Workforce's Work in Progress author Kris Dunn.
How to Hire Your First HR Leader

By Kris Dunn | Work in Progress


o, business is good, growth is strong and you’re ready to hire your first HR leader. That’s great news. Congrats!

Now comes the hard part.

This column is not meant to help those looking for their first HR hire, which is generally an individual added by small to medium-sized business when transactional items like payroll and compliance overwhelm an office manager or similar administrative employee with another job to do.

That was your first HR hire. You’ve likely made that hire at least a year or so ago. You thought that person was going to shore up your recruiting issues and get to needed projects in performance, training and other areas. You were wrong.

So here we are. You just posted an opening for an HR manager/director — your first HR leader. If you’re going to invest the money, you need the person to innovate and deliver the return in all your areas of need related to talent.

There’s a high degree of variability across HR Manager/director candidates. Pick your Top Three areas of need, then interview purposefully.
Finding the right hire in this situation is hard, and misses occur often. Here are ideas to assist in your search:

Experience matters, so prepare to dig. If you’re looking for someone to come in and build your next-level HR platform, you’re going to need to make sure they’ve done it before. The biggest lie the devil ever told the world about HR is that titles equate to ability. That’s not only false in the world of HR, it’s dangerous.

There’s a high degree of variability across HR manager/director candidates. To ensure you end up with what you need, pick your top three HR areas of need, then prepare to interview candidates purposefully on how they have built strong programs in those areas.

Ask candidates to bring a portfolio of examples of their work in each domain. Make sure the experience is real, not hypothetical or you’re going to be less than satisfied in under a year.

Company size of current and past employers is important. As a growing company, you’re going to be naturally attracted to HR leaders in small companies. While that’s one path to success, you shouldn’t discount HR pros who want to downshift from a mega-company existence to the SMB life.

Big company HR pros have the benefit of growing up with great tools and resources in the areas important to you. The best ones (who are a motivational fit for life in a smaller company) can use that experience to build your HR platform in a meaningful, progressive way.

Consider recruiting backgrounds as an alternative. Most growing businesses seek to add their first HR leader at around the 100-employee mark. You’re likely adding this leadership team member due to growth, which means recruiting is almost always a pain point. For best results, look to add candidates to your hiring process that have been pure recruiters in their past in addition to holding pure HR positions. Interview to understand their success and satisfaction in the former recruiting role. If your first HR leader has past success as a recruiter and enjoyed that life, you’ll be set up for success.

Of course, all of those tips are related to candidate backgrounds and what you’ll see on résumés. To truly win with your first HR leader hire, you’re also going to have to be brutally honest with yourself related to your company environment and the behavioral DNA you need in a candidate that provides the best match.

My new book, “The 9 Faces of HR,” digs deep into the behavioral DNA of HR pros. Here’s the must-haves I’d recommend for anyone seeking to hire their first HR leader:

Quick on the draw. Taking in large amounts of data/feedback and making quick, accurate decisions is key. Things move pretty fast at a high-growth company, and the right candidate for you will need to match the speed.

Fearless. Your new HR leader needs to be naturally inclined to deal with challenges head on. The right candidate for you will have a bias toward action.

Loves chaos. Let’s face it, you have a cool company but it’s a freak show, as all high-growth organizations are. The right candidate is going to view chaos as a ladder, not a barrier.

Successfully hiring your first HR leader is about finding a candidate in the sweet spot — the intersection of hustle, hard work, innovation and the ability to create product and services others will use to move your company forward.

The right one is out there, but only if you go into the search with a clear plan of what you are looking for. Don’t settle!

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor. To comment, email