Your talent, your potential and the human resource department

While most other areas of business activity undergo radical reinvention, what are human resource managers doing differently to stay relevant? Associate Professor Polly Parker says personal responsibility plays an important part.


How smart organisations invest in the talent they attract is the responsibility of the Human Resource department, but while most other areas of business activity undergo radical reinvention, what are human resource departments doing differently to demonstrate their relevance? Now that the portfolio career has been established, can they keep up with our endless quest for career satisfaction and work-life balance, life-long learning and upskilling to jobs that ten years ago simply didn’t exist?

And what role does personal responsibility play in making the most of your working life?

We spend around 20% of our lives at work, and a good many of us – 80% according to Deloitte’s 2011 Shift Index – don’t like what we do.

It’s a business reality that satisfied employees are more productive. Apart from anything, nurturing talent is cheaper than the constant cycle of recruitment, training and then replacing great people who move on when they aren’t getting what they need from their job.

Then there’s the currently popular happiness indices. New Economics Foundation, an independent economic think-tank in the UK, estimates productivity differences between happy and unhappy workers can range between 10 and 50%. Ten per cent for more routine, repetitive jobs, and up to 50% for work that requires creativity and initiative.

Human resource departments have responded, and, says Bronwyn Fulton, Head of the Australian HR Practice at Egon Zehnder, whose focus is global Executive Search and Talent Management, they are increasingly viewed as a partner to the business rather than as a service provider, with a significant impact on business outcomes. This is particularly the case for organisations that are highly dependent on their people for how the business does.

“The Human Resource department is responsible for a key business asset,” she explains, “human capital.”

Commercial awareness, cost accountability, budgeting, and insight into the company’s business activities are becoming required HR skills. Managing human capital is, after all, about managing talent in the context of strategic business goals and financial constraints. Evidence for this shift lies in the demand for candidates with broad experience across a range of functions, industries and business cycles. Furthermore, some HR leaders are also gaining direct business leadership experience. This can be an attractive opportunity for both HR leaders and the business. Bronwyn says there are a number of examples where the Human Resource leader has had a career path, including senior operational or P&L leadership roles.

As companies learn the value of retaining existing skills, the emphasis on talent management and retention is also increasing. Today, internal appointments are often the preferred starting point for new vacancies, and career path development builds strategic strength and competitive edge.

Of course, your personal career success can’t be left entirely to HR. It’s important to take control and define your own path.

“There comes a point when the options for regular promotion begin to slow. This is the time to consider longer term career goals and the impact on these that each next step may have,” says Bronwyn Fulton. This is about being conscious of ‘the path dependency of current choices for your desired future role,’ meaning that you should consider how each step you take will influence your path over a medium timeframe.

Knowing your career goal, researching the path that will take you there and building the right ‘package’ of associated experiences, ensuring trusted feedback on your performance along the way and building a solid network of peers are all important career management techniques at this point.

“Peer-to-peer coaching,” says Associate Professor Polly Parker of UQ Business School, “ticks many of these boxes, and can be just the technique that moves you towards that important next step on the career ladder.”

Perhaps peer-to-peer resonates with today’s professionals because it is about self-motivation and self-guidance within a structured framework. “It’s a formal process, and is more than simply coffee with a colleague. Preparation is key. Structured peer coaching will define a time frame, and will encourage participants to gain coaching skills before beginning,” says Associate Professor Parker, and, importantly, “both participants benefit from the exchange.”

As a relationship of equals, “barriers of hierarchy or status don’t inhibit the opportunity for a frank exchange of ideas and feedback, and the growth of trust. This chimes with today’s democratic approach to all our relationships.”

Egon Zehnder’s advice to developing executives is to take some time to reflect on career aspirations and personal brand, then research what it will take to shape them. “One way to think about this is to project yourself into your desired role five to ten years down the track, or look at executives already there. Analyse the experiences, and also the relationships necessary for that role, and then work backwards from this goal point to identify how you might work to build your career, and fill in any experience, skill or networking gaps.”

This is where mentoring can be helpful

Michael Donovan has had a successful career as a CEO, and for the past fifteen years he has used his experience to mentor senior executives. He points out that studies consistently show that those who invest in mentoring go further in their careers, are younger and are generally happier and earn more.

“To be a leader, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are vital. These are skills developed by the robust questioning and listening skills of a good mentor,” says Donovan. It’s about “being smarter without being a smart-arse.”

Traditional mentoring has the advantage of being external to the organisation. An external mentor provides independence and a confidential environment in which the mentee can unload their worries.

As Reid Hoffman, CEO of professional social media network LinkedIn and author of New York Times bestseller “The Start Up of You”, says you should always think of your career as a start-up: ”You presume change and are in a state of Permanent Beta. You’re never a finished product; you’re always adapting.”


As Executive Director and Director of Medical Services at Redcliffe Hospital, Donna O’Sullivan participated in a year-long peer coaching program, meeting monthly to workshop an issue for each of the four peers.

“I was concerned about issues of confidentiality, but trust built up quickly,” she says. “I was surprised at how insightful the questions were, even from people with a vastly different background.” Since the program ended, they have stayed in touch and still turn to each other for advice.

O’Sullivan has since facilitated peer coaching sessions with senior executives. She says the rules of engagement matter. “Those listening must only ask questions, not offer solutions.” This can be challenging, she says. “I have had participants who had to literally sit on their hands to stop themselves from interrupting.”

Last updated:
25 February 2019