What It Really Means to Be a Strategic HR Leader
Samantha McLaren

By: Samantha McLaren on August 20th, 2020

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What It Really Means to Be a Strategic HR Leader

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Est. Read Time: 3 min.

There’s a lot of talk these days about what “strategic HR” really means. But when it comes to implementing a strategic approach across your department and in your own day-to-day role as an HR leader, terminology isn’t what’s important—it’s results that really matter. 


So, instead of trying to define the over-defined term, let’s explore what it actually takes to become a strategic HR leader. Here are some actionable steps you can take to cultivate your strategic side. 


1. Keep an eye on the big picture

When adopting a strategic mindset, the first step is to zoom out and take stock of the big picture. On a basic level, this can simply mean thinking beyond your own personal perspective and problems. But for leadership roles, a big-picture mentality encompasses an understanding of the business as a whole. 


A deep knowledge of your industry, market, and organization is key to anticipating trends, capitalizing on opportunities, and identifying—and avoiding—any looming crises. Here are some ways to apply a big-picture lens to your business perspective:


  • Stay up to date. Regularly research industry news, trends, and predictions.

  • Expand your network. Attend organization- and industry-wide conferences and events to expand your knowledge and connections.

  • Keep your eyes open. Listen and observe the trends across your organization. Do the same questions, concerns, or issues continue to crop up?

  • Connect the dots. Consider the most common concerns of your colleagues. Why do they persist, and what can be done to remedy them?


2. Open the door to an honest dialogue

Open and honest conversations are at the heart of any successful HR function. Adopting more inclusive and forward-thinking tactics to facilitate them can be what sets you apart as a strategic leader, and not just another professional.


A major aspect of this is building trust and garnering honest feedback from your HR team and your workforce as a whole. This is integral to improving the employee experience. After all, how can you create a successful solution if you don’t understand the problem? 


Gathering as much data as possible is the best way to uncover strategic insights and solutions. Try these tactics for starters:


  • Encourage debate. Rather than striving for consensus, embrace constructive disagreement. To ensure you’re capturing all sides of the argument, consider creating designated meetings and survey channels where opinions can be shared.

  • Refute assumptions. Sticking to the way you’ve always done things is convenient and comfortable—but it’s not strategic. Since you may not always realize when you’re doing it, practice pinpointing and challenging assumptions that affect the way you approach HR—and encourage your team to do the same. 

  • Experiment and iterate. Introducing new programs, technologies, and processes is a crucial part of your job. To approach rollouts more strategically, consider doing test runs with small groups of users and getting their feedback before committing to anything. This is a great way to gather more data and can lead to more successful, well-received changes.


3. Refine your communication strategies

No matter how transformative your next big idea is, it can only be as good as the way you communicate it. Without the tools to communicate your thoughts clearly and effectively, you won’t be recognized as a strategic leader by your colleagues—or make a business impact


Strong spoken and written communication skills are necessary, and like anything else, they can be improved with practice. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you work on better communicating your ideas:


  • Keep it concise. Most employees and stakeholders don’t have the time or energy to listen to rambling speeches or read seven-page emails. Keeping your points concise will increase receptivity and promote understanding—while boosting your credibility as a strategic HR leader. Grouping connected ideas into bullets or categories is a good place to start.

  • Cut the modifiers. Using phrases like “maybe” or “I think” can dilute your image as a strong leader worth listening to, so try to limit how often you use them. Strong HR communication is all about projecting confidence—and instilling it in your employees.

  • Don’t bury the lead. Rather than slowly building up to the argument you’re trying to make, lead with it—otherwise, people may miss the point. The easier it is for employees to grasp the idea, the more faith they’ll have in your ability to implement it. 


4. Build up your executive presence 

Executive presence—the ability to convey confidence and capability in the way you carry yourself—can make it easier to bring your ideas to fruition. Since executive buy-in is often essential, helping executives to see you as an equal can make all the difference. 


Executive presence might not be something you were born with, but it is something that can be achieved over time. Here are some strategies you can use to build your executive presence and command the attention of everyone around you:


  • Look for inspiration. Look around your organization and take note of the people whose leadership skills and presence you admire. How do they communicate effectively? How do they handle conflict? A lot can be achieved with observation and emulation.

  • Practice public speaking. Nothing conveys executive presence like the ability to speak to any sized group with the same level of confidence. Watch videos of strong public speakers, paying close attention to everything from their tone of voice to their body language, then speak to yourself in the mirror, mimicking what you’ve learned. Practice makes perfect. 


5. Carve out time for reflection

The most strategic HR leaders always make time for focused reflection, ensuring they’ve really absorbed the meaning of conversations and thought through every decision carefully before they act on it. Of course, when you have a lot on your plate, that can be a challenge. 


Here are some ways to find time for reflection in even the busiest of schedules: 


  • Stick to the essentials. If you’re constantly jumping from call to call or meeting to meeting, you won’t be able to deeply engage with what you’re hearing. This can lessen the value of your insights and contributions, so try to only participate when your presence is actually required. This will mean relinquishing some control and trusting other members of your team to handle things in your absence, which can take some getting used to—but it will help you spend your time more strategically in the long run. 

  • Block off time on your calendar. Careful reflection can’t be something you fit in here and there when you have the time—because let’s face it, something else will always crop up. To make sure you actually dedicate time to it, treat it like any other must-do task, blocking off time on your calendar and even setting reminders for yourself, at least until you get into the habit. During these periods, turn off notifications on your devices and let people know not to disturb you to limit any potential distractions, so you can get the most value from the time. 


Of course, having the right HR tools and processes in place also helps, ensuring you spend less time on menial tasks—and more time on what really matters. Download our eBook, The Key to Strategic HR: Process Automation.

Download the eBook, The Key to Strategic HR: Process Automation
Download the eBook, The Key to Strategic HR: Process Automation

About Samantha McLaren

Scottish-born Samantha McLaren is a copywriter and editor with a specialty for the recruiting and HR space. She has written dozens of articles on topics ranging from employee retention and engagement to employer branding, company culture, and management strategies.