9 Competencies for HR Excellence

What makes human resources professionals great at their job? The research team at RBL Group has dedicated years to answering that question. 

For almost 30 years, the HR Competency Study has empirically defined the competencies of HR professionals and how those competencies drive performance. In the HRCS’s Seventh Round, in which HRCI was proud to partner, researchers focused on two questions: How do HR professionals deliver value, and how do HR departments deliver value? RBL collected more than 30,000 surveys rating the competencies and performance of more than 4,000 HR professionals from more than 1,500 organization units worldwide. This round presented the broadest mix of companies, industries and geographies to date.

The HRCS examines the effectiveness of the HR function in the context of the entire organization. One unique feature of the HRCS is that it goes beyond self-reporting from HR professionals and explores how other stakeholders ― supervisors, HR associates and non-HR associates ― perceive HR competencies. “When it comes to impacting the business, it's not just about what individuals do: It's how the capabilities of the organization operate,” says Mike Ulrich, who served as co-director of the study. 

HR professionals play a critical role in developing the infrastructure to support organizational evolution in an uncertain environment. Here’s a look at the nine competencies they’ll need to succeed.

Core Drivers

Of the nine categories of HR competencies identified, the researchers defined three as core drivers. These competencies drive strategic initiatives, position HR in a place of trust in the organization and facilitate HR’s ability to navigate competing priorities.

  • Strategic Positioner: Able to position a business to win its market.

  • Credible Activist: Able to build relationships of trust by having a proactive point of view.

  • Paradox Navigator: Able to manage tensions inherent in business (including long-term and short-term tensions, and top-down and bottom-up tensions).

Paradox Navigator is a new competency uncovered in the seventh round, a reflection of HR’s frequent need to manage “embedded tensions.” For example, HR professionals must often navigate between centralized or decentralized operations or an internal versus external focus. 

And there’s never a clear solution to these competing priorities. “Navigating paradox is not necessarily finding a solution,” Ulrich says. “You're not trying to come up with a certain outcome; you're trying to understand all of the different things that go into the decision.”

Organization Enablers

The researchers defined three categories of HR competence as organization enablers that help position HR to deliver strategic value.

  • Culture and Change Champion: Able to make change happen and manage organizational culture.

  • Human Capital Curator: Able to manage the flow of talent by developing people and leaders, driving individual performance and building technical talent.

  • Total Rewards Steward: Able to manage employee well-being through financial and non-financial rewards.

These three competencies enable HR teams to harness the power of the workforce to drive the organization forward. Managing culture, human capital and incentives are essential to developing organization-wide capabilities. You need the systems and processes in place to make leveraging that talent possible.

“Organizational capability explained 3 to 4 times as much of performance as individual competencies did,” Ulrich says. “If we want to impact our organization, we need to find ways to build these capabilities.” 

Delivery Enablers

Finally, three HR competencies were defined as delivery enablers that focus on managing the tactical or foundational elements of HR. 

  • Technology and Media Integrator: Able to use technology and social media to drive and create high-performing organizations.

  • Analytics Designer and Interpreter: Able to use analytics to improve decision-making.

  • Compliance Manager: Able to manage the processes related to compliance by following regulatory guidelines.

However, just because these competencies are tactical doesn’t make them straight-forward. They each come with the potential for ambiguity, and HR professionals in every industry and at every level face must evaluate competing priorities. “Every time we talked to individual HR people, all of them talk about how ambiguous and uncertain their job is,” Ulrich says. “Ambiguity is just innately part of the role of an HR person.” Even the fundamental aspects of HR are saturated in ambiguity. 

For example, with analytics, you must decide how to get to the insights you need in a reasonable time frame. “There's a lot of paradox in analytics,” Ulrich says. “Do you go quickly to get insights, or do you take more time to figure out underlying causes?”

These nine competencies don’t capture the full range of HR’s domain, but they provide a solid foundation for success. Master these, and your HR practice will thrive.

The next round of the HRCS is now underway, examining the intersection of professional competence, organizational capabilities and an uncertain future. HRCI is again partnering on this critical research for our profession, and if you would like to contribute, you can sign your team up.