Breakthrough HR: What's Your Next Career Move?

Even in rough terrain, you can grow your career in human resources.

By Mark Feffer Jun 1, 2016
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Cecile Alper-Leroux was in labor with her first child. But payroll was due.

As the HR and office manager for a 40-person law firm in Minnesota, she didn’t have much backup. So, labor or not, she had to call in the information needed for payroll to run on time. While she had already been thinking for some time that there must be better ways for technology to support HR, having to mix business and childbirth crystalized this idea for her. In the midst of one big life change, she realized it was time for another—this one in her career. 

Soon after her maternity leave ended, Alper-Leroux resigned and reset her path to focus on HR technology. She began as a customer support representative for Lawson Software’s HR module and soon advanced to her current role as vice president of HCM Innovation for Ultimate Software in Weston, Fla. 

Many HR professionals have breakthrough moments like this one that spur them to take a new path, whether that means focusing on a different skill, finding a new job or simply setting more-challenging goals. These are the critical moments that define and shape careers. This month, the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition, to be held June 19-22 in Washington, D.C., is devoted to helping HR professionals find their breakthrough moments. But if you can’t attend, all hope is not lost: With a bit of reflection, you can experience your own career epiphany from anywhere you choose.

For some people, breakthroughs are unexpected, like when their boss tells them to set a path toward senior leadership and, for the first time, that feels attainable. For others, breakthroughs spool out over time, such as when a manager comes to realize that she can have more impact at a small business than she ever could at her current Fortune 500 company.

However they develop, breakthroughs typically have two steps: the realization of a new goal followed by the action taken to reach it. Although they can seem random, particularly when a single conversation or event tips the balance in favor of a whole new career direction, breakthrough moments often have been brewing for some time as people ruminate about how their current job situation matches up with their vision for their career.

In other words, breakthroughs don’t just fall out of the sky. They are the product of a lot of self-knowledge and reflection, which often deepen as people take on different roles. "Over the course of your career, you find things you like and things you don’t like," says Morse Wilkenfeld, a New York City-based partner in consulting firm Mercer’s talent practice. "People gravitate to things they like and are good at. HR’s a big field. There’s a lot of room. You don’t have to know and be good at everything."

Indeed, the field of human resources provides much room for growth and self-definition. Unlike some professions, HR doesn’t have a formal business hierarchy, and one’s career level can’t always be ascertained from one’s title. For example, there are vice presidents of HR who are departments of one or who manage a single staff person, while HR managers or directors in large organizations might oversee a dozen people.

HR professionals may move from being on a corporate team to becoming a startup’s solo practitioner—and then back again. They might decide to grow with an organization or jump ship to become a consultant. 

"I don’t think there’s a typical career path in HR," says Jean Roque, founder and president of the consulting firm Trupp HR in Portland, Ore. While that may seem daunting for those looking for clearly defined guideposts, it can also be incredibly liberating. It means HR professionals have the potential to chart their own course.

"I think there have been a number of breakthroughs for me," says Lisa Uthgenannt, CHRO of medical services company LabCorp, headquartered in Burlington, N.C. "Some impact how you think of yourself as a practitioner, others how you see yourself as a leader."

Recognizing What's Important

Sarah Clark, an HR generalist at the Oklahoma Arthritis Center in Edmond, Okla., didn’t realize how important transparency was to her until she had a front-row seat to some brutal office politics at a previous employer. For months, Clark recalls, the HR director tried to force another employee to quit. Clark felt the strategy was inappropriate: "If you want to let someone go, don’t try to manipulate the situation—fire them," she maintains. 

Breakthroughs don’t just fall out of the sky. They are the product of a lot of self-knowledge and reflection, which often deepen as people take on different roles.

As the situation played out, Clark says, she was "being told two stories, and one of them didn’t add up."
Once the dust settled, she decided it was time to move on. So she left the HR team of a 40,000-employee company to become a department of one at a local organization with a staff of 65.

At age 34, she doesn’t think this will be the last stop on her career path, but for now the decision to leave the corporate world is the right one for her. "Sometimes you just have to take a chance," she says. "If you don’t put yourself out there and look for a change when it’s needed, nothing’s going to happen."

When Interests Align

Staying on top of your business’s needs can be critical to finding breakthrough moments. For Mark Gifford, director of HR technology at Raleigh, N.C.-based Concord Hospitality Enterprises, his breakthrough came when he recognized a gap in his company’s human resource information systems (HRIS) knowledge.

Though Gifford had worked a number of jobs at the 4,000-employee company, he always had his eye on landing a role in HR, and he made his interest known. In 2004, he became an HR assistant who helped implement Ceridian’s payroll system, and soon after that he was promoted to HRIS manager. To leverage the software as much as he could, he rolled out time and attendance systems as well as a job posting process, and then led the development of internal training programs.

After completing a stint as a hotel’s HR manager—a necessary step to advancement in his company—Gifford returned to the corporate office to work on implementing a new payroll system from Ultimate Software. In 2012, he was promoted to director of HR technology.

Gifford’s breakthrough didn’t happen in a single instant, but rather emerged slowly as he came to recognize how important technology is to the HR function. Getting the right job at the right time wasn’t just luck. He was promoted because he made himself invaluable as the business grew and its processes expanded.

"I had to demonstrate leadership in my work and take advantage of the opportunities that came my way," he says.

To make systems implementations happen, for example, he had to manage effectively across departments. When he did, he developed trust among other managers as well as the company’s executives. He also honed his organizational and communication skills. By the time the need for an HR technology director became apparent, Gifford had made himself the obvious candidate.

A Fresh Look in the Mirror

Breakthroughs can come when people recognize potential within themselves that they hadn’t seen before. And ironically, it often takes another person’s insight to shed light on one’s own promise.

For LabCorp’s Uthgenannt, a breakthrough moment came during her time at a previous employer. She had already established herself as an effective HR leader when, as part of a leadership development program, her boss asked her where she wanted her career to go.

Uthgenannt told him she wanted to be a vice president. "Of what?" he asked. Thinking the answer was evident, she hesitated. When her boss told her, "Obviously, you’re not going to be the vice president of discovery and research," she immediately felt pigeonholed.

Then he continued: "But that doesn’t mean that person couldn’t report to you."

The exchange "made me realize the only person who was limiting myself was me," Uthgenannt says. "HR professionals have to be willing to step into business leadership roles and not stand on the sidelines."

She has gone on to become CHRO for Covance, a clinical research organization based in Princeton, N.J., that was acquired by LabCorp in 2015. 

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer in Philadelphia.

Images for photo illustration by iStock

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