Gain Experience Beyond HR

Public-service and business organizations can be useful career development resources for HR professionals.

By Kathryn Tyler Aug 1, 2010
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August coverAn unfortunate stereotype is that "HR professionals are not ‘real’ businesspeople and don’t understand business," says Kristopher J. Newbauer, SPHR. But he suggests a remedy: "Working alongside entrepreneurs," he says, can give HR practitioners "an opportunity to hone their business acumen and debunk that stereotype. They learn the language and needs of business."

How can HR professionals get that experience? By becoming active in business- and profession-oriented community organizations such as chambers of commerce, Kiwanis International, Rotary International and Toastmasters International.

Newbauer, director of learning and organization development for Rotary International, headquartered in Evanston, Ill., says HR professionals who participate in such organizations gain exposure to what other business leaders are doing to recruit and retain talent. The organizations can also be great sources of prospective applicants. Lastly, succeeding as a leader in an organization—say, as club president—can help prepare an individual to be a manager.

Members of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) may already know the career development advantages of attending SHRM chapter meetings, but many may not have considered joining other community organizations to help shape their careers. With tuition reimbursement and training budgets slimmed by the recession and with job openings scarce almost everywhere, community organizations can offer alternative ways for HR professionals to develop skills, gain knowledge and network with other professionals.

Finding the right fit depends on your goals. Are you interested in gaining public speaking skills? Leadership abilities? Strategic planning skills? Do you want to network with other HR professionals or members of the wider business community? Do you aspire to land a job? To advance in your current organization?

Experts say serving as an officer provides the biggest benefit. "You gain the experience of being a leader, which can transfer over into your organization," says Beverly A. Widger, SPHR, senior vice president of human resources for Claremont Savings Bank in Claremont, N.H.

Pat Johnson, assistant director of business education for British Columbia Pension Corp. in Victoria, and incoming international president of Toastmasters, agrees: "When you’re a club officer, you get involved at a different level. You learn how to be a team player, do strategic planning, inspire others to meet group goals and manage a budget."

Community organizations typically fall into categories such as educational, service-oriented, economic, job-specific and industry-specific. Meetings generally occur weekly or monthly, and annual dues and expenses per member run from $75 to $400, depending on the costs of meetings and meals.

Following are some of the leading organizations whose purposes and activities can be particularly helpful for HR professionals’ career growth.

Educational Organizations

Among the best-known educational groups is Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization aimed at developing speaking and leadership skills.

"People come to Toastmasters for all different reasons—to learn how to chair meetings; how to speak within a time limit; how to put clear, concise thoughts together and present them; and how to respond to questions," Johnson says. "We teach people impromptu speaking, how to handle oneself and start a conversation, which directly relates to going into interviews. We teach people how to give feedback, which is a phenomenally valuable skill."

At Toastmasters meetings—typically held once a week for an hour in a public venue such as a hotel—members take turns giving prepared speeches and receiving constructive feedback. About 20 minutes is devoted to impromptu speaking, known as "table topics." Members volunteer or are called upon to talk for one to two minutes on various subjects to teach them how to think and speak on their feet.

Johnson, a member of Toastmasters for 27 years, says, "I call Toastmasters my ‘laboratory,’ where I am safe and can practice for the real world. If I’m doing a presentation at work, I’ll take it to my club meeting."

John Felkins, president of Accelerant Consulting Group Inc., an organizational development firm in Bartlett, Tenn., and president of his Toastmasters chapter, says, "Each prepared speaker has a counterpart who gives constructive evaluation of the speech. It’s a good opportunity for the person doing the evaluation to be able to pick out things for commendation and improvement."

Felkins, also a member of the local chamber of commerce, says Toastmasters has taught him how to respond to spontaneous questions and to use vocal variety and body language to add authority to his speeches. "You become confident when you’re put into that situation and need to perform," he says.

Service to Communities

Organizations of local businesspeople volunteering to work toward charitable causes are in the category of service-oriented clubs. Among them are Kiwanis International, Lions Clubs, Rotary International and United Way. Most carry out a variety of service projects, and some focus on particular causes.

