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0106 HR Magazine: HR’s New Breed

By Robert Rodriguez  3/1/2006

HR Magazine, March 2006 Vol. 51, No. 1

Coming to an office near you: HR professionals with wide-ranging business skills and a desire for challenging work. 

Todays Today’s up-and-coming HR professionals, those now in undergraduate and graduate programs, are learning things that weren’t necessarily part of traditional HR—from finance and operations to statistics and strategy. When these newly minted professionals begin their HR careers, what will they expect—and what can employers expect from them?

These future professionals expect to use the business training they’re investing in today. They want challenging jobs, not administrative tasks. They believe that the HR function is increasing in importance and that they can help demonstrate HR’s relevance to companies’ bottom lines. And bottom lines are familiar to them because many of them have business experience in fields outside HR.

Take Don Miller, for instance.

Miller, who has an undergraduate degree in finance and economics, started his career at one of the top five accounting firms doing financial and litigation consulting—reconciling bankruptcy contracts, to be exact. He had planned to pursue a legal career until a consulting engagement made him aware of just how valuable the HR function can be to the success of a business.

“This consulting assignment really showed me the importance of having the right people in the right place at the right time, and I saw HR as largely responsible for such decisions,” Miller says.

An internship in Microsoft’s HR organization confirmed his decision to pursue an HR career. Now he is completing his second year in the MBA program at Michigan State University, with a concentration in HR. And while some of his MBA classmates give him a hard time for focusing on HR, Miller is having the last laugh. He says Microsoft has already offered him an HR job.

“I’m choosing a career in HR because I see the function being a huge driver of business success,” Miller says. He believes the transition to a knowledge-based economy is already making HR more respected and valued in the workplace because HR can help find the people with the right knowledge.

Miller may have exceptional financial and business credentials, but he is not the exception to the rule. “I think it’s already the case that people taking high-level HR jobs are coming from other functional areas where they have a more financial orientation,” says Peter Cappelli, professor and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“The function is now attracting people who want to be seen as businesspeople first, HR experts second,” adds Lisa Harris, senior vice president of client services at Gevity, an HR service provider based in Bradenton, Fla. “When someone tells me they want to go into HR because they want to help others, I tell them they should go become a social worker.”

What They’re Learning

Future HR professionals like Miller are studying in a changing academic environment where HR programs emphasize business and financial skills as never before. As a result, tomorrow’s HR practitioners are receiving a greater financial orientation, learning to think strategically and developing planning skills.

In fact, these are skills that HR students are demanding. Savvy students will shy away from programs that do not offer solid business and finance courses, says Bill Conaty, senior vice president of corporate HR at Fairfield, Conn.-based General Electric and a member of the advisory board for the Center for Advanced Human Resources Studies at Cornell University.

Miller agrees. When he was deciding where to earn his graduate degree, he was put off by HR programs that lacked courses on data segmentation or financial statement analysis. The absence of such courses was a factor in his decision to pursue an MBA with a concentration in HR, rather than an HR degree.

The preferences of students such as Miller, and employers, are leading to changes at many colleges and universities. Traditionally, academic institutions are “primarily driven by the interests and views of faculty,” Cappelli says. “They focus primarily on academic research questions, not practice, and those questions haven’t changed much.” But professors note that employers and students today, even more than faculty, are driving some changes to academic HR programs—and university administrators are altering curricula accordingly.

Little wonder, then, that today Cappelli sees academic HR programs including more operations research and internal accounting courses. Such skills are needed to help HR professionals demonstrate the business benefits of HR programs, something employers increasingly demand, he notes.

A business and financial perspective also is being emphasized in the HR curriculum at Penn State University. William Rothwell, professor in charge of workforce education and development, says he has added a real-world application focus to HR courses to better prepare students for the demands they will face. For example, instead of focusing on theories about succession planning, Rothwell emphasizes the return on investment of succession planning programs. Such changes appeal to mid-career students who already have experience in business, he says.

