5 essential skills for future-proof HR leaders

5 essential skills for future-proof HR leaders

For years, HR has advocated for, but not been granted, a seat at the boardroom table. In many organisations, the department is seen as more of a back-office role, concentrating mainly on employee policies, contracts, and benefits. However, the challenge of dealing with Covid-19 has forced companies to extend more influence to HR, to help them keep their business afloat. 

HR’s role as a business partner 

In the post-pandemic world of work, HR must hold on to their newfound leadership position and become a respected business partner. For that to happen, HR should involve itself more in developing strategies that will help their organisation achieve its competitive goals. HR business partners must make sure to be included in conversations about the future, mission, goals, and overall strategy of the organisation. In this way, they can help the organisation secure a strong market position.

According to HR guru Dave Ulrich, an HR department has four distinct roles:

Strategic partner

As a strategic partner, it is HR’s responsibility to align HR activities and initiatives with the overall business strategy. This is HR’s opportunity to prove they can make a real impact on ROI, by boosting levels of innovation, helping the company to become more agile, and putting best-in-class training programs in place to help employees stay on top of their game. 

Change agent

Being a ‘change agent’ means supporting business change and transitions through the organisation’s human capital. This will sometimes mean that you need to make employees available to work on change projects and arrange the upskilling that will make this transition a success. Other times, you will need to support downsizing or upscaling the workforce in the most cost and time efficient way. 

Employee champion

HR business partners need to know what employees need, both on a material and inspirational level. They need to ensure that management gives each employee what they deserve. In times of change, it is more important than ever that HR protects their employees’ interests. After all, when the good times return, employees will remember how they were treated during the crisis. When we return to a stronger labour market, employees will either reward an organisation’s loyalty, or move on to the first good opportunity that becomes available.

Administrative expert

As administrative experts, your HR department provides the best possible service, in terms of payroll processes, contracts and hiring, all at the lowest cost to the organisation.

Now, what competencies do HR business partners need to be effective in all four of these roles? We could create a long list of skills that can give HR a seat at the top table, but we will focus on just the five essential skills:

Strategic insight

To connect HR solutions to business goals, HR business partners need to be able to see the bigger picture and be aware of what solutions will help the business to succeed in the marketplace. They need to be able to contribute to high-level discussions and strategic decision-making. 

Relationship building

As the middleman between employees and the organisation, HR business partners need to be able to build relationships with people at all levels. The better the relationships they build within the organisation, the easier it will be to collaborate with other parts of the business to provide a seamless service. 


In a role where the wellbeing of employees is their responsibility, HR business partners need to be able to empathise. For people to approach them when issues arise, such as mental health problems, difficult situations at home or conflicts in the workplace, being able to show genuine compassion makes all the difference. It creates a sense of security and breaks down any barrier to employees bringing up whatever has a negative impact on their wellbeing, and therefore likely their performance. 


There will always be change happening within an organisation. And when that happens, HR business partners need to be able to get people on board with the changes. On the other hand, HR business partners also need to be able to put their foot down when management wants to implement changes that are undesirable from an HR point of view.

Problem solving

Whether there are conflicts within the organisation, or new legislation brings a wave of change, there are always plenty of problems on an HR business partner’s plate. And, even if they are not personally solving these problems, they should have the tenacity to find out who can. In times of rapid change, it can be quite a challenge to balance the interests of both the organisation and its employees. 

Download our eGuide, HR’s role in the new world of work, for practical advice and a framework of key considerations for HR.