The Path Taken

By Jul 1, 2003
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HR Magazine, July 2003Two HR career roads--field and corporate--present their own distinct challenges and rewards.

During a career that has spanned more than 25 years, Sandra Sipari’s HR experience has come full circle. Sipari got her start in corporate HR, first in support positions, and quickly rose to vice president of HR at an insurance company and then director of compensation at a health care concern. She then moved out into the field as divisional vice president for a 2,000-employee health care system. But she ultimately decided to return to her corporate HR roots.

Today, as director of compensation/benefits/systems at Rexall Sundown Inc., a 1,500-employee global nutritional products company based in Boca Raton, Fla., Sipari designs base and variable pay plans and recognition programs, assesses and recommends all group benefit programs, and manages the company’s human resource information system.

“I have a definite preference. I’m at a corporate level today for a reason,” she says. “I found a high level of frustration at the field level because I did not have control over what was designed, developed and delivered to me for implementation.”

While Sipari’s preference is in corporate HR, neither career path is necessarily better; each has its challenges and rewards. And there are important differences between the two that may influence HR professionals’ career and advancement choices. Knowing those distinctions, learning about the responsibilities of each role and gaining the experience necessary to succeed in either one are key steps in any HR job move.

For Sipari, going from corporate HR to field HR and back helped to frame a valuable lesson. “I think it’s vitally important for HR professionals to know enough about themselves to know how, why and where they’d fit best,” she says. “For me, the corporate focus of designing, developing and creating are important. For someone else, though, the getting, doing and managing of field responsibilities may be just the match.”

Defining the Differences

At a basic level, field HR is tactical; corporate HR is strategic. Corporate HR develops and plans the company’s HR policies, programs, direction and goals; field HR is responsible for implementing them successfully. Corporate HR tends to see managers and employees collectively as a group or entity, interacting frequently with company executives; field HR must interact directly every day with managers and employees as individuals. Corporate HR’s focus tends to be longer-term; field HR’s role is more immediate.

“In the field, there’s a big emphasis on problem solving, high visibility and day-to-day operations,” says Jim Gray, SPHR, who has held corporate vice president and field management HR positions in manufacturing and financial services companies. “You’re building relationships with workers and sharing data.

“In corporate, you may be constantly on call and must be accessible. You’re building relationships with management and directors.”

Gray, president of Jim Gray Consultants LLC, an organizational consulting practice in Charleston, S.C., says that in corporate HR “there’s an obsession with the business, the trends of the business and what the implications are for the company.”

Corporate’s focus on anticipating the future is a constant, Gray says. “Every day you’re thinking about what the organization is going to look like two to five years from now. Will we have the people we need to produce our product or service? Are our benefits structured so that we can successfully attract and retain the talent we need? These are the kinds of questions that corporate asks.”

Because corporate HR professionals focus on large-scale strategic issues and are advisers to executive management, they tend to be specialists, with a deeper knowledge in one or more functional areas of HR, such as compensation and benefits, or employee training and development.

On the other side, field HR professionals must handle a variety of employee issues and so are more likely to be true generalists with a basic command of all HR functions, including staffing, employee relations, training, benefits and compensation. In effect they become resident experts because they are the one source for it all at their location. They often partner closely with an individual unit of the company.

“A line HR person should have a broad set of HR skills,” says Debbie Norton, worldwide director of human resources at the Wafer Fab Manufacturing division of Texas Instruments in Dallas. “If they weren’t a generalist at the beginning, after a line HR position, they are.” Norton leads strategic planning and HR solutions for the division’s 15,000 employees. Her field position includes succession planning, executive development, employee retention and recruiting, acquisition integration, and employee relations.

That’s not to say that field and corporate are so different that their separate skills never blend. In fact, some HR professionals believe the lines between the two disciplines are blurring.

Case in point: For Bruce Olin, the various job responsibilities of both corporate and field HR play out regularly. He holds dual roles as director of labor relations at Volvo Parts North America Inc., and as director of HR for the company’s 250-employee facility in Columbus, Ohio. He might spend the better part of his workday assisting management with labor-grievance issues, going over merit pay budgets with facility leaders and advising supervisors on employee discipline problems.

As liaison between the company and the union that represents its workers and as manager of HR, Olin works in both worlds. “I like the combination,” he says. “I’m still involved in the day-to-day issues, but I’m also able to lead our strategy at a higher level.”

Personalities Play a Part

HR’s comfort level with field or corporate jobs also may depend in part on individual work styles and personalities.

For people who need predictability and set schedules, a field HR job may not be the best fit, says Norton. “The field job on a daily basis is much less predictable than a corporate HR position,” she says. “Before you even enter your office, you may be pulled into an employee relations issue that takes the better part of the day to work through.”

But for those who thrive on hands-on work, enjoy new challenges every day and have a knack for reading situations and resolving problems, influencing people, building consensus and finding solutions quickly, field HR may be the perfect assignment.

For people who have analytical strengths, demonstrate business acumen and leadership, prefer a more structured routine, or enjoy contributing to longer-term projects, corporate HR may be the right focus. But even corporate jobs aren’t without some unpredictability and change.

“The ability to bounce from low-level things to high-level projects in the blink of an eye is a must,” says Sipari. “You have to have the mental dexterity to handle it.”

