HR Magazine: Raising the Bar

The successful generalist must know more than HR; Well-rounded business skills are in demand.

By Martha Frase-Blunt Mar 1, 2003
Reuse Permissions

HR Magazine, March 2003 Human resource practitioners have traditionally earned their credentials from the school of hard knocks—layoffs, lawsuits and labor disputes. But today’s leaner, more talent-focused companies are in search of generalists who have mastered a deeper strata of business skills along with a keen understanding of the HR spectrum. They want seasoned professionals who can steer the ship.

“Fifteen years ago, an HR professional was simply anointed a generalist by virtue of having had experience in a few different components of the job,” says Bob Gatti, president of Gatti & Associates, a Boston-based HR search and placement firm. “Now companies are looking for true generalists who have done an array of apprenticeships and have much more depth and all-around expertise.”

The challenge for ambitious generalists is to separate themselves from traditionally defined transactional roles, says Mike Bergen, managing partner for executive search firm Bergen Briller Group LLC in Newtown, Pa. “They need to move away from being seen as the ‘HR police,’ tactical and reactive. The new definition of a progressive generalist is business leader, having a keen sense of the company’s marketplace and an understanding of HR’s return on investment,” he says.

What must an HR generalist do to succeed? Experts agree that you must have a command of basic HR skills along with a grasp of some key functional specialties, the ability to benchmark HR’s effectiveness against other corporate business functions, an understanding of how employment and staffing programs fit into your company’s business goals, knowledge of key business principles and the ability to become a partner to your organization’s decision makers, the drive to continue your professional development and education as needed to keep up with changes in the profession, and an understanding of electronic HR and its benefits to your department and the company.

The Exceptional Generalist

What are the most basic skill sets for generalists working in traditional HR organizations? They should have some understanding of employee relations and employment law, as well as deeper knowledge of one or two functional specialties, such as recruiting, compensation or benefits. The generalist, at minimum, should also display good interpersonal and communications skills.

But is that enough?

“That might get you a job in the personnel office at ABC Trucking Co.,” Bergen says. “But forget about Dupont or GE.”

Bergen’s executive search firm places HR executives into such major corporations worldwide. Up front, his clients ask candidates to explain how they have helped make an organization more talent-driven.

This ability to demonstrate and articulate a direct connection between HR activities and business results is exactly what Libby Sartain, SPHR, would want in a generalist for her team at Yahoo! Inc. “When interviewing a candidate I’d first look for a solid work history with a good-sized company having a strong HR brand. Then, drilling down, I’d make sure he or she is strategic, able to assess conditions within a company and also outside of it—like the economy or the labor market—and really develop an agenda that meets the needs of the organization,” says the senior vice president for HR and chief people Yahoo at the Sunnyvale, Calif., Internet company.

She asks HR candidates “lots of questions about how they made decisions, how they determined which activities are most important and what specific value they added to the company. A lot get the first part right—how they created an agenda—but they can’t demonstrate the connection to the organization’s overall success. They may have indeed added value, but haven’t taken that thought process all the way,” says the 2001 chair of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Yvonne Evans of Gaithersburg, Md., has had some recent experience on the other side of the interview desk. The compensation specialist for the Rockville, Md., regional office of the Whole Foods Market grocery chain is looking for a generalist position. She is preparing for her career leap by working toward her master’s degree in HR at the University of Maryland and by constantly seeking out new experiences on the job.

“I’m always looking for special projects to work on,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot, but I know I need to continue to build my management and leadership skills.”

Companies she’s interviewed with ask her how she has contributed to the bottom line, Evans says. She answers by providing examples. “For instance, I created an online training program in [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations for Whole Foods’ HR staff around the country. They were able to learn from their own offices, thus saving the company travel expenses and lost HR productivity time.”

Brian Teerlinck has heard the same questions on his interview rounds since Velocity Express in Milwaukee laid him off from his HR management position at the shipping and logistics provider. “A credible generalist will be able to demonstrate through metrics how he contributes to the company,” he says. “In my case, I can make the link from my workers’ comp experience to reduced turnover and increased revenues. I also spend a lot of time and energy analyzing trends, which is key to the generalist’s role.”

