How to Advance Your Career: Tips by and for HR

Two dozen HR practitioners share steps they’ve taken to stand out, break through and move up.

By Erin Binney Oct 23, 2017

​Are you ready for a new challenge in your career? Maybe you want to become more visible in your organization, earn a promotion or gain leadership experience, but you don’t know how to make it happen.

While it may sometimes seem like your professional fate is in someone else’s hands, you have more control over your advancement than you may realize. After all, you alone set your goals and decide how to reach them.

We asked your HR peers via social media how they have moved forward in their careers, and their responses are as diverse as the HR community itself. Choose the tips that speak to you—whether it’s building your skills, bolstering your network or taking other steps to set yourself apart—and start planning. Go on: It’s your move. 

Make Positive Contributions

​When I started in HR, I excelled by taking on all the “boring” activities—such as mailing Fair Credit Reporting Act notices and calculating leave balances—and making them more efficient. This allowed me to learn more functions and grow as an HR leader. Start with the stuff no one wants to do, and don’t let a clunky administrative process hold a business back.

—Al Cano, SHRM-CP, HR director, Taco Bueno Restaurant L.P., Las Colinas, Texas

Make your bosses look good! By consistently proving my worth to my supervisors and supporting them, I have cultivated a network of former bosses who want to work with me again in the future. 

Susan SnipesI demonstrated my competence by partnering with subject matter experts, department heads and leadership to implement value-adding processes for several companies in a variety of industries. I used internal audits to identify vulnerabilities and opportunities and to recommend and take money-saving corrective actions. As an HR expert, I provided guidance on employee relations and compliance issues, giving my internal customers peace of mind. 

​My bosses always know that they can count on me to support their visions through technical excellence and consistent follow-through.

—Susan Snipes, human resources manager, Arlington, Texas

My growth came from staying focused on how HR affects business results. The work we do can not only save our organizations money, but help them generate revenue. So, I have looked for opportunities that allow me to explore just that. 

—Anil Saxena, culture integration leader, GE Digital, San Ramon, Calif.

I can attribute my HR career progression to three characteristics: determination, courage and passion. 

I started as a human resources assistant 15 years ago with my current company. I was determined to succeed, even if it meant stepping out of my comfort zone. 

As my confidence grew, I voiced my concerns and shared my proposed solutions on needed process improvements and practices. I wasn’t afraid to address conflicts head-on and found the courage to raise a red flag, even when others might not agree. 

My passion for HR work led me to engage with my local SHRM chapter, the Human Resource Management Association of Greater St. Louis. I enhanced my leadership skills by taking on several volunteer roles and eventually became the 2016 president of the organization. Today, I serve on the Missouri State Council of SHRM. 

—Danielle Spieckerman, SHRM-SCP, system leader, talent management, SSM Health, St. Louis

Surround Yourself with the Right People

​I’ve always put myself with a company that has a developed HR manager who can be a good mentor and coach. If you surround yourself with people who love exceeding expectations at their job, you will learn to do the same!

Phyllis Hartman—Norma Yanez, SHRM-CP, HR business partner, Alleyton Resource, Richmond, Texas

Networking inside HR circles (professional membership; leadership positions; volunteering with local, state, regional and national SHRM) has made my career, as I always have people to share ideas with and to request help from when I need it. Also, volunteering for charities and not-for-profits has allowed me to meet others outside HR on boards, improve my community, and continue to learn and grow.

—Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, president and founder, PGHR Consulting Inc., Pittsburgh

I started in HR almost seven years ago as a human resources manager in the Army. I loved working with people to identify what motivated them. While I was stationed in South Korea, I networked with HR professionals in the States, many of whom I’m still in contact with. I would schedule calls with them late at night—sometimes 4 a.m.—to make it easy for them to fit me into their schedules. One of my HR mentors helped me find my first recruiter job after the Army. As the talent acquisition manager for NextOp, I focus on submitting tailored HR solutions to regional firms and Fortune 500 companies to help them with their hiring initiatives. I am still of the mindset that I need to keep increasing my connections and planning for my future in HR. 

—Cecilia A. Clark, talent acquisition manager, NextOp Inc., Houston

​[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Career Development—What is a “dual career ladder”?]

Seek New Opportunities

​I took a role early in my career that allowed me not only to take on new challenges in HR but to participate in running the business as a whole. 

But the most impactful thing I’ve done was to take a three-month work assignment in China. That experience expanded my ability to work and think globally far more than any class or training, or even managing from a distance, could have. I instantly gained credibility as a global HR practitioner and elevated my focus during a subsequent job search to executive level.

—Kelly Sheridan, SHRM-SCP, vice president, human resources, Fabricated Products Division, H.C. Starck Inc., Newton, Mass.

After 20 years, I took a sabbatical from HR to accept a senior operations position managing a large food distribution center. That gave me an opportunity to practice all the leadership skills I had taught others. It was a huge risk but incredibly rewarding. Directing an operation when you are not the subject matter expert really tests your leadership skills. This experience also gave me insight into how to be a strong business partner when I moved back into HR six years later. I encourage everyone I mentor to consider stepping out of HR for a stint in an operations leadership role. 

—Michelle Hoffman, SHRM-SCP, HR director, Spectrum, Albany, N.Y.

