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Future-Proofing your HR career


If you’re in HR it’s prudent to worry about the future of your career. There are many forces that could eliminate your job; the big ones are:

  • Fewer HR jobs due to automation. It’s entirely possible 20-40% of HR jobs will disappear in the next 5-10 years thanks to automation.

  • Jobs within your HR speciality change, and you become obsolete. HR jobs are changing. For example, if you are an expert at traditional recruiting methods (posting jobs, screening resumes) you may find yourself replaced by recruiters skilled at candidate relationship management (identifying and nurturing a pool of candidates before an opening arises).

  • A fundamental change in HR’s role makes you obsolete. As HR becomes more business focused or analytics focused it may be that companies look for people from other functions (e.g. operations, marketing, finance) to staff what were once HR roles.

None of this is certain, it’s simply enough of a risk for HR professionals to take notice.

Tactics for keeping up with change

Here is a list of tactics for future proofing yourself:

  • Get out of the box

Well, that’s a refreshingly short list. I was intending something much longer, but most items fall within this larger concept. If you work in a large organization then chances are that you have specific, somewhat repetitive tasks, and deal with a relatively small number of people. The whole point of a job, usually, is that it’s a cog in a smoothly running machine. The challenge for you is that the future isn’t going need that cog.

There are three walls of the box you need to break through:

  1. Who you know. To be alert to what’s happening in the world, and the possibilities for you within in, there is nothing better than being in touch with a wide range of people. People with different interests, in different industries, and on different continents. These people will be essential in allowing you to move to some newly created job where you can’t rely on your history of success in the old box to get you hired.

  2. What you read (and watch). The dominant fact of the future is that it’s uncertain, so you want to broaden your sources of ideas and insights. Pick up books on topics you’d normally avoid, listen to speakers whose ideas you don’t like. Breadth matters more than depth.

  3. What you do. Take on new tasks; try new things; work on different teams. You need to constantly be learning about new areas and developing skills, not by reading but by doing.

Getting yourself to do what you know you should do

The problem of life is less often that you don’t know what to do and more often that you know what to do but don’t do it.

Here are a few problems you may face and tips for tackling them:

  • It doesn’t feel like you have time. The best advice for creating a system that can free up time (and energy) that I’ve found is David Allen’s “Getting things done”. The book is old and talks too much about managing paper, but the core ideas are wonderful and better expressed here than his more recent books.

  • You don’t enjoy networking. One of my wise friends said the most effective networking he’s done is when he’s given up trying to network and just finds interesting things to talk about. The key trick is painfully simple, just ask questions about what people do or like or think and then follow up ruthlessly until you find something interesting. Ask anything. Maybe ask where they are from. How did they like it? What lessons did they learn growing up there? From there will spring useful insights and good relationships.

  • Your organization won’t let you out of the box. Look, of course your organization may want to keep you in a narrow box. That’s where you are most efficient and easiest to manage. You have to push hard to be allowed to try new things or to join project teams not right in your domain. If there is no opportunity to do new things within your organization then start a hobby job on the side.

  • You not interested in what’s outside the box. All the advice I’ve been giving presumes one is fairly high on the psychological trait of openness. Not everyone is high on this trait and that can be a disadvantage when you have to adapt to a world facing disruptive change. I’m not sure what to say here beyond recognize the cost of being comfortable and push yourself to do things you don’t particularly like.

Some specifics for HR

I think the general tactics of constantly trying to get out of too narrow a box are more important than specific tactics within HR. That said, here’s what you should focus on:

  • Business savvy. Work very hard to understand the business. There’s a secret here I’ll have to explore more deeply in another blog; the short version is to think of business savvy as understanding the business as different managers see it rather than from a helicopter view.

  • Data savvy. Bring data into all your decision making. You don’t need to learn statistics, just develop a basic high school comfort level of understanding and using data.

  • Technology savvy. Technology is dominating the practice of HR more and more. If you are really good with new technologies, then you’ll continue to be valuable.

  • Cross silos. Someone who knows something about training and talent acquisition and compensation is more likely to find a role in a turbulent world than someone who is strictly confined to one role.

  • Manage change. This whole blog has been about self-management to future proof yourself in a world of change. If you are skilled at managing change within your organization then perhaps that’s the ultimately in a future-proof skill set.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield spent his time in space thinking “What could kill me next?” That didn’t make him paranoid or morose, it just made him prepared. Go through you days asking what could kill your career and prepare yourself with a breadth of connections, knowledge and skills.


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