Keeping up with those trends can be challenging given today’s rapid pace of business and societal change. Business concepts that were considered innovative just five years ago have become outmoded and demand an updated perspective, according to Wayne Brockbank, a business professor at the University of Michigan who is collaborating with SHRM on a new Internet-based HR competency self-assessment tool and guidebook. (See “Test Your HR Aptitude,” right.)

“Change management is an old competency; the new competency is fast change,” Brockbank says. “HR professionals in high-performing companies have combined all the tools of speed enhancement with change management, because change only makes a difference if it is done ahead of the competition.”

The ‘Talent Scientist’

Demands on HR professionals have changed, agrees John W. Boudreau, professor of human resource studies at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “In general, much of the profession is still organized around practices and processes, and textbooks and curricula are still oriented around separate functions of HR,” he says. “But today, better companies are not benchmarking against HR practices, but against other professional business practices that exert greater power within organizations, like finance and marketing.”

These core functions exert such influence because their focus is on decisions, Boudreau says. “Finance is a decision science about money. Marketing is a decision science about customers,” he says. “HR must move toward becoming a decision science about talent.”

Being a 21st-century “talent scientist” requires much more than simply knowing how to conduct an effective recruitment and retention program. Beyond these standard HR functions is a universe of know-how that ranges from the technical to the purely instinctive.

Talent Acquisition and Development

An HR generalist’s recruitment and development programs can have a tangible impact on the company’s bottom line if the practitioner has the clout and skills to define positions, influence the compensation package and forge novel strategies for attracting top candidates, says Chuck Niles, president of The Human Resources Department Ltd., a Cleveland-based HR project management and consulting firm.

“Those who excel in this are those with highly developed communications skills, a talent for negotiation and the ability to build a great rapport with hiring managers,” Niles says.

As HR practices and programs become more sophisticated, they require deeper engagement and involvement of managers and employees. For example, managers are using technology to guide employees’ career decisions, enhance performance, determine rewards and recognitions, and handle employee relations, Boudreau says. The same technology enables employees to make more informed choices about career development and benefits.

An effective HR generalist will coach the managerial staff and employees in skills traditionally reserved for HR, such as understanding employee learning and motivation, Boudreau says.

“Companies are looking for staff at every level who can lead by example, aren’t afraid to take command of difficult projects, don’t hesitate to stand up and deliver the bad news, and demonstrate other leadership capabilities,” Gatti says.

Executive and managerial coaching is the fastest-growing outsourced HR service, so an HR professional who can take on this role can have a significant impact on the bottom line, Gatti says.

Business Insight and Foresight

In the 2002 edition of Gatti & Associates’ annual survey, “Top Five Competencies for Human Resources Professionals,” the business acumen category led the list for the first time and, in fact, far surpassed other entries.

“The ability to think and act strategically is key to the generalist’s job,” Gatti says. “The best people are looking far ahead, actively researching and making decisions about where the company should be in three years, five years or longer, and how HR will be an active player in that.”

Brockbank goes even further. It is HR’s role “to be so focused and knowledgeable about the business that they are able to challenge the intellectual rigor among the senior executive group,” he says. “At the senior level, one of the most difficult tasks is raising the level of strategic thinking among top executives. In the best-managed companies, that is the responsibility of HR. This is such a huge change that if you think about it long enough, it will blow your mind.”

Niles agrees that clients want generalists who understand their business. “If the company has a major initiative to launch four new products by 2005, the generalist should be pondering ways to double the college recruitment program next year,” he says.

Effective generalists will have experienced a number of complex business transformations and can demonstrate their involvement as a change agent within the process. Battle scars from a merger/acquisition, a major downsizing, significant company growth or organized labor challenges set them apart from newly minted MBAs.

These front-line experiences are increasingly critical for the HR generalist, because in today’s business environment, constant change is standard operating procedure.

