Transitioning to Head of HR

For many experienced HR Business Partners, transitioning to a Head of HR leadership role is the next natural step in their career trajectory. Often referred to as the ‘No2’ role in HR, a Head of HR mandate can offer a multitude of new challenges, ranging from leadership to budgeting and ultimately playing a more tangible role in the development and execution of the HR strategy. The rewards can also be very significant: not only do you take one step further to HR Director level, total compensation for market roles typically rise in excess of 30%

It’s also worth considering that not every HR Business Partner wishes to step up into the Head of HR role. Many candidates I interview feel extremely rewarded in a strategic, business facing role and are reluctant to navigate the complexities of increased direct reports and perceived politics that may come with the territory. But for those HR Business Partners who have ‘hit a ceiling’ and feel they are ready to step up, how can they start preparing to make a move which will involve many hurdles?

In my recent experience of searching for Heads of HR on behalf of clients, the following experience and attributes have been particularly desirable. Although far from exhaustive, gaining or demonstrating some of the below experience and attributes could add significant value in any HR Business Partner successfully transitioning to Head of HR.

Project Management     

Stepping up to a lead a significant project or transformation programme might feel like the last thing you need in an already packed HRBP agenda. However, the development opportunities are wide ranging. Whether the project succeeds, stalls or indeed fails, essential skills including leadership, delegation and making difficult decisions will be further developed. HR transformation programmes typically interact with a diverse range of corporate functions including finance and IT, and require collaboration with leaders and specialists outside HR.  All these skills will enhance your profile and deepen your knowledge of how the business operates.


Whether it is approaching an existing organisational challenge in a different way or driving a completely innovative approach to an area of HR from scratch, striving for innovation can certainly help differentiate your profile. Demonstrating you are prepared to challenge the status quo and can bring a strong degree of ingenuity to a team or business and can be highly attractive. So, whether its trialing new recruitment technology or approaching performance management differently, striving to be innovative in a meaningful and commercial way is a great way to enhance your profile.

Specialist HR experience        

Securing an internal secondment within a HR Centre of Excellence can not only be highly rewarding in terms of gaining specialist knowledge, it can be hugely differentiating in a HRBP profile. There are a significant number of board level Group HR Directors currently working for high-profile firms who, earlier in their career, made conscious and perhaps strategic decisions to specialize in Reward, Talent and Employee Relations before returning to generalist HR mandates. Gaining specialist HR knowledge can provide an excellent platform to make the successful transition to Head of HR having gained broader knowledge and enhanced credibility.

Professional development 

High performing HR Business Partners don’t stand still in terms of their professional development, particularly when they are serious about transitioning into a Head of HR leadership role. The opportunities to develop are vast and it can be expensive to access some (for example, an MBA).  However, embarking on a management development or leadership course will strengthen your profile and better still, provide you with stronger insights and self-awareness as to what type of leader you are and how you can develop your leadership capability further.

 Digital HR Mindset

HR Business Partners who stay connected to the developing world of new HR Technologies, AI and Robotics can bring fresh ideas to the approach of HR Business Partnering teams. Candidates with first class leadership skills, high levels of emotional intelligence and presentational skills, can sometimes fall short in backing their HR strategy with a Digital strategy. Investing time in developing your technology profile can be an excellent way to differentiate your profile further.

There are many unwritten rules and dynamics in promotion and step up opportunities. However, by stepping back and reflecting on your existing HR Business Partner profile and how this could be enhanced, candidates may be better positioned to make the transition to Head of HR successfully.

Barry Byrne, Partner, Aretai LLP

March 2020

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