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The Best HR People I Know

The first in an occasional series on what differentiates the best HR leaders

We do a good deal of recruiting for senior human resources leadership positions here at the Salveson Stetson Group. We’re often asked by our clients what our thoughts are on the ideal profile for an HR Leader. It’s a hard question to answer.

Dave Ulrich, the HR Guru of our time, says in his book, HR Competencies: Mastery at the Intersection of People and Business, that the most effective human resources executives share a specific set of skills. They are credible activists, business allies, strategic architects, operational executors, talent managers, organization designers, and culture and change agents. This is a great list of qualities for any senior executive but when I’m asked what differentiates a superior HR leader, I give the favorite cop-out answer of any consultant worth his or her salt: “It depends.”

What does it depend on? In my opinion it all depends on context. HR leaders who truly understand what their organizations best respond to are the ones who outpace the pack in terms of impact and access. They are not wedded to any one model or methodology but possess the organizational savvy required to discover which key unlocks their particular kingdom. Over the course of this series, I will outline profiles of HR leaders with vastly different approaches who, nonetheless, achieve a very high degree of effectiveness. Here’s the first.

Bill Strahan
Senior Vice President, Human Resources
Why he’s effective: He knows the numbers

Quite simply, Bill Strahan is one of the smartest people I know. He’s taken the analytical skills of his legal training, washed them through a very successful career as a Worldwide Partner in the Executive Compensation Practice at Mercer, and applied them to the task of leading Comcast’s HR organization, first as a rewards and HR operations executive and currently as the senior HR leader for the company.

Bill can read a P&L like a CFO; he knows the levers of the business inside and out. This facility with the financials has cemented his credibility with the Comcast leadership team. Where another HR executive might present her or his case in terms of best practices, expanding organizational capacity and enhancing leadership capability, Bill states his in terms of cost savings and revenue enhancement. Top and bottom line. That’s the language of Comcast. End of story. If you can’t speak it, you’re not in the conversation.

Are the strategies Bill and his team employ to overcome the company’s challenges much different than those another HR leader might employ? Absolutely not. If you overlay the organizational design that has come out of Comcast’s recent HR transformation initiative with that of another progressive Fortune 100 company, you will see more similarity than difference. What differentiates Bill is that he presents his case in business/financial terms that compel his leadership team and turn “nice to have” programs into business critical programs. It also doesn’t hurt that while he’s often the smartest person in the room, he’s more than content to be the only one who knows it.

My takeaway from Bill’s story is not that we should all be calling the Wharton School to see when the next “Finance for Non-Financial Managers” program is being offered (although in my case that’s not a bad idea). Rather, it’s that, more than anything else, an HR leader needs to understand the language of his company in order to maximize his contributions. In Comcast’s case, that language finds its roots in a keen understanding of the financials. Other industry leaders we work with have much different drivers, which require a much different approach from their HR leadership. I look forward to profiling another extremely effective HR executive, with a very different approach than Bill’s, in the next entry in this series.

2 Responses

  1. This is such a relevant topic John. The HR approach and role we play in the organizations we work in can be so different based on what is relevant to that organization. Each org has its own language and we as HR professionals need to understand that and make it relevant to our own approach and deliverables.

    1. Monica,

      Thank you for your comment. I couldn’t agree more. It plays itself out in our business all the time too. Our clients often get enamored with a resume without stepping back to ask themselves if what works at Coke will work at Pepsi. If you don’t take context into account, the chances of both parties becoming frustrated increases dramatically.


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