Your Career Q&A: Endings and Beginnings


By Martin Yate November 9, 2015

This week's Your Career Q&A column addresses the end of one HR professional's career through succession planning and the launch of the new career of an HR professional just graduating from college. Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I think of my current position as HR manager in a department of one as my last job. Being close to management and ownership is unlike anything else I or my colleagues have experienced. I get to do everything and set policy, and everything I do makes a difference for the company and our employees. Although there is nowhere else for me to progress in my company, I am fine with that. An interesting question, though, is how do you prepare a company to replace you when you are a department of one? How should that work?
Timothy, Houston (adapted from a SHRM Connect question)

The need for objectivity

Succession planning for the position and the role you have built can be a significant challenge. There is a difference between the “must haves” required in a candidate to do the job of an HR manager, and the maturity, nuanced judgment and frame of reference for the business issues of the company that have allowed you to become a part of the senior management team. These are the “nice to haves” of the job that might take a successor many months (or longer) to grow into.

Defining deliverables

You might start with defining the skills and experience required, using the same objectivity and tactics you would use in developing any other job description. To help with this process, you might also consider collecting half a dozen job postings that describe similar jobs and deconstructing them to create a template that defines the “must haves” of the job to be filled.

Keep it confidential

Use caution, though. As soon as knowledge of this exercise becomes public, you become a lame duck and will be seen as already halfway out the door, so you need to play this close to the vest.

Having developed a confidential job description, discuss it privately with a trusted HR colleague to receive some objective input. Once you are satisfied that the job description describes the person who can step into the position and execute the duties of the job, you move toward building a plan of attack for the search and an estimated timeline for execution of the job search.

With the job description and search plans in place, you can then decide which company leader—for example, the chief financial officer—should be involved in the selection cycle and the information that person is best suited to gather. This will lead to a set of suggested questions for the interviewer to ask. Once these documents are completed, you’ll have a workable succession plan that you can discuss privately with the owners, answer questions about and refine as necessary.

Always have a Plan B

You are obviously conscientious, competent and committed to the well-being of the company, plus it sounds as if you have great relations with senior management. Regardless, you probably can’t count the times you’ve had to say, “It’s nothing personal but …” as you terminate someone. And I cannot count the times that clients have come to me saying, “…and then after 25 years, he terminated me with two weeks of notice, just so I wouldn’t be eligible for … ”

This means that everything I have said here about defining the job should do double duty as a self-evaluation and a possible resume update. In fact, building a plan of attack for the search for a candidate and the makeup, roles and questions for the selection committee in turn can become an outline for your own job search plan of attack, in the event of that terrible eventuality when you unexpectedly find yourself looking for a job. It’s a case of hoping for the best and doing your best, while being fully prepared for the worst.

I’ll be earning a degree in human resource development next year, and I’m not sure what is the best way to decide on the type of company I should try to work for. Should I target a Fortune 500 company where I can get great training, but I’ll probably have to specialize? Or am I better off at a smaller company with maybe one other HR person who can mentor me? When I ask my professors, they all say there isn’t one right answer.
Tyra, Longview, Texas

Does size matter?

The professors are right; there are trade-offs whether you target a small company or a large one. With a large organization, resources will be available and the need for specialization will accelerate your competency in a specific area, but this can also pigeonhole you before you discover where your strengths and preferences really lie.

On the other hand, with a small company you can benefit from closer mentoring and gain greater experience with a wide range of HR deliverables. However, the real worth of your experience will depend on how much the HR function is respected, valued and funded. Sometimes HR in small companies can be seen as nothing more than a necessary evil and you end up hamstrung in an unsupported environment, struggling to get everything done with no resources or little management support.

An interesting alternative

We tend to experience life’s choices in either/or, good/bad ways, but there is always another option. In this instance, consider a midsize company. This option may offer a better chance to work within an organized HR function that has accepted validity and the opportunity to gain a wide range of experience while also developing areas of specialization. And when that first strategic career move comes along, being with a midsize organization can make you more acceptable to a wider range of companies both larger and smaller.

Industry considerations

Industry choice is another consideration. When starting your career, it can be difficult to envision a work life spanning 50 years that may be regularly disrupted with economic recessions about every 10 years.

Recessions cause layoffs, so your best choices for stability and opportunity, in good times and bad, are within large, established industries driven by demographic changes in society. Lately, those industries include health care, transportation and software development, for example. In these industries there is less chance of layoffs, and even when they do occur, there are more available jobs in these industries. Of course, not long ago the energy industry would have made this list, and not so much today, so always be ready for changes.

Your biggest concern

You asked an intelligent question and these comments are all germane to your situation. However, while you may target a particular size of company in a specific industry or two, never lose sight of the fact that your overriding goal upon graduation is to get your foot on a rung of the ladder by landing a job in HR somewhere, anywhere if necessary, and not to lose focus. Once you have an HR job, you can start building the professional experience that will help you differentiate yourself when the time comes to make your first strategic career move.

Martin Yate is a New York Times best-selling author and has worked as a Silicon Valley headhunter, director of HR at a publicly traded technology company, and director of training and development at a multinational employment services franchisor. His company, Knock ’em Dead, delivers professional resume and coaching services.

Have a question for Martin? E-mail your queries to We’ll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!


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