Since organizations are concentrating on the impact HR has on overall business success, Harris believes academic programs need to include courses that help students develop meaningful HR metrics and scorecards. Some organizations are partnering with academic institutions to help develop such measures. Gevity is working with Cornell University “to develop better measurement methods of how HR practices impact business performance,” says Harris, who oversees a group of about 200 HR consultants.

Other changes to HR curricula are coming soon, say experts. For example, the emergence of the HR outsourcing industry requires universities to better prepare students on how to make outsourcing decisions and how to establish and maintain relationships with external vendors, academics say. And Rothwell predicts that future HR programs will include more courses covering globalization issues, regulation and technology.

Wanted: Challenging Jobs

Given that up-and-coming HR professionals will possess a bevy of business and financial skills, employers will need to make sure these talents are put to good use. New HR professionals expect jobs that let them use the skills they developed both in academic programs and at previous jobs. A recent symposium on the future of HR, hosted by the Society for Human Resource Management, confirms that challenging jobs and clear career paths are keys to attracting high-caliber students to the profession.

“If the HR function wants to continue attracting top students, HR jobs will have to be more interesting,” says Cappelli. He recommends that organizations keep their challenging human resource projects in-house, rather than sending those projects to consultants out of house.

Tim Richmond, director of talent management at 3M, the diversified technology company based in St. Paul, Minn., believes HR is attracting better talent because of the changing nature of HR jobs.

“Some current HR leaders grew up in an environment where HR was called personnel and the function was very administrative and traditional. Today, people see HR leaders who are working on corporate strategy and driving the talent agenda within a firm. This makes it much more exciting and appealing as a career choice,” says Richmond.

“The best and brightest will seek out roles where they are seen as legitimate business partners,” says Conaty. Truly talented people don’t want to be in an administrative function but rather in a role where they can affect business results, organizational values and corporate culture, he says.

“I started at GE in an operations role myself but moved into HR because I saw a function that would allow me to use my people leadership skills as well as my business acumen,” Conaty adds. “Now I continue to see more and more folks from operations backgrounds coming into HR for the same reason.”

Students like Angela Ritchey, now enrolled in an HR graduate program at Capella University in Minneapolis, come from backgrounds where the jobs offer diverse challenges. Ritchey is a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton, the global strategy and management consulting firm based in McLean, Va. She has helped the Air Force implement strategic satellite communication systems and provided support to NASA as part of an enterprisewide business operations transformation. Earlier in her career, she held accounting jobs for several technology firms, including 3Com and Applied Materials.

Ritchey turned to HR because she sees it becoming more sophisticated: “The HR field really excites me because I see so much potential in the function.” She chose Capella’s graduate degree program because she “saw a good mix of business courses to complement their HR courses, and I think such capabilities are critical in becoming a strategic business partner.” The program includes required courses in HR as well as finance, data analysis, strategic planning, marketing and decision-making.

Acting as ‘Consultants’

Given that tomorrow’s HR professionals will have more job experience in fields other than HR, an education focused on business and a desire to be challenged, what can employers expect from them?

3M’s Richmond believes employers will see someone who acts like a business consultant and who happens to deal with people issues. “By acting as an internal consultant, [HR professionals] will be perceived as being more credible with regard to handling the management of people within an organization,” adds Richmond. Consultants often are viewed as being more objective, more business-oriented and more in touch with other employers’ best practices than human resources is.

Rothwell believes employers can expect someone who is more than just a business partner. “A ‘business partner’ indicates equality with other functions when it comes to people issues, and this minimizes HR’s level of responsibility,” he says. “HR leaders of the future will be able to drive the people agenda of an organization, and no other functional area will want to make a people decision without involving HR.”

