facilitating the process of gaining strategic clarity. Good HR leaders are also cognizant of the need to link the internal organization to external customer expectations, making the customer-driven business strategies real to the employees of the company.
  5. Operational Executor. Good HR Leaders execute the operational aspects of managing people and organizations. Policies need to be drafted, adapted, and implemented. Employees also have many administrative needs (e.g., to be paid, relocated, hired, and trained). HR Leaders are responsible for ensuring that these basic needs are efficiently dealt with through technology, shared services, and/or outsourcing. This operational work of HR ensures credibility if it is executed flawlessly and is grounded in the consistent application of policies.
  6. Business Ally. Businesses succeed by setting goals and objectives that respond to external opportunity and threats. Good HR Leaders contribute to the success of a business by knowing the social context or setting in which their business operates. They also know how the business makes money, which we call the value chain of the business (who customers are, why they buy the company’s products or services). Finally, they have a good understanding of the parts of the business (finance, marketing, research and development, engineering), what they must accomplish and how they work together, so that they can help the business organize to make money.

The competencies above were statistically identified to be the ones that determine both the individual perceived performance of HR professionals as well as the ones that affect the bottom line.

Interestingly, we found the same competencies to be necessary regardless of whether an HR professional is just starting his career or is acting as the senior executive in an organization. While the competencies are the same regardless of management level, how they are applied within their realm of influence may change. Regardless, understanding these competencies becomes particularly important to HR leaders as they play a role in the leadership team and as they determine how to best equip HR professionals in their organization to have an impact on the business.

In 20 years of research, we have yet to see the importance or prominence of HR diminish. Better leaders with a higher level of competence are being required by businesses to build competitive advantage. Those who would have succeeded 30, 20, or even 10 years ago would not be as likely to succeed today. HR leaders are expected to play new roles, and to play those roles they need the competencies of today.

As a result of the Human Resource Competency Study, HR leaders have a greater understanding of the competencies they need to impact business performance.


  1. Ulrich, D., Smallwood, N. (2007). Leadership Brand Harvard Business School Press
  2. The work we have done has been published in many places of the last 20 years. A few of those publications include:
  • Ulrich, D., Brockbank, W., & Yeung, A. (1990). Beyond belief: A benchmark for human resources. Human Resource Management, 28( 3): 311-335.
  • Ulrich, D., Brockbank, W., Yeung, A. &Lake, D. (1995). Human resource competencies: An empirical assessment. Human Resource Management Journal, 34(4): 473-496.
  • Yeung, A., Brockbank, W. &Ulrich, D. (1994). Lower cost, higher value: Human resources function in transition. Human Resource Planning Journal 17(3): 1-16.
  • Brockbank, W. &Ulrich, D. (2003).Competencies for the new HR. Arlington, VA: Society of Human Resource Management.
  • Brockbank, B. & Ulrich, D. HR Competencies that make a difference. To appear in Strategic HRM edited by John Storey, Patrick Wright, and Dave Ulrich. To be published by Routledge.
  1. We are grateful in the fifth round of the Study conducted in 2007 for the support of our global partners:

  • Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a partner in 2002 and 2007, who represented North America
  • IAE, the Management and Business School of Universidad Austral in Argentina, a partner in 2002 and 2007, headed by Professor Alejandro Sioli and Michel Hermans. IAE represented Latin America.
  • Irish Management Institute (IME) headed by Martin Farrelly with the assistance of Grace Kearns, representing Europe.
  • Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, headed by Dr. Xiaoming Zheng and Dr. Felicia Deng.
  • Australian Human Resource Institute (AHRI) who worked in Australia and Asia Pacific, headed by Paul Dainty with the assistance of Anne Marie Dolan.
  • National HRD Network in India, which focused on data collection from India headed by Jagdeep Khandpur.

These regional partners took responsibility to identify companies in their geographies and were instrumental in facilitating data collection and analysis. This study is impossible without their collaboration and we are very grateful for their active involvement.

Dave Ulrich
is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.Dani Johnson and he both work at the RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on HR and leadership (

Source : Effectif, volume 11, numéro 1, janvier/février/mars 2008.
Reproduction, diffusion et distribution, intégrales ou partielles, par quelque procédé que ce soit, interdites sans l’autorisation de l’Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés [].
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