The top 10 most frequent comments made by Reward Directors

Jamie Newton

Jamie Newton

Partner - Compensation & Benefits, HR Operations

I have heard this phrase so many times from clients when recruiting that it was only when I stopped and thought about it, that I realised what a bizarre concept this is. How do we define if someone is nice and normal? Why is this a requirement when hiring reward professionals and how can we use such a loose and vague term to source candidates? In order to answer this we have to go back to really understand what’s happened. It is widely commented that the reward profession has evolved notably in the last decade. Go back into the late 90’s and early 00’s and the stereotypical reward professional was seen as a number crunching individual, usually with thick rimmed glasses, who sat in darkened area of the HR department and no one ever quite knew what they did. They talked about annual cycles, pay & rations and the term “benchmarking” seemed to be thrown around a lot with other bits of HR Jargon like “HR Business Partner” and “Talent Management”; and we all talked about Dave Ulrich as some sort of HR spiritual leader guiding the way.

Reward was part of the centre of excellence and therefore for the most part was less client facing and it’s interactions with the business were seen as relatively limited. This is why the reward professional was sometimes seen as the “techy” of the HR function and whilst they were respected for what they did, Reward was often seen as some sort of dark art. Admittedly, in the early 00’s Reward as a profession seemed quite happy to live up to this stereotype and as such, I met many individuals who whilst being technically brilliant often shied away from the limelight and we didn’t comment on relationships management skills or gravitas because that wasn’t necessarily required in their role. This wasn’t the case for all reward professionals and there were some outstanding individuals who are still very much market leaders in the field. The simple point is that having an engaging personality, being commercially astute and a skilled and gifted communicator weren’t the essential ingredients of the Reward professional.  It was accepted that as a technical discipline, technical ability was paramount and that you could compromise on other aspects during the interview process.

Fast forward fifteen years and the landscape looks entirely different. The recession has perhaps played a crucial part in this and the increased scrutiny, in particular within the financial services arena, has catapulted the reward profession into the forefront of any HR function. Reward is the lifeblood that makes an organisation tick. Retaining, engaging and attracting staff is intrinsically linked to Reward and within a growing and increasingly competitive market, woe betide a business that doesn’t value its Reward team. Whilst this is fantastic, it has also changed the core ingredients required of the modern day reward professional. With increased power came increased responsibility and evidently technical skills were no longer enough.

Public interest in executive pay has never been higher and organisations are under pressure to really show a clear link between pay and performance, whilst also ensuring they aren’t taking excessive risk to achieve better results. There are now very public consequences of getting your reward offering wrong, both in terms of monetary fines, and potentially losing consumer confidence and support. Fundamentally, if mistakes are made heads will roll and we have seen it happen a number of times in the last five years. In this kind of landscape why would an HR Director want to front up on reward queries from the c suite individuals when a wrong answer can affect your future?  It has been mentioned to me a number of times that HR Director’s in the know, hire in a talented Reward professional and step well away. This is why Reward professionals now need to be gifted communicators and relationship managers to really be successful in their role.  Condensing very complex information into short, sharp, meaningful statements for a board member is virtually an everyday occurrence for a Reward Director!

However, articulating this new requirement is often quite difficult for organisations looking to hire in a senior reward professional. Some firms call it “commerciality”, which is another ridiculously vague term that can be interpreted a thousand different ways! Other terms I have come across include “business savvy”,  “politically aware”, “astute”, “strong emotional quota”, a “fresh thinker” and my personal favourite which appeared on a job spec recently.. “sagacious”!

So if the ingredients of the modern day Reward Professional have changed and evolved, does this mean that aspiring reward folk need to start reading self-help books and writing to Dave Ulrich for guidance on being more commercial? The answer to this is a resounding NO! The reality is that commercial awareness has always formed part of most reward professional’s armouries. Having a strong understanding of a firm’s financial performance has always been second nature to many, but at the time it didn’t constitute a core part of their role accountabilities. Whilst some individuals may not be gifted public speakers, for the most part, Reward professionals are confident communicators who can manage stakeholder relationships well.  I find it frustrating that the in some corners of HR people talk as if the Reward professional has had to develop a new outgoing personality, as if they were some sort of social recluse. The reality is the demands of their role didn’t previously require them to be “captain banter” and as such they seemed to have been unfairly judged on this basis.

The real change here is the increase of the personal profile of reward professionals within a business and the challenge is about how to successfully manage the increased weight of responsibility and work well with the rest of HR. Most firms struggle to define this concept and hence I am often asked to find Reward individuals who are simply “nice and normal”. Whilst it is basic in reality, for me, it has actually proved the key when placing reward professionals in recent years. I look for core technical skills and probe quite heavily on this, but ultimately it is the personality of the individual that really makes the difference; so perhaps “nice and normal” isn’t such an absurd concept?