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Thinking about HR careers


If you are fairly new to your HR career, then it is good to look ahead at options for your future. I find many HR professionals simply look up the HR career path in their organization, or if they are in a small organization, look at the lack of a career path. In reality there are many options for an HR professional.

Scoping out your place in HR

We talk about being HR professionals, however many jobs in HR have little in common with each other. A reward professional may have little in common with a recruiter; and an HR analytics specialist is another game entirely. A good starting point in thinking about careers is to define what areas of HR might be a fit for you; recognizing that if you want the top job you will need to have some competence in all areas of HR.

An interesting point comes from SumTotal’s Wendy Werve who noted that even though people can be very specialized, it is more important than ever to know something about multiple areas so you can collaborate with them. A trainer who knows something about compensation is more valuable than one who only knows training. An HR professional who knows something about PR and IT and supply chain is more valuable than one who only knows HR.

As well as thinking about what parts of HR you want to specialize in, you should consider specializing in one industry, since these can vary widely from manufacturing to professional services. Traditionally, HR has felt it could work in any industry, but someone who focuses on building expertise in one industry will generally be more valuable than someone who keeps jumping around. It can be risky placing all your bets on one industry, however, so you will want to cultivate some options in case the whole industry goes sour.

Spending time outside the HR department

Probably the single most valuable thing an HR person can do for their career is to spend some time outside the HR department. If it is at all practical spending time in some other function will be immensely helpful to your long-term prospects. If you cannot get a permanent role outside of HR then beg your way onto projects that sit elsewhere in the company. Most senior leaders recognize how important this experience is for HR professionals (and they bemoan how few have it), so you may be surprised how supportive they will be, even if your immediate boss is not.

Spending time outside HR in a company

There are a ton of great jobs in the world of HR that do not involve being in the HR department of a company. There is exciting work going on in HR technology vendors, and that is where I would go if I were a young HR person today. You might end up with a job in product marketing, business development or implementation---drawing on your HR subject matter expertise to excel in this new kind of work. It is quite different from being an HR generalist and often much more fulfilling. You should also consider work in an HR outsourcing firm, where delivering HR services to clients is what creates the bottom line.

Bracing yourself for analytics

A client of mine recently hired someone with a PhD in quantum physics for the HR department because of the pressure to do sophisticated analytics. This trend can terrify traditionalists who went into HR because they liked people better than math. It will still be rare for an HR professional to need advanced skills in statistics or data modelling, however you cannot run away from it either. You do need to make a serious effort to immerse yourself in analytics and evidence-based management so that you know how it is used even if you never do any serious analysis yourself.

Keeping an eye on trends

There are all kinds of emerging areas like governance, global talent management, and reporting to investors that may potentially provide great careers. Keep an eye on trends and if one of these areas is appealing, seek out opportunities to develop expertise.

There are lots of opportunities for an HR professional, and the best ones probably require doing something other than waiting to be promoted up to the next level at your current company. Think broadly: try things out, and do not assume that the HR function of the future will resemble what we have today. If all else fails, get a doctorate in quantum physics and you’ll have a golden future in HR.


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