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HR Magazine - December 2000: Getting to the Top: Advice from Those Who've Made It

By Lin Grensing-Pophal  12/1/2000
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HR Magazine, December 2000

Vol. 45, No. 12

Knowing thy business, being proactive and taking risks are a few of the ways to get to the executive suite.

 What does it take for an HR professional to move into a strategic position at the top of the organization? For David Hutchins, SPHR, vice president of human resources at Richfield Bank in Richfield, Minn., the keys to success include:

  • Willingness to take risks.
  • Knowledge of his business and profession.
  • Ability to establish credibility.

And then there is his varied background—more than 20 years of direct HR experience in industries such as high tech, health care, banking and business services.

It’s not surprising that from the many hats worn by HR executives, variety is key, both in experience and knowledge, say those who have made it. But risk-taking, flexibility, people skills, mentors and continuous learning also have their role in career success.

Even timing can play a part, says Elissa O’Brien, SPHR, vice president of human resources for Easter Seals Rhode Island, in Cranston, R.I.

Knowing the Business

Like Hutchins, James Gray, SPHR, vice president of human resources at Asten Johnson Inc., in Charleston, S.C., believes his broad and varied experience outside the HR profession was key. He started out in industrial engineering and has worked in cost accounting; he’s also been in systems analysis, a general supervisor in production and a shop floor supervisor.

His entry into HR, he says, occurred as manager of industrial engineering when he was exposed to compensation systems and learned to read and understand financial statements and balance sheets. “I understand what a standard cost system is,” he says. “And, I understand technology, systems and PCs.”

Understanding how technology and financial issues affect the profession is important, says Pam Sampel, SPHR, director of human resources and organizational development at KCTS, The Public Network in Seattle. “You need to be really well-rounded,” she says. “What helped me early on is I had a pretty strong background in business and economics. So, I could read financial statements and do financial analysis. Many people in HR didn’t have that.”

While O’Brien may believe she was in the right place at the right time, her broad understanding of business and the human services industry helped. “We all use the phrase ‘business partner,’” she says, “but you really do have to have the business knowledge. You need to talk the business, the lingo; that’s important for your credibility.” And, she adds, “You have to have a solid foundation of HR knowledge.”

Barbara Adams, former vice president of human resources at First Heritage Savings Credit Union in British Columbia, now owns and operates the HR Architects Group, a consulting firm. “I used to say to people that I wasn’t an HR specialist, I was an executive first, with an HR specialty,” Adams says. “I contributed to the overall strategic plan of the organization, coming up with ideas for profit, process improvements, marketing development, financial issues—all aspects of the organization.”

Finding Your Way

You can gain this broad perspective, even if you’re stuck in a back room pushing paper, by being willing to move outside your HR comfort zone and being proactive, Adams says.

“Don’t sit back and wait to offer ideas on how to better the organization,” she urges. “You have to be concerned with being an executive first and then offering your specialty to enhance the contributions that you make.”

Adams would volunteer for “any opportunity I had to participate in an initiative or a project that was at a strategic level, or that had a member of the executive team on it,” she explains. And, she adds, you should be looking for opportunities outside your organization as well.

Patricia Coulter, senior vice president of Salveson Stetson, a high-level executive placement firm in Philadelphia, agrees with this approach. Taking on special projects not only broadens experience, it helps to demonstrate interest and build contacts. “Special project assignments allow HR professionals to work closely with line managers and senior level business managers; it raises their level of visibility.”

And the knowledge gained through involvement in business activities can be applied to day-to-day activities. “If we are truly to be strategic partners and, in essence, be asked to be at the senior leadership discussions, we have to demonstrate that we have that capacity in our daily responsibilities,” Hutchins says.

Coulter agrees. “HR professionals who want to move up in their organizations need to learn to be more strategic. They need to be focused on bottom-line results, as well as looking at the long-term business strategies of the organization.”

