Stacy Sollenberger, Partner with ISHR Group, recently completed a Benchmarking Study focused on HR Talent Development. Over the course 3 weeks, we will share the results of this study. The first week, March 7, focused on what Stacy uncovered in terms of the current environment affecting HR. Last week, March 14, explored the differentiators for HR talent in today’s environment. We post our final section today, March 21, by looking at HR development best practices.


ISHR Group recently conducted a benchmarking study to identify best practices and trends in developing HR talent. This study was initiated as part of a project to design career development pathways for a client’s HR organization. We spoke with over 20 leaders whose backgrounds represented more than 40 organizations in academia, large and small corporations, and private equity. Many of you, our valued clients, participated in this study and we are thrilled to share our findings. It is interesting to note that the timing of our discussions coincided with the July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review questioning the role of HR – a topic that seems to be repurposed every few years by the HBR. Given the title of the issue, “It’s Time To Blow Up HR and Build Something New,” you can only imagine our discussions were both thought-provoking and cathartic. While the core insights of our findings are not new, the details may surprise you, as they did our team and our client. For example, the ability to leverage analytics and technology is not new, however, it has moved up in its importance as not only a differentiator, but also as a potential derailer if lacking due to its criticality in many areas impacting HR’s influence. We hope you find the results of the study validating to you and your organization’s contributions and/or that you glean some inspiration that incites new actions toward your own contributions.

HR Development Best Practices

Lastly, we asked what you thought “admired” HR organizations are doing in the area of developing their HR talent. Our intention was to discover how and what these organizations are doing to prepare their talent for growth and create a bench for future key leadership roles. Five key themes emerged:

  1. Robust and Stretch Experiences: Virtually everyone we spoke with emphasized the importance of “keeping it real” in the experiences and assignments of their HR talent. We heard that stretch assignments “build competence and confidence” which are requirements for effective influence as HR leaders. Whether it is due to the pull of change, which requires impact in real time, or the push of HR talent demanding more opportunities to make an impact, there is no denying the importance of ensuring that assignments push talent outside their comfort zones. Your talent knows this is where they truly learn and grow. It is important to note that several of you commented that Millennials and Gen-Z’s want the opportunity to be assigned to corporate social responsibility projects which also builds a sense of internal community. There also appears to be a robust appetite on the part of new talent to experience cross-functional moves to drive their personal engagement.
  1. Mentoring and Coaching: This permeated every aspect of the best practices we heard in HR talent development. With increased stretch assignments pushing talent outside of their comfort zones, there is an imperative to support, mentor, and coach that same talent through the pains and gains in their experiences. Top talent expects this high-touch coaching and it has to be delivered genuinely and in “real time.” You may have read about many organizations tossing their annual performance reviews in favor of immediate or real-time “touch points” regarding what to “continue or consider” on a go-forward basis. Talent, particularly Millennials and Gen-Z’s, expect immediate input delivered in a caring, direct and informal manner.
  1. Touch and Impact The Bottom Line: To develop business acumen and to ensure engagement, assignments and experiences need to have a line of sight as to how the business makes money. Talent expects to be able to have a clear correlation and connection between what they are doing and the bottom line. Busy work doesn’t count; high impact work does.
  1. Customized Career Maps: This new HR environment shuns “cookie cutter” career paths. Gone are the linear “career ladders” which emphasized level increases and promotions. Today it is all about gaining a series of experiences that are fulfilling and meaningful to each individual. Again, this requires real-time, genuine, and high-touch mentoring and coaching. Bucking the “best practice” of HR Developmental or Rotational Programs, one HR leader suggested that these are “old school” ways of developing HR talent and that a more contemporary approach is to “buy HR talent and then further build it by providing targeted developmental experiences internally.” Furthermore, she cautioned that HR rotational programs risk causing frustration if there is nowhere for the HR leaders to go once they have “graduated.” Regardless, we heard that HR Developmental or Rotational Programs are a differentiator for companies keen to attract eager early-career talent who are seeking a company who will directly invest in their growth and development as a leader. It is why most companies that have had rotational programs for decades are known for developing leaders and having strong succession plans.
  1. Online and Self-Directed Learning: While “on the job” experiences are by far the most impactful and preferred means to develop HR talent, many companies further the influence of technology by leveraging online, virtual, and self-directed learning mediums. The benefits are significant, including cost savings, accessibility, ease of updating and keeping current, matching the learning styles of the new generation of recruits, and the flexibility for talent to learn on their own time and at their own pace. The downsides, however, are the lack of interaction with peers for networking and learning from others, the experiential element, and the “time out” that comes with learning in a classroom environment. Many of you discussed how you have most effectively blended these learning approaches and leveraged online learning as a complement to classroom or group learning.


In summary, there exists an overwhelmingly positive view of the evolution of HR as a strategic business partner. HR leaders have more opportunity than ever to drive evolution through broadening their skills, as discussed above, and creating the space for more strategic engagement and direct, value-added contributions in the eyes of their stakeholders. Those HR leaders and HR organizations that proactively drive the development of these skills and monitor their contributions will be viewed as more credible. Referencing the recent HBR article “Why We Love To Hate HR … and What HR Can Do About It,” the most vocal critics say that, “HR Managers focus too much on ‘administrivia’ and lack vision and strategic insight.” The article goes on to discuss how the perception of HR has evolved in direct response to the economy and its impact on the labor market. The bottom-line is that HR needs to adapt quickly to the needs of the business and focus on where we can add the most value. This starts with being more engaged strategically to assess what issues matter, and then leveraging our expertise to proactively address those issues through data, influence, and leadership.

Thanks for reading this series on HR Talent Development. You can learn more at