Using Competencies to Boost Your HR Career

Mastering key behaviors will help you take your professional development to the next level.

By Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP Apr 18, 2017
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Illustration by James Smallwood for HR Magazine.

“Finally!” I thought to myself when I heard the details of the new SHRM certification. I had long ago realized that there was more to mastering HR than just understanding the technical stuff. Yes, knowledge is important, but growing your career in this profession calls for so much more. It requires something that differentiates humans from robots—or at least the automated solutions currently being integrated into the workplace—and good employees from great ones: being able to exhibit the right behaviors at the right time. 

For the past six years, researchers and experts at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) have been identifying the skills needed for HR professionals to succeed. After surveying some 43,000 HR professionals, they pinpointed the eight most important behavioral competencies as Business Acumen, Critical Evaluation, Consultation, Relationship Management, Communication, Global & Cultural Effectiveness, Leadership & Navigation, and Ethical Practice. The SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (BoCK) lays out specific traits that relate to proficiency in each area, allowing HR professionals to create their own action plan for improvement.

In my efforts to write a series of books about the SHRM competencies, I’ve developed some career advice that aligns with the BoCK and outlines the following skills, which I believe are must-haves for a successful HR career in the 21st century: 

Accept that the world is changing. At its inception in 1945, the field of HR was called “industrial and labor relations,” signifying the need for a company function to manage the workforce for such goods-producing industries as construction and manufacturing, which comprised a large and growing portion of employers at the time. 

Fast-forward more than 60 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees in goods-producing industries made up only 13.7 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2010. However, the proportion of those in service-driven businesses, in which the focus is on the customer experience, grew to 86.3 percent, up from 65.5 percent in 1961. 

As the labor market shifts, leaders are looking to optimize human performance in order to benefit both their companies and their customers. They must also be nimble enough to adapt to technological advances and the demands of the collaborative-minded Millennial generation, which now makes up close to half of the workforce. These forces are changing the way we do business. To keep up, we must critically evaluate our company’s positions, policies and procedures so that we can change, too. 

Don’t be afraid to be critical. Writing the book Applying Critical Evaluation (SHRM, June 2017) caused me to reflect on my career to find a time when I had critically evaluated a project. One situation popped out at me: Several years ago, as an HR department of one, I was tasked with analyzing how our company provided benefits. We were still using paper forms at the time, which was a hassle for me, and our employees were unhappy with the pricing structure of our providers. I took the bull by the horns, Googling benefits providers and scheduling appointments. I asked questions, and then more questions, and didn’t hesitate to follow up if I didn’t understand the answers. 

At the same time, I worked with employees to ensure that I was meeting their needs. It wasn’t easy, but the process was worth it: We implemented an online program with benefits that our employees wanted and collaborated with a vendor that offered great customer service—which freed up a lot of my time. In addition, our small business saved more than $100,000. It was a win-win-win: The employees loved their new benefits, our CEO was thrilled with the savings, and I added an impressive accomplishment to my resume. (Who says HR is only an operating expense?) 

Stop relying on someone else to develop your career. It is not your manager’s responsibility to grow your career; it’s yours. But sometimes we fail to begin the process because we feel overwhelmed. That’s natural! Yet even taking small steps can help get you where you want to go.

For example, if taking an HR certification exam seems monumental right now, don’t make that your first goal. Instead, focus on developing one competency at a time. You might spend this month or quarter learning everything you can about honing your business acumen, for example. You could read my book Developing Business Acumen (SHRM, January 2017), talk to a friend or co-worker in finance to learn more about income statements, and sit in on marketing or sales meetings to learn more about your company’s product offerings. 

All of these things will make you a more solid HR professional. But they won’t be top-of-mind for your manager. Of course, get your boss involved when possible and appropriate, but don’t blame him or her for your lack of promotion or growth. Write down your goals and hold yourself accountable for meeting your deadlines (or enlist an accountability partner or coach to help you).

"Stop relying on someone else to develop your career."

Be deliberate—and persistent. Sometimes I need to remind myself to slow down and remember to ask people follow-up questions. I might forget in the moment, think of a question later and then loop back around. I used to assume others would be annoyed that I didn’t ask what I needed to know at the time, but I’ve found the opposite is true. They feel honored that I remembered their situation and thought enough to inquire about it again. Simply reaching out goes a long way to building strong relationships.

Expand your communication skills. George Bernard Shaw is credited with saying, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” As HR professionals, we frequently experience employee relations issues that boil down to a simple misunderstanding that got blown out of proportion. When communicating in the workplace, there are three key pieces of advice that have served me well.

First, approach problems with curiosity. When you can look at a situation and truly wonder what happened, you leave judgment at the doorstep. People will sense that you’re not out to get them but rather simply seeking the truth, and that will make them feel comfortable being vulnerable with you. As a result, you can identify and address the root cause of the issue more quickly. 

Second, validate other people’s viewpoints. Notice I didn’t say you have to agree with them. By acknowledging alternative perspectives—no matter how illogical they may seem to you—you are allowing people to feel whatever they feel, and they will no longer perceive a need to defend their position. This approach might sound something like this: “It makes sense that you’re frustrated if you feel your manager is being unfair.”

Finally, ask open-ended questions. Rather than only making closed queries that call for a straightforward “yes” or “no,” start questions with “what” or “how.” Try the so-called TED method: Tell me about that, Explain that to me and Describe what you mean. 

Make the decision today to invest in growing your behavioral skill set. The payoff is exponential. When you develop these core competencies, you will not only grow in your career, you will be a more effective parent, child, spouse, volunteer, community leader, etc. Technical skills may help your work, but behavioral skills will improve your whole life.  

Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP, is a speaker, author and coach to small businesses. 

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