What makes a great HR professional?

HR is always evolving, as is the importance of the function in business. I have worked in the HR industry for over 15 years and still see many of the same topics discussed over and over.

Has anything changed? Here is my take on what makes a great HR professional.

What qualities should an HR professional have?

Develops trust

This quality is probably the most important one that any great professional needs, more so in HR than other functions. The HRD should be a confidant to the CEO and other business leaders, people will only open up to someone they can trust.

The easiest way to alienate an employee population is to create a ‘say do gap’. For HR to be effective, you need to role model the behaviours of the business and the best way to do this is to be consistent and authentic.

Although there is lots of talk that HR should be more strategic, I think the most effective HR practitioners are able to roll their sleeves up too and to really get to know what is going on in the business.

Known as a problem solver

As an HR professional, you will be responsible for solving problems and issues. I hear many stories of people continuously dealing with the same stuff in a reactive fashion… and guess what? That isn’t the best use of time or resources, and it doesn’t demonstrate commercial thinking.  

Once a problem has been identified it is important to get to the root cause of the issue – there are many great books on RCA. The important steps are finding data to back up what is going on and then providing a workable solution.

The role of HR has moved on and can’t only work in coaching/facilitation mode. The best HR professionals I know have an innovative mindset and provide multiple scenarios, solutions, and options to problems.


Like any profession you need to have the relevant subject matter knowledge (in this case HR) – for me, this should be a given. HR needs to have a broader understanding of business drivers, and an ability to consider external factors. Things like competitors and the future direction of the sector and bringing ideas into the business from peers or thought leaders.

An easy way to develop this in HR is to read business books (or blogs, vlogs, audiobooks) and to become up to speed with modern concepts such as ‘Netflix – no rules’, OKRs, agile performance management etc. It doesn’t mean that all of these will be suitable or relevant to your business, but business leaders will be up to speed with the concepts and in HR you should have a view.

Understands the business

If you can answer YES to these questions, then it might suggest that you are a commercial HR leader:

  • Could you stand in for the CEO/MD or Operational leader at their next weekly/monthly stand-up or board meeting and give an update on business performance?
  • Could you meet potential clients/investors, give them a thorough understanding of the business, and sell the benefits of your organisation?
  • Do you understand the key drivers of your business and how it drives growth?

Please let me know in the comments section if you think anything else is relevant? I’d be interested to get other views.

James Cumming is our MD and leads our HR practice. He has recruited senior HR professionals for over 15 years and has experience in finding niche HR talent. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.

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