What makes a good HR Director? Part 1: On Paper


Good HR Directors are hard to find. 

Whether you’re an organisation looking for someone to head up your HR department, or an individual hoping to be that person, you need to have a clear idea of what makes a competent, effective director of people.

In my years as a search professional, I’ve come across a remarkable amount of confusion and misunderstand regarding the necessary qualities and prerequisites for this role. Even large, well-established corporations have shown a sometimes flabbergasting lack of insight into what makes a good HR director.

With that in mind, here’s the list of the qualities I would ideally like to see before considering someone for a shortlist. It’s not exhaustive or comprehensive; nor does it mean that every single box has to be ticked. But it’s a helpful foundation for further exploration.

Breadth of experience

Looking at a candidate’s CV, I would expect to see proof of a wide perspective. This translates to having worked in multiple companies. Each organisation has a different way of doing things, and a good HR Director needs to have a sound understanding of a range of approaches and company cultures to have developed the necessary maturity for effective leadership.

Ideally, these companies would span at least two or three sectors; someone who has worked solely in the HR department of a medium-sized business, for example, wouldn’t be as well equipped to transfer their skills to a new organisation as someone who’s worked in listed companies or multinationals as well as SMEs.

Depth of experience

As well as breadth of experience, we’re also looking for depth of experience. This means that the candidate has held several different roles. Someone who’s only worked in talent acquisition, or recruitment, for example, won’t have enough of an understanding of the many aspects of managing an HR function. They need to have technical knowledge of several areas within the function to be able to see the wider picture and orchestrate the tensions and resonances between them. If not, they’re at risk of not managing in a systemic way that ties in with the culture that the organisation is hoping to propagate.

Maturity of experience

Having experience in a small company is a good start, but for the Group HR Director jobs out there, I would only be happy presenting my client with a candidate who has already worked in a large, complex, and mature organisation. These enterprises are quite different beasts from small or medium sized businesses, and require an understanding of how to implement change and manage systems and people at scale.


At Indigogold, we’re great believers in converting capability. Our consultancy services are partially aimed at taking someone’s innate ability and converting it into tangible performance. (Here’s an article explaining how we believe in creating culture, not process.) So when I’m looking for a candidate for the role of HR Director, I like to see proof that they have the required innate capability to rise to the many challenges of such a high pressured and complex job. It’s difficult to get an exact reading of this from a CV, but I tend to look at the individual’s career trajectory as a good starting point.

If I see that someone has moved quickly up through the ranks, this is a sign that they probably do have at least measure of capability, and are outgrowing the roles further down the hierarchy rapidly.

An important indicator that a candidate really can deliver the goods is when they’ve been promoted internally, preferably within more than one organisation; this tells me that their genuine ability and exceptional performance is being recognised. On the flip side, if someone is moving regularly into more senior positions, but has only been able to manage this by moving to a new company, my warning light goes on. Is this person flying by the seat of their pants, talking the talk but not really in possession of the necessary qualities for the more senior position? If this isn’t the case, why haven’t they been selected for promotion internally?

In short, I want to see a well-thought-out, purposeful trajectory in their past roles.

An international approach

An HR Director should be someone that’s familiar with a range of different cultures, business approaches, and personality types. They need to be able to deal with quickly changing circumstances, and be decisive in the face of adversity as well as compassionate to the human element of the job. If someone has worked abroad for any length of time, they will probably have developed these skills. But a locally-based individual with responsibility for multiple markets is the next best thing, and an important element of your portfolio for most FTSE organisations.


If you’re hoping to be a candidate for an HR Director role in the future, this list may seem to be a difficult one to complete. The truth is, it should be. Companies looking to fill this role should expect this list to be at least mostly covered by the candidates on their shortlist.

The HR Director, like any senior management role in a large company, is one of the pivotal mechanisms upon which the organisation is finely balanced. Put the wrong person in this role, and you may well see the integrity and functionality of your organisation floundering. But choose the right person, and it could mean a serious uptake in the efficiency and effectiveness of your people, making the company the well-oiled machine that is a prerequisite for optimal performance.


“What makes a good HR Director part two: In person”, which will go into detail about the skills, capabilities, and attitude of a successful HR Director, will be following shortly.

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