What skills do successful HR Leaders need in 2022 and beyond?

28th February 2022



Right now, the first cohort of African HR leaders are embarking on the inaugural RIKA Learning HR Leadership Programme, the first of its kind in Africa. So, what better time to talk to Deborah Exell, Founder of Exell Intelligence, and one of the HR leaders behind the development of the RIKA HR Leadership programme content?



Deborah, what do HR leaders need today, to be prepared for the future?

I think one of the most important skills HR leaders need to develop is the ability to work with data.


Data Analysis:

Data hasn’t traditionally been available or particularly central to the HR function, but it needed to be. One of the biggest spends in most organisations is on people. It typically averages around 50% of overall business costs. Being able to understand how that money is spent, whether it’s driving productivity, how people are performing, if their engagement levels are where they need to be and how they are tied back to business performance – these things are essential to the role of HR leaders. We now have proper data. HR leaders haven’t really had to work with and develop this in the past.


Culture, purpose, and values

There’s also been acceptance for some time that developing good culture is important to the execution of strategy, and that also needs to be central to the HR function.


I think what has changed is the ever-increasing focus on purpose and values as central to business strategy; more so the purpose element than the values element right now.


Values were big in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and in the dot com years. Back then, it was all about asking ‘what do we stand for?’, as businesses tried to cross global/local borders, while establishing values that connected people.


Now, it’s much more strongly focused on purpose. Because you have a multi-generational employee base, you have to understand what counts for the new employees - the Gen Z and the Millennials who care much more about a sense of purpose. The Boomers and Gen X cared much more about a job for life, because pensions were so good. Now, people can also move jobs more easily because they’re knowledge workers.


But this constant flow and movement of people makes it challenging to build, maintain and measure the right culture. How do you know if a culture is healthy? You can measure it through engagement. How do you know what the culture is? You measure it through behaviour.


There’s a vast amount of data about people in the workplace. Understanding how to source, transform, analyse, and leverage that data to create insights is central to the HR role. How to work with that data to get the executive teams and the board to understand what’s going on in the company, is also central to the HR role, now and for the future. That’s a big change.


What do HR leaders need to be able to do with that data, that they haven’t needed to do before?

Depending how deeply you’re involved, I would say every person in HR needs to understand where data comes from and be analytical enough to work with the right data. There are some mathematical elements, but it’s not beyond what you’re taught at school.


Applying data analysis to business performance

I think what’s much more interesting is the ability to apply it commercially. You have to understand what’s going on in the business and how the numbers tie together. If you’ve got leaders who want to hire more resources, what does that do to the bottom line? You have to be able to do the maths and calculate that.


More resources equal more expense, more expense could equal more revenue, but what’s the right ratio between resources and revenue? As an HR leader you need to understand that stuff.


Bigger operations hopefully mean better customer service, but it also means an erosion to the bottom line because you have greater expense. So, what do you onshore? What do you offshore? What are the links between these things? This is the kind of data that I’m talking about that HR leaders need to understand in a commercial context. That’s a big difference to where HR leaders have been before.


So, what’s the role of an HR leader now, versus what it has been?

Traditionally, HR leaders looked at headcount, and they would look at cost allocation by functions. But trying to design different operating models and understanding the difference to productivity versus profit is really the sharp end of where commercial HR leaders need to operate now.

And most don’t. So how do they learn it?


Most learn it on the job, they learn it on consultancy projects, they learn it by not only working in HR, but having a true breadth and depth of commercial experience.


One of the advantages of being an HR leader these days is if you haven’t only ever worked in HR. Or that the work you’ve done isn’t only in the HR function.


Is this how you’ve stayed ahead of the curve in your own career?

I’ve worked in the customer sales function, I’ve worked in the finance function, I’ve been a management consultant, as well as an HR person. I’ve worked across all the different parts of HR. I’ve also worked across sectors and geographies, the better breadth you have, the further you’ll go in your career.


What are the skills you need to develop early vs late in your career?

We’ve done a lot of analysis on this in terms of what makes talent. The people who go the furthest have depth and breadth. It’s just a fact. Of course, there are certain skills you have to have.


Early in your career you must have learning agility, be proactive and driven; you have to build networks and be ambitious. Later in your career, you have to be much more focused on leadership, to have the ability to build followership, to influence and manage key stakeholders, and to collaborate with other leaders across functions.


You have to know how to survive at the top of an organisation where people are highly competitive and where things change the whole time. At the strategic level in business these days, you never know what’s going to happen in the next six months. It’s a constant barrage of unexpected events and you have to be very nimble.


We address all of this in the RIKA HR Leadership Programme.


What is the RIKA Learning HR Leadership Programme?

It’s a fully virtual, 3-month programme, designed to equip HR professionals and leaders who are either mid-way through their career or somewhere near the top of their game with the skills needed to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).


Download the brochure to find out more.