Finding the Right HR Director

Feb 26, 2007

I was sitting in a meeting of top managers in a fairly large A/E firm the other day when the topic of candidates for their vacant HR director’s position came up. The woman who had been filling the job abruptly quit and they now had a chance to rethink the role somewhat and perhaps reposition it to better meet the priorities of the firm today. When I suggested they not fill the job with an HR person who is preoccupied with liability issues and job classifications and instead hire someone with a strong recruiting orientation, it struck an immediate chord. All agreed that someone like that would be a better fit for where the firm was heading. They are growing like gangbusters and could realistically add more than 100 people in the coming year. Recruiting is a huge priority and a major expense item, and having the right person in the top HR job could save them money and help make sure they didn’t have delivery problems on some of the large upcoming projects they’d recently secured. I’ve had similar conversations with the top managers of other companies over the years and while they often agree that recruiting should be the priority, they usually end up hiring someone from a more traditional human resource management background. “Why is that?” you may ask. My experience tells me there are three primary reasons A/E firms don’t get the kinds of human resources people they really want and need: First, there just aren’t that many HR people out there with a strong recruiting interest and background. For every one who does fit this profile, there are 20 who are more geared to benefits administration and policy manual updates. Good recruiting types who also know the other things they need to know about HR are, like most of the design and technical specialists we are all trying to hire, hard to come by. Second, most A/E/P and environmental firms simply aren’t ready to pay what it takes to get someone with a strong recruitment background. Scarcity implies a higher value and the employment market validates this. Top recruiters make more than top administrators. While HR directors are typically the lowest-paid managers at their level in the firm (comparing them with heads of finance and accounting, marketing, information systems, etc.), those with a strong recruiting background could easily earn as much or more than their counterparts in charge of other functions. Firms are just not used to this fact and often can’t understand that getting the kind of person they really want may cost twice what they were paying to fill the job with the last person who held it. Finally, managers in A/E firms just don’t understand the fundamental differences in the two types of people they could employ to fill their top HR job. Somewhere in the hiring process, they forget what kind of person they really wanted to hire for the job and inadvertently do their best to hire a slightly better version of the last one they had. Since there’s only one top job in human resources in any firm, it may be years before they get a second chance to correct their mistake. What these people will actually do when it comes time to hire their new HR director is unknown right now. I sure hope they can find some good candidates, step up to the plate with a good offer, and remember what they are trying to accomplish as they go through the process. Originally published 2/26/2007

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