Willingness to Take Risks

When O’Brien stepped into an HR role at Easter Seals Rhode Island, she felt it was a great opportunity—but “scary because I had no idea about benefits or compensation and, basically, it was all self-learning.” á

O’Brien built the HR department, developing policies and procedures and defining the role of HR within the 175-person organization. Her ability to adapt and willingness to learn led to a series of promotions and her eventual role of vice president of human resources. Her journey was a positive one, she says, “because I proved myself to be a person who was able to step in, assess the situation and put things in place,” even, she admits, “with a lot of people bucking me the whole way because they were not used to change.”

That willingness to take risks, to take on challenging and unfamiliar duties and responsibilities, is a key element of building HR executive potential.

“I found early on that many HR people were more reactive than proactive,” says Sampel. “To this day I still see where that limits them.” Sampel says her philosophy has been one of “asking forgiveness, not permission, and pushing the envelope along the way.”

Hutchins also credits risk-taking for his success. “I think it’s critical today for HR professionals to be willing to demonstrate their ability and willingness to take risks.” That means not only standing up for the “right thing to do for an individual or the organization” but also “being willing to venture into areas where you have not previously been involved. If we are to be truly strong business partners at the senior level, we need to be willing to take on responsibility even when we may not feel overly confident in our experience and capabilities.”

Sally Stetson, another founding partner of Salveson Stetson, also believes it is helpful for HR professionals and executives to move out of HR for some time to get line experience. “They will be perceived as understanding more about the business and more about the issues; when they return to HR, it broadens their whole perspective.” It’s important, she stresses, to take on projects where you may have little knowledge. “You can learn something new and show that you’re curious from an intellectual standpoint.”

This background and experience also builds backbone. As Adams has learned, moving higher on the corporate ladder also exposes you to more risk. “A hard lesson that you learn at the executive level is that if anything goes wrong within an organization, typically you’re the one who takes the hit for it,” she says. “At a management level you’re a little bit more protected from that. As an executive, it’s a little tougher on you [and] a little harder on your nerves.”

Remaining Flexible

The HR profession is rife with rules and regulations, so much so that, in many organizations, the HR department is viewed as the “keeper of the policies.” That’s unfortunate, HR executives believe, because it is this limited view of HR that can hamper development—both for the department and for individuals hoping to move ahead in their profession.

“I think the biggest mistake people make is that they are too rigid about all of the rules and regulations out there,” Sampel says. “Then they try to push that rigidity in an organization or onto management. People just hate that.”

“It’s better if you don’t dictate to people,” agrees Margaret Evans, SPHR, director of human resources at Government Employees Hospital Association in Independence, Mo. “Offer options and guidance—‘You can do this, but if you do, this is what might happen.’ That way people don’t feel like HR is the ‘police,’ but that we’re working with them to find a win-win solution.”

Susan Gebelein, an executive vice president at Personnel Decisions International in Minneapolis and the author of Successful Manager’s Handbook (Personnel Decisions International, 2000) and Successful Executive’s Handbook (Personnel Decisions International, 1999) says it’s “a huge challenge to figure out how to do what’s important from a strategic basis while simultaneously meeting the immediate tactical needs of the organization. Working both of those agendas simultaneously is difficult for many, many people.”

That broad understanding of business needs comes into play here. In terms of adherence to “policy,” Sampel says, “Even if it’s the ‘letter of the law,’ you’ve got to learn to be creative about the rules and—to be quite frank—to know which ones to break and which ones not to break.” That knowledge doesn’t come from remaining isolated in HR and focused on HR principles, practices, rules and regulations. It comes from understanding the business environment—internally and externally—and knowing when to stand firm and when to bend.

Cultivating People Skills

Patience and the ability to listen objectively have been important to Evans in her move from a one-person environment to leader of an HR function in a corporate environment.

“You have to learn to listen objectively to what your customers are saying,” she says. “In our case, our customers are every executive, every vice president and every employee. We have to wear many hats.”

