Their roles transformed by trailblazing CEOs and a hyped-up marketplace, HR professionals today do more than push paper. Here are five habits the all-stars have adopted to change the game.

A New HR Model

When the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) updated its competency model for HR professionals in 2017, it was guided by ”the current and future needs of employers.”

Those needs were articulated by Joel Trammell, CEO of Khorus, in a 2016 article for Entrepreneur:

  • Go beyond hiring talent to deciding how to allocate employees, which gets them focused on increasing profits and reducing losses.
  • See recruiting as more than just filling job vacancies so you can attract talent to the company and away from its competitors.
  • Develop new hires so that they learn the skills necessary to perform their best.
  • Take employee engagement seriously enough to not only measure it but also interpret what it means for company goals.

In other words, as managers of a company’s main resource – people – HR professionals should serve as strategic consultants and not as bystanders watching from the sidelines. Trammell isn’t the only CEO saying this. Studies show that in many organizations nationwide, HR managers are moving beyond traditional responsibilities. They’re sitting on boards, setting policy, and designing strategy.

We set out to learn the habits HR wizards rely on to do what CEOs want most: drive profits. The experts we spoke to, and the others discussed here, represent diverse industries, but creative HR types can use these five habits to make any workplace shine.

One: They Listen and Develop People

Employees who feel connected to their company’s goals go above and beyond. They respond to workplace surveys with constructive feedback rather than complaints, and their hard work and commitment translate into sky-high profits.

window meeting

But Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace survey found that only 33% of U.S. employees fit that description. Is it any wonder that employee engagement strategies rank high on most CEOs’ agendas?

We asked Judith Lindenberger, president of The Lindenberger Group, to name a workplace habit she considers indispensable. She chose a type of listening distinctive to HR: listening as a way to observe the workplace in action so HR knows what employees need.

That type of observation would explain how Mark Cohen, HR director of Stavis Seafoods, learned why some of the company’s warehouse workers weren’t engaged: their English was limited. So Cohen partnered with a local vocational service to teach the workers how to converse freely in English.

That investment in people paid off: the workers were then able to share with Stavis’s customers the knowledge about seafood they learned in their native countries. Engaged employees engaging customers started with one HR leader’s problem-solving nature.

Two: They Learn the Business

Business acumen was singled out by research and advisory firm Deloitte as a must-have HR skill. Knowing what makes a company tick, how it makes money, attracts customers, profits, and innovates should form the basis of HR planning.

HR leaders show business acumen by finding solutions that drive results. An example can be found in an article by John Schierer, an HR senior executive for over 25 years. Early in his career, when Schierer’s employer was expanding, its HR department wasn’t content to post job openings and screen candidates. HR managers used the expansion as an opportunity to dig deep into the customer service department’s lackluster performance: they found system errors and fixed them.

The resulting increase in customer satisfaction levels and decrease in labor costs were, in Schierer’s opinion, triggered by a team that did what ”transactional HR people” won’t: ask questions, find answers, and force results.

Three: They Use the Numbers

HR’s trendsetters do more than talk about goals. They journey down whatever path it takes to achieve them.

Analytics is one of those journeys. True, it’s about as far from the traditional HR skills set as you can get, but it’s also a skill that no professional in today’s data-driven workplace should overlook.


Here’s why: CEOs now want data to support traditional ideas about employee behavior that have driven business decisions. Some want to know, for example, if it’s true that employees who don’t like their managers or who feel disengaged at work end up leaving their jobs – and taking their talent with them. Invariably, CEOs rely on HR departments to use business analytics to find such data.

Numbers are what HR director Leonard Dandurand turned to when he transformed the paper-based management system at software giant Electronic Arts Inc. into an electronic platform capable of churning out reports with all kinds of workplace predictors. Doing so gave the business deeper insight into its talent pool and – just as importantly – allowed the HR department to show their innovative side, a trait the company held in high esteem.

Dandurand is part of a new generation of HR leaders no longer content to observe; they diagnose and solve.

Four: They Impact Corporate Culture

When a business concept arouses the attention of traditional and groundbreaking leaders alike, you can bet it has something to do with profits. And profits are the reason why HR teams sweat over creating a culture beyond compare. They know that culture ranks high among the most sought-after workplace benefits.

Habits revolving around trust are key to a vibrant corporate culture, said Lindenberger. ”An HR professional can lose the trust of others quickly if he or she divulges confidences or lets private information about others slip.”

Lauren Milligan, career advancement coach at ResuMAYDAY, told us that ”open and genuine communication” makes a business culture thrive. ”When employees know they are brought into the fold, they’ll have more buy-in and commitment to the engagement, quality, and diversity programs. If the rank and file employees don’t trust the company leaders, everyone’s participation will never go deeper than the surface.”


Going deeper than the surface is how Steve Hunt, a director at Success Factors, wants leaders to impact culture. In a recent article, Hunt said that certain habits, will prove how HR actions speak louder than HR words:

  • Show employees what values matter to you by hiring and promoting people who embody them.
  • Inform employees about enterprise goals and how individual departments and teams can help achieve them.
  • Enable employees to learn skills that will help them excel in their roles.
  • Reward managers who identify skills gaps and try to correct them.
  • Tell mediocre-performing employees how they must improve.

Five: They Build Relationships

When Louisiana-based Ochsner Health System could not recruit medical assistants with the right mix of technical and soft skills, its assistant vice president for talent management and workforce development, Missy Sparks, got to thinking: How could she and her team help solve the problem?

What they came up with was unique. As reported by SHRM, Sparks looked outside the company to find community partners who could help Ochsner design its very own training program.

A nearby community college suggested a curriculum. A local non-profit chipped in the funds. Thanks to the relationship-building skills of Sparks and others in HR, Ochsner ended up with an on-the-job training program that prepared new hires to work in the company’s 28 hospitals and 60 clinics. Sparks’s community outreach showed a habit for making decisions that’s become part of her department’s HR toolbox.

Final Thoughts

”A new generation of inspired HR leaders is entering the profession, and the progress is real.” This sentence from Deloitte’s 2016 research sums up how innovative leaders, such as those portrayed here, are reinventing HR practices.

final thoughts

They curate talent, enable learning, own strategies, and nurture growth; as they raise the bar, they shed the image of HR professionals as servile bureaucrats. Tomorrow’s HR leader will go beyond sustaining a company to directing it, from following to leading.

By Michele Vrouvas
August 2017