​HR internships have been essential to apply what I have learned in college courses. These work experiences not only helped me learn more about HR but enabled me to grow as an aspiring HR professional. The other key is networking! I have attended guest speaker events as well as a SHRM Student Case Competition and Career Summit and have even held informational interviews. 

—Christina Leib, senior at Rider University and human resources intern, NFI, Cherry Hill, N.J.

I have looked for opportunities involving mergers and acquisitions, as well as “lift-and-shift” processes, where the operations of one business unit, sector or department are moved to another. This has allowed me to work in great HR roles with awesome companies, adapt quickly to different working environments and connect with diverse HR professionals. Using this strategy, I have been exposed to several HR information systems, applicant tracking systems and enterprise resource planning platforms used across the industry; joined affinity groups/employee resource groups; made great networking connections; and learned HR operations. 

—Ronald Marsh Jr., human resources analyst, Charter Communications, Charlotte, N.C.

Change How You Think

​I took a leap of faith and quit my job of 17 years. I knew I could find something better—but only if I took that first step that scared me the most. In the last three years, I moved from a senior HR generalist to an HR manager role, and I recently took a job with an amazing company as director of HR.

—Jodi Ketchale, human resources director, WFSB–Rocky Hill, Conn., and Western Mass News–Springfield, Mass.

I have advanced professionally by focusing on my individual career path instead of comparing myself to others. This shift in mindset allows me to identify—and leverage—my strengths and take on assignments that best showcase my talents.

—Crystle Johnson, corporate diversity and inclusion strategy lead, Robert Bosch LLC, Farmington Hills, Mich.

My advice to HR professionals looking to advance: Always transform yourself in the strategic direction. Bots and artificial intelligence may take over the repetitive tasks in our profession, but they will never be able to do the truly human work.

—Kay Wakeham, global VP, talent and employee engagement, Citi, San Antonio (headquartered in New York)

I took a role a few years back as a company’s first and only HR employee. I became an HR department of one. It was scary and exciting all at the same time. To advance your career, you must take risks and be confident in your choices. 

—Kelly Bergum, HR professional, Perfect Memorials, Eden Prairie, Minn.

​[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Career Development—What educational resources should I consider to further my HR career?]

Determine to Achieve More

​In my current and previous HR positions, I have focused on turning the organizations into award-winning employers of choice. Focusing on the organization (and the job at hand) is a win for the organization that also opens doors to new professional opportunities. Being able to show tangible, measurable results is the best way to advance your HR career.

—Angela Crawford, human resources director, Wake County Government, Raleigh, N.C.

How have I advanced my career? First by focusing on achieving the SHRM certification and then using the skills I gained in my day-to-day job function. Also, by figuring out how my HR department could be more of a business partner and creating new and improved policies and procedures.

—Leona Rainey, SHRM-CP, associate analyst, benefits, Gulfstream Aerospace, Savannah, Ga.

As a professional with 20 years of experience in HR, I’ve started writing HR articles to share my knowledge and make a name for myself. As a result, I am being contacted for jobs as well as publishing and speaking opportunities on a regular basis.

—Florence Richard, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources, an asset management firm, Sausalito, Calif.

​I got sick of job hunting and decided to advance my HR career on my own terms—by working for myself. Best decision ever. I took a hard look at what my actual strengths are in HR, what I love and hate about the field, and how my personal story fits into it all. 

—Brittanie Young, founder and CEO, Diverge HR, Charlotte, N.C.

Expand Your Knowledge

​I have always made it a priority to learn my boss’s job. If you can do a job higher than yours, you make your organization’s decision to promote you easier. You guarantee both a seamless transition and the assurance that you can do the job.

—Alexis Inselberg, employee relations manager, City of Jersey City, N.J.

Like most people, I started in HR 20 years ago by accident but found that I really liked the field. While working full time during the day, I went back to school at night and received my bachelor’s degree in business administration concentrating in HR management. I took a year off from school and then decided that I’d like to pursue a master’s degree in HR management—which I did in 2013. Both my experience and education have led me to the HR manager position I now hold, and I still enjoy HR as much as I always have!

—Dawn Matthieu, HR manager, Industrial Access, Cumming, Ga.

Working hard, striving to always learn from every single person I come into contact with, taking on extra work knowing it involved learning new skills and knowledge, and remaining humble have enabled me to climb! 

—Amber Kimball, director of HR, Implus LLC, Raleigh, N.C.

​I was lucky enough to get a position with a company that truly embraces career growth and continuing education. Being an HR department of one has enabled me to expand upon my generalist knowledge. I have attended seminars, read the discussions on SHRM Connect, kept up-to-date with the ever-changing laws and joined a local SHRM chapter. All these things have made me a better HR professional. 

I have started the journey of completing my bachelor’s degree in human resources management (one more year to go!) and recently ordered material to begin preparing for my SHRM-CP exam. I am taking advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow and feel I am well on my way to achieving my goals.

—Maranda Henderson, senior human resources generalist, The McConnell Group, Rockville, Md.

Being a lifelong learner was key to my career advancement. I am the leader I am today thanks to the right certifications and designations, along with formal education in the areas that I am passionate about. Embracing change, having a positive attitude and helping others deal with ambiguity are foundations for advancement.

—Laura Newstead, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president and chief human resources officer, Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, Orleans, Mass.   

Erin Binney is a staff writer at SHRM.

Illustration by Phil Foster for HR Magazine.

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