GE’s Conaty expects to see more HR practitioners who can perform well in cross-functional and operational roles. (See “ Challenging New HR Leaders”.) “Because of their background, I see a future not where HR will have a problem getting a seat at the table, but one where HR will have a hard time getting away from the table because they will be so highly sought after for their insight and expertise,” Conaty says.

Robert Rodriguez, Ph.D., is faculty chair for the human resource and leadership programs in the School of Business at Capella University in Minneapolis, where he teaches courses in HR and talent management.

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Challenging New HR Leaders

One of the first things Bill Conaty did when he assumed the role of senior vice president of corporate HR at General Electric was to change the structure of GE’s Human Resource Leadership Program (HRLP). The two-year program previously required participants to rotate through three eight-month-long HR assignments. Conaty required that one of the assignments be a cross-functional role outside HR in a field such as finance, operations, marketing or corporate auditing. He also included more international assignments.

With many new HR practitioners seeking to focus on the business side of HR, such changes have helped HRLP appeal to a broader range of business professionals from a more global talent pool. About 95 percent of the participants have either an MBA or a graduate degree in HR. About 50 percent of the current 125 HRLP participants are on international assignments.

“The reason that the program is so attractive is that the functional assignments allow participants in the program to compete and excel in cross-functional roles,” Conaty says. Such experience provides participants with a competitive advantage.

The participants perform so well in their assignments that they are highly sought after by GE business units for HR positions, Conaty says. He adds that the ultimate testament to the program’s success is that about 15 percent of HRLP participants are offered jobs in functions other than HR.

Conaty says, “Not only does the program allow us to successfully attract really top talent into HR roles, the caliber of the participants advances the credibility of the HR function within GE.”

“In my first year at GE, I’ve done more than other companies let you do in five,” says Paul Davies, who has been in the HRLP for a year. Davies, who holds a degree in business management from the University of Queensland in Australia, has traveled to Paris, London, Japan and India as part of his cross-functional assignment in corporate auditing.

“As you can imagine,” says Davies, “a balance sheet audit is a huge stretch for someone with an HR background. But that’s exactly the kind of opportunity you get at GE. There’s a real belief in the importance of cross-functional and cross-business exposure. And that adds up to unlimited possibilities.”

Robert Rodriguez

Promoting the Profession

People outside HR simply don’t know much about it. This lack of exposure makes it difficult for them to appreciate what HR does, and it can be a barrier to attracting people into the field.

Worse still, some people have a negative impression of HR based on their interactions with it. “When I started out in my career, I didn’t see HR very much and I thought of the function as being very administrative and not appealing at all,” says Don Miller, who is pursuing an MBA with a concentration in HR at Michigan State University.

How can HR get the word out to today’s students that HR is changing and challenging? Having HR executives speak to college classes is one way to open a discussion.

Sasha Diskin, who recently completed an MBA at DePaul University in Chicago, felt she knew little about HR until senior HR executives came to speak. “As part of my graduate human resource class, our professor brought in several executives who provided a unique perspective about HR, and I saw the function in a completely different way,” she says. Diskin, a vice president in the risk management group at LaSalle Bank in Chicago, now has a new appreciation for the function and says she wouldn’t rule out a career opportunity in HR.

Tim Richmond, director of talent management at 3M, says that while he does occasionally see HR executives speaking to business school students, HR as a whole needs to do a better job of sharing success stories to attract more top talent. “Students outside HR don’t know the role the function plays within a firm. Those of us in HR need to get out and share our story more effectively,” he says.

Corporate and academic experts recommend that HR executives contact MBA and HR programs and offer to speak. Also, some HR executives work with business faculties on a variety of issues, and those contacts can lead to speaking opportunities. And as CEOs give public recognition to HR, students will want to learn more. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, has said that the top HR person is the second most important person in an organization. That type of attention can draw students’ interest.

Another way to raise awareness is to offer internships in HR. Internships expose employees from other areas to HR and its value to the organization. Miller says an internship convinced him to leave financial consulting and pursue HR.

Robert Rodriguez