Traditionally, companies hired management consultants to handle significant business upheaval, such as dropping a product line or developing a new one, or mergers and acquisitions, and HR was left out, Gatti says. The HR industry finally realized that it should develop the ability to handle the workforce aspects of those changes.

But what of those generalists whose portfolios are light on trials-by-fire? “I encourage HR people at mid-level to step up and volunteer for the difficult assignments,” Gatti says. “Don’t just sit back and observe and take notes. Take charge of your career experiences instead.”

Career Development

Among other interpersonal skills, experience in a global environment is an attractive bonus for a generalist. Fluency in a second language is beneficial, of course, as is taking an international recruiting trip, key involvement in an overseas acquisition/merger or contact with overseas employees or contractors.

While developing those career-enhancing skills, don’t overlook formal education. “The value of pedigree and credentials never goes away,” says Bergen. Consequently, a degree from one of the top HR programs can increase your marketability.

What if you lack the appropriate sheepskin? You can demonstrate your commitment to staying on top of your profession by reading industry journals, taking professional development courses and seeking certification.

But expect competition from MBAs, many more of whom have entered HR in the past five years, Gatti says, adding that his clients often request candidates with that credential. HR generalists should make up for what they lack in formal education with real-world management experience.

You’re the Boss

Having management experience outside of HR is extremely valuable, notes Niles. “It gives you credibility with employees, and you become a better problem solver.”

A temporary management gig worked for Craig LaTorre, a graduate of the Cornell master’s program. A major global corporation recently recruited the senior-level generalist as vice president of HR. His new employers were particularly intrigued by his year-long stint as a warehouse distribution manager for PepsiCo Inc. in Roanoke, Va., he says. “That helped me understand on a very real level what my clients—our managers—were up against, running a 24/7 operation. I think it ultimately made me a better HR person.”

Teerlinck had a similar experience as temporary operations manager at one Velocity Express location. “My understanding of the nuts and bolts of that operation helped me make better HR decisions and I can now build off that.”

If such an assignment is not possible, educate yourself about every aspect of the company’s business by observing processes, reading the balance sheet and studying business texts, Bergen says. And try to acquire experience in managing external relationships—working closely with players such as executive search firms, HR outsourcers, advertising agencies, university career offices, professional associations, the local business community and health care providers. Such experience develops strategic skills, Bergen says.

Master Technology, Metrics

These days, technology and HR are partners, and generalists must learn to effectively use HR systems and the Internet.

Mastering HR analytics—No. 4 on the Gatti survey’s top five—enables generalists to collect and analyze data that can help executives and managers make better decisions. “Everything today is about scorecards and measurement of business impact,” says Bergen.

“Today’s generalist should be able to offer real-time data on the effect of a particular benefit on turnover, on the company’s success in recruiting from certain universities or the impact of specific rewards on retention—and be able to put that information on the desktop of every manager,” he says.

Find Your Style

Employers want smart, flexible HR people with short learning curves and a willingness to adapt. So decide early in your career to diversify: Spread yourself around complex, global organizations with a multitude of business operations that use the most progressive tools, systems and mentors.

LaTorre exemplifies the well-rounded generalist. After Pepsi came a period with a startup technical services company, where he built a staff from zero to 500 network engineers.

“My startup experience was very different from the corporate, but it made sense from a career standpoint,” he says. “I was able to apply what I had learned from both my graduate work and my professional experience, and apply it in a clean-slate environment with no legacy of processes and systems.”

The best HR pros exude personal panache, confidence and persuasive powers. “This business will always be relationship-driven,” says Bergen. Your personality is a factor, but those skills “can be acquired through years of rich experience at a forward-thinking HR organization,” he says.

An HR generalist with varied experience, a mix of critical skills, up-to-date credentials and flexibility can expand his or her career options and make an impact at work.

Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance business writer based in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Web Extras

Reuse Permissions


CA Resources at Your Fingertips

View all Resources Now

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect