Nine Essential Core Competencies for HR Success

By Steve Hewitt

Imagine a professional golfer with a variety of clubs in his golf bag. He must be proficient in the use of every club in order to be consistently successful on the PGA tour. Likewise, to be successful at any level in the HR profession, one must have a full complement of resources, knowledge and skills.

What are the core competencies for success in HR? I've identified eight essential competencies, plus one bonus skill. I've also provided my definition of each one, because my experience has been that if you ask two people (or 20 people) from the same organization to define a skill such as decisiveness, you will receive a different response from each person.

  • A Bias for Action. This involves execution, getting things done thoroughly yet quickly, and enabling others to do the same. Speed is essential, as is the ability to see a problem or task through to completion.

  • Business Knowledge. One cannot significantly impact a business without a solid understanding of that business. This involves having a good grasp of what your organization does (e.g., the key success indicators, pricing and marketing strategies, who your customers and competitors are, what differentiates your product from those of your competitors, etc.) as well as having a keen understanding of the company’s key financial data. This knowledge allows HR professionals to give advice and make decisions from a knowledge base that views the business in the proper context.

  • Decisiveness/Judgment. These are two separate skills that are keenly interrelated. Decisiveness is the willingness and the ability to make a decision, within an appropriate timeframe, using the available facts. Anyone who has worked with or for a person who just couldn't make a decision understands the frustration it can cause. The common result is that a decision is made by default, rather than logic. It is particularly worrisome for HR professionals if their managers make decisions at the drop of a hat, with questionable judgment. This is known as the “Ready, Fire, Aim” syndrome. When coaching managers, I emphasize that the importance of making the best decision we can given the circumstances. This is different from trying to make the right decision because it may take a long period of time to determine whether the right decision was made, and in many cases we may never know.

  • Emotional Intelligence. Emotion in the business world is not necessarily a bad thing, since it’s impossible to feel passionate about work without emotion playing some part. Expressing or demonstrating emotions too strongly or at inappropriate times can, however, be a liability. Emotional intelligence also helps an HR person decide which issues are really important and need to be addressed, and which are actually inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. Moreover, it has to do with one’s emotional investment in the final resolution of issues. That is, one cannot afford to view every issue in terms of win or lose. To do so requires expending an extraordinary amount of energy (which could be better used elsewhere) and tends to put the HR person in an adversarial position where conflict is unnecessarily created.

  • Listening Skills. Everyone has a need to be heard. Couple that with the fact that very few people know how to listen and the consequences include misunderstandings, confusion and general frustration. Real listening means being fully present with the speaker, not diverted by the many internal and external distractions that exist. It also means suspending judgment for as long as possible yet reaching an appropriate point of discernment in terms of what is true or not. True listening is tough and requires both time and concentration.

  • Political Savvy. I abhor the whole political scene within organizations, but I'm not naïve enough to believe that politics don't exist to some degree everywhere. The key here is to be effective without losing one’s soul. It involves knowing what makes others tick—including what they do and do not value. Don't get hung-up on enforcing policies and procedures that make no sense. Know when to say “no.” However, understand that if you say “no” too often, line management will simply stop asking you. Think of alternatives to no that will work for both you and your line managers. Then, when you absolutely must say, “No, we can't do that,” your viewpoint will be respected.

  • Respect for All. My father was a blue-collar worker in a factory for all of his working life. He was also a union leader. Although I didn't fully realize it at the time, his role as an employee and as a part of a union provided me with a unique perspective into working with all kinds of people. Nothing irked him more than a manager who gave the impression that he was smarter or otherwise better than the “lowly hourly employees.” There were also, however, a number of managers in my father’s 40+ years of service with his employer for whom he felt great respect and admiration. These were the managers who treated everyone as equals and with respect, regardless of their occupation or job title. I have tried always to emulate these actions in my own career.

  • Trust Builder. At the core of virtually every relationship is the (usually unasked) question, “Can I trust you?” Building trust is critical for HR professionals but the process can be extremely tricky. Employees sometimes assign ulterior motives to what HR says or wonder why HR is asking a particular question. If we are perceived to be constantly judging and evaluating others, they will in turn carefully measure what they say to us. This makes it difficult to get a candid opinion from employees. HR must have the ability and the desire to demonstrate that we are on the same team, and that we are interested in catching someone doing something right, not doing something wrong. Our interest is in making everyone successful because that will make the organization successful. An ex-DEA agent once told me, “Nobody likes a snitch,” and this was a man who absolutely relied on snitches in order to do his job.

  • The ninth, “bonus” competency—having compassion and empathy for others. This also involves getting a great deal of satisfaction from seeing others succeed. Sadly, this trait is often dismissed as “warm and fuzzy” and as having no place in today’s HR department. How untrue! I look at the world today and, frankly, I don't see the cold and impersonal style being overwhelmingly successful. Employees distrust management. They yearn for fulfillment on the job; for being valued for who they are in addition to what they can do, craving that sense of being fully engaged and passionate about what they do for a living. We have enough administrators measuring and policing everything we do. Quite simply, we need more people who care.

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Author Bio: Steve Hewitt is the president of The Hewitt Group, a firm that provides consulting and training services in leadership, management, team building and human resources. You can contact him at 704.321.2644 or at

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