Rewards and Challenges

The rewards for each are related to the differences. Field HR professionals may see their actions pay off every day and may more directly witness the difference their jobs make in their division. Corporate HR professionals may be rewarded by having their strategies implemented on a large scale.

But HR professionals in both types of jobs can see the proof when the work positively impacts the company’s bottom line, such as reducing the cost per hire or decreasing employee turnover.

“There are lots of opportunities to take initiative,” Olin says. “It can be very rewarding when you try out your ideas, like a recruiting strategy, and it works.”

Of all the challenges faced by HR professionals in the corporate and field environments, getting the two sides to work together is perhaps the biggest. The problem often comes down to each side gaining an accurate understanding of the other’s roles, and how they must interact and progress.

“Both sides often don’t really understand what each does,” says Sipari. “Although we’re trying and working hard to get better at it, corporate too often designs and delivers to the field policies and programs without the proper communication and education.”

The field sometimes feels detached and already too removed from corporate, she says, “and that just increases the feeling all the more.”

Lack of understanding about the other’s time and priorities also can muddy the relationship. “The field person really doesn’t have time to look at the forest; they’re focused on the trees,” says Olin, who has spent 25 years in both field and corporate HR. “They have to be more of a jack-of-all-trades, and there’s a lot more fire fighting going on.”

This can contrast with corporate HR, which must often be more deliberate with decision-making.

“Corporate must always be looking at a much bigger picture,” Olin says. “Understanding each other’s issues, meshing them and getting the two divergent paths to merge effectively is the challenge.”

HR professionals admit that all of these perceived differences can at worst eventually foster a “corporate-against-field” mentality. “If the situation isn’t dealt with, the understanding of both parties tends to erode and a resentment can build,” Sipari says. “The outcome of that is a much-longer-term repairing process.”

To keep these situations from escalating, Sipari and others say regular communication, absolute honesty and regular involvement are key. In a previous job, for example, she checked in weekly with all field HR contacts, “especially if we were developing and implementing a program—to find out what was working and what wasn’t from their perspective.” She also used field operations to help pilot a program first.

“If corporate supports field and field supports corporate,” she says, “everybody wins.”

Giving clear reasons for decisions also improves communication. “If the budget’s being directed at other goals, say so,” Sipari says. “If you can put field’s ideas on the top of your list by a certain date, tell them.”

Sipari can empathize with the field’s needs and come up with viable solutions because she’s been there. Having experience in both field and corporate HR is key to bridging the two worlds and having the credibility with the other.

“The relationships you build in the field with line managers and employees only serve to help you later” in contributing in a more meaningful and understanding way to a corporate environment, says Olin.

Career Path and Advancement

Most HR professionals agree that combining a balance of field and corporate HR positions can be critical for future career growth. In fact, all of the HR professionals HR Magazine spoke with for this story have both types of job experience on their resumes. (For more information on how getting experience in both helps career advancement, see the June HR Magazine cover story.)

Which type of position provides HR with a better chance to gain strategic experience and business smarts?

“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” says Olin. “It’s always good to have both, especially if you want to advance.”

Field HR often gets more involved on a day-to-day basis with business operational issues, while corporate HR has a clear role in company strategy, aligning it with executive leadership goals. But working in field or corporate isn’t necessarily a key qualifier, and both can provide valuable, strategic experience at many levels.

As with most jobs, “it’s really more about what you’re doing, what you’ve worked on, what you’ve accomplished and what activities you’ve been focused on,” says Sipari. “Twenty years in the field doesn’t prepare you for corporate, and 20 years in corporate doesn’t prepare you for the field.”

The bottom line: “Field jobs can certainly help provide an opportunity to really learn the company inside and out,” says Bob Gatti, president and founder of Gatti & Associates, a Medfield, Mass.-based search firm that has specialized in placing HR professionals for the past 18 years. “But if you aspire to be a vice president of HR, it would be worthwhile to get both field and corporate experience.”

Company Culture Impacts Success

Meanwhile, the way in which a company views and promotes HR development also affects the progression of field or corporate careers.

At the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company and at many other Fortune 500 companies, for example, HR professionals are encouraged to take assignments supporting various parts of the business. About 40 percent of Lilly’s HR professionals have had at least one cross-functional job assignment, according to a company spokesperson, allowing them to learn other parts of the business firsthand.

Gray says the benefit of doing both jobs is not “a question of career laddering in the vertical sense; it’s more horizontal. There’s a zigzag in different functional areas that’s very important. Sure, a person could take a vertical HR advancement path, but they will be positioned better for the top if they take a broader learning approach.”

Typically, the career path moves from field to corporate; making the transition from corporate to field can be more difficult, says Gatti. According to Gatti’s experience with HR career movement, a top-notch HR professional who has enjoyed a long career in the field “often doesn’t want to move and may feel constrained in a corporate setting,” he says. But there are plenty of exceptions to that rule.

“Today I see as many people move from corporate jobs to line jobs as I do the reverse,” says Texas Instruments’ Norton. “I believe breadth of experience adds value to the individual as well as the company. Personally, I feel the line HR job puts HR closer to the business and allows them to get more involved in the business and the business strategy. But both paths provide advancement and success for the right individual.”

Susan J. Wells is a business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area with 18 years of experience covering business news and workforce issues.

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Field vs. Corporate: Weighing the Choice

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