Why HR Leaders Need to Stand Out

Stop waiting for the world to notice all you do.

By Dorie Clark Mar 1, 2016
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March 2016 HR Magazine cover 3Viewpoint.jpgIt’s no secret that HR professionals don’t always get the respect they deserve within their organizations—which is puzzling given how vital their role is. It’s well-known, for example, that high-quality talent gives companies a profound competitive advantage and that an engaged workforce leads to positive business outcomes. Indeed, a 2013 Gallup report analyzing data from 1.4 million employees found that the most highly engaged workers are not only 21 percent more productive than the least engaged but 22 percent more profitable as well.

So how can HR make sure everyone in the company and beyond recognizes that its work truly matters?

Two words: stand out. For too long, HR professionals have stayed behind the scenes, supporting the career development of others but letting their own take a back seat. As I discovered while researching my new book, Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It (Portfolio, 2015), that’s a flawed strategy.

Here’s why: These days, people are simply too busy to notice anyone else, especially someone who may be new to the company or who has changed jobs or careers. According to a study by business software company Atlassian, the average professional receives more than 300 business e-mails per week and attends an astonishing 62 meetings each month. Frankly, the last thing anyone is thinking about is whether you’ve grown as a professional or how the organization can best utilize your talents.

That’s why it is up to each HR professional to take responsibility for standing out in his or her own professional life. After all, if you don’t support your own career, who will? While HR often prompts those in other departments to ensure that they are making professional development a priority, there is no HR for HR. You must assume that role for yourself.

Here are four strategies that will help you get noticed for your true talents:

Find your niche. One of the best ways to get recognized for your expertise is to build a reputation around a particular niche. Consider the story of Michael Leckie, who was a vice president of human resources at Gartner, a prominent technology research company. He developed an intense interest in talent development, even though coaching fell outside the purview of his official job description.

After learning everything he could about the subject, he soon became known as the “go-to” guy for coaching advice in his organization. As word spread, he got asked to speak at business conferences and industry events, boosting his professional presence within the broader HR and business communities. This all happened because he strategically created a “sub-brand” for himself within his HR expertise—and used it to build his own career.

Use e-mail to your advantage. We’ve all been in situations where we walk into an introductory meeting with someone and it’s clear that the other person hasn’t done his or her homework. “So, tell me about you,” the person says. “What exactly can I do for you today?”

While we can’t force others to prepare for meetings, we can stack the deck in our favor. Psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Harper Business, 2006), taught me a useful life hack that can increase the likelihood that people will know who we are and treat our backgrounds with respect from the moment we walk in the door: Send an e-mail to the person with whom you’re meeting a few days in advance of your get-together. If you use the subject line “In advance of our meeting,” it’s highly likely the other person will open your message.

In the body of the e-mail, say something like, “Joe, I’m really looking forward to talking with you on Thursday. In advance of the meeting, and in order to make it as efficient and productive as possible, I want to share some information with you regarding my previous experience with [issue to be discussed].” Then write up a paragraph that highlights your professional accomplishments without sounding overly self-promotional, since it’s in the service of having a productive meeting.

As Cialdini points out, due to a quirk of human psychology, people are less likely to view written information as bragging, compared to a verbal recounting of the same information. With this e-mail strategy, you can start the meeting off right and ensure that the other person is aware of your experience and accomplishments.

Become a hub. How do you become indispensable in a network? Ronald Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, has found that the best way to do that is to make yourself a “hub”—in other words, you must build connections with disparate people and groups across your organization. Don’t silo yourself by connecting primarily with other HR professionals or people with whom you happen to be working with on projects. Instead, take an expansive view. For instance, if you spend just one hour a week having lunch with different people in various departments, you might have 50 new contacts who can be both a resource to you and an ambassador for you by the end of the year.

Show why your work matters. If leaders view HR as a support function that is not essential to the core business, of course they won’t want to fund or support it. You have to show them why that’s the wrong framework. When speaking about your work, cite hard statistics and the business results it has produced—“a 23 percent reduction in turnover that’s saved $15 million,” for instance.

As you begin to grow your personal brand and professional reputation, make sure to underline the benefits for your company. Old-school thinking can cause some executives to believe that an employee’s newfound visibility is an early indicator that he or she is headed out the door. Show them that’s not true by demonstrating the value of your increased exposure, whether it came from publishing in your local business journal or speaking at an association conference. Maybe networking helped you to generate leads for the company or to deepen client relationships. In either case, emphasize that it translates into organizational revenue.

We know HR is central to every company’s health and success. It’s time to make sure all of your colleagues understand that, too. That doesn’t mean you’ll stop cheering for everyone else in your organization. It just indicates that you’ll be moving your own role out of the sidelines and into the game.

Dorie Clark is an author, marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

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