As the workforce becomes more global and more diverse, Sampel points out, “I think extraordinarily strong interpersonal skills are a must. Leaders need to be well-versed in dealing with many different types of people and very skilled at handling conflict, doing mediation—and listening.”

Evans also points to the globalization of the workforce and growing diversity as two key issues for which HR executives must be prepared. “We have to learn how to work without everyone being in the same central location. We have to learn to deal with different generations. We have to be able to roll with the punches and [to] deal with the changes and be willing to stay flexible.” To do this effectively, she says, you need to “do your homework. Identify the questions you need to ask when you meet with someone and know how to probe to find the right answers.”

One challenge for Adams in her move to the top was the need to become adept and comfortable when dealing with conflict. “I used to think that conflict was bad,” she admits. “Now I recognize that bringing opinions forward and discussing them up front is good for the organization. When you’re in HR, you tend to be a consensus builder and to be very much geared toward coming to conclusions with no conflict. At the executive level, you find that you put an issue on the table and you hammer it out until you come to some conclusion.”

Finding a Mentor

A mentor early in his career was very important to Hutchins’ future success, he says. “It was critical in helping me look beyond my current role and responsibilities and helping me to look forward as to how my career would develop.”

Anne Lang, director of human resources for the United States at Arthur Andersen LLP, also has found that having a mentor can aid in career growth. A good mentor, or sponsor, she says, is “willing to be an advocate for you, someone who will tell you the things that you need to improve on, the things you do well and who can help you gain the visibility that you need as you progress in your career.”

“Mentors,” says Gray, “are people who aren’t afraid to throw you into the deep end, yet have a life preserver available, if necessary. I was very fortunate,” he adds, “to have some key mentors literally fresh out of college and all the way through into some recent career moves.”

But author Gebelein cautions that mentors alone won’t do the trick.

“Both getting to the top and succeeding at the top require business knowledge, business savvy and business passion,” she says. “That’s what the real high-performing companies are looking for. And, while I think mentors obviously can be helpful, the perception that the individual really significantly understands the business and knows how to add value to the business is what is really, really critical.”

The flip side of having a mentor is being a mentor. As Coulter points out, HR professionals will have a tough time moving up if they haven’t groomed anybody to replace them. “It’s important to develop people under you so that you have support to allow you to take on new projects or special assignments. I think HR people need to let go of some of the day-to-day type of things, which tend to keep them in their own box.”

Succession planning is critical, Lang agrees. “In order for you to move, you need to make sure you have someone that’s coming up behind you so there’s a seamless level of service to your respective customers and clients. You need to be willing and able to train people—to essentially move yourself out of a job as you go along the way.”

Continuous Learning

Even the most successful HR executives find that staying on top requires staying on top of the learning curve. To Sampel, it’s “the biggest thing I could advise people to do. You have to be constantly curious and constantly learning.”

Hutchins agrees. “I am a strong believer in continued personal and professional development,” he says. “We cannot be static in our approach to development if we are going to continue to meet the needs of our changing organizations.”

But taking the time to learn can be a challenge. “HR professionals get so busy and so intensely focused on what’s going on inside the company,” Stetson says, “that sometimes it’s extremely helpful for them to get out of that box and get involved in external professional or industry associations.” This involvement, she adds, “also gives them a chance to network and increase their visibility.”

Continuous learning also involves learning about yourself.

“Look for feedback on what could make you a better candidate for an executive position,” Adams suggests, recalling that she frequently asked for feedback and input from executives in her quest to move up in the HR field. She recommends that others do the same. “Some of it will be tough to hear,” she admits. “But you need to look at your own behavior and improve it when necessary. The people who aren’t willing to listen to feedback and aren’t adaptable are the ones who won’t have a very good chance of being successful in the future.”

For their colleagues who want to move up in the organization, their biggest challenge may be to step outside their comfort zones to learn more about the business and understand how HR fits into the “big picture.” Over the years, Hutchins says, he has been surprised by the reluctance of his HR colleagues “to take risks and to seize the opportunities that lay there for them if they would only choose to seize them.”

 Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999).

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