Kiwanis International concentrates on children’s charities, for example, while Lions Clubs take on efforts such as aid for the disabled. Rotary International’s members work to combat hunger, improve sanitation and health, and provide education and job training globally.

Most service club meetings begin with networking during a meal, followed by a few minutes of club business and concluding with a speaker. "I’ve had the opportunity to hear government figures and people running for office," says Lisa Heindricks, SPHR, director of people, building and risk services for Kiwanis International at its headquarters in Indianapolis. Depending on the speaker, HR professionals may gain knowledge about a new market or methods of motivating employees.

"When you’re a leader of a volunteer organization, it hones your persuasive skills," Heindricks says. "Unlike employees, members are volunteers and don’t have to do what you say." She adds that depending on the demographics of the club, HR professionals also learn how to lead multigenerational and cross-cultural groups.

Other leadership skills learned include how to run a board meeting, how to do a budget and how to give a presentation, Heindricks says.

Heindricks also sees club membership as a recruitment tool—"We’ve hired people through my connections"—and as a way to learn project management skills. "I’ve been the chair of my club’s wine-tasting fundraiser for many years," she says. "It’s a fairly large project to invite people, obtain the wines, acquire donations for the silent auction, contract for the food and the band. … Fundraising projects give you the opportunity to lead or be on a committee for a major project. Those skills are directly transferrable."

Economic Focus

Networking represents an important benefit of belonging to an economy-oriented organization such as a chamber of commerce or an economic development council. Other pluses include improvement of financial management skills, and, as Felkins notes, "opportunities for leadership development."

Widger of Claremont Savings Bank, a chamber of commerce member, says, "Being on the finance committee for our town gave me another perspective about dealing with the financials of a business." Her other memberships include the board of the United Way; town government committees; and a SHRM chapter, the River Valley Human Resources Association. She is also president of her hometown historical society.

Widger’s memberships help her personally and professionally. "Through networking, I’ve been able to get speakers to come to the bank," she says, adding, "The skills you use in HR are the same ones you use when you lead any organization. The historical society is about managing people. My United Way experience was interesting because first I was asked to be the vice president, and then the president resigned. I took over as president"—and was asked to terminate a staff member.

Job Concentration

Some organizations are limited to job categories such as trainers, compensation specialists or HR professionals in general. For example, trainers would be wise to look into membership in chapters of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD). Chapters provide monthly speakers and networking opportunities. The San Diego chapter, for example, offers a mentor-protégé program.

SHRM’s 575 affiliated chapters across the country help keep members up-to-date on state legislative workplace issues and HR certification opportunities. Chapters may also provide newsletters and job referral services.

It’s worth getting to know other HR professionals, says Lenor Coe, PHR, an administrator for the law firm Godfrey, Leibsle, Blackbourn & Howarth SC in Elkhorn, Wis. She belongs to SHRM and to the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA). Being a supervisor can be isolating, she says. "HR managers have a limited number of people they can talk to because of confidentiality. It’s nice to be able to go to a conference" of the ALA, for example, "and understand what the other person is going through."

Industry Organizations

Industry-specific organizations require members to be employed in particular industries or professions, such as law, medicine or engineering. For example, SHRM member Bonnie G. Moore, SPHR, administrator for law firm Cabaniss, Johnston in Birmingham, Ala., also belongs to a chapter of the ALA. "The benefits are networking with others and learning—not only from the speakers but also the other members," she says.

Coe agrees. The local chapters and the national association make it a priority to offer quality education through speakers, she says, and members are listed on the ALA’s web site and in the membership book, so they can contact one another for professional advice. For example, when she needed to set up a succession plan and a partnership plan for her firm, she found a member on the West Coast willing to mentor her. He gave her a template and advice on pitfalls to avoid. "I created two documents I was pleased to submit to my managing partner," she says.

Industry-specific organizations also provide sources of information on job openings.

Don’t Overcommit

Veteran members of community organizations warn of the risk of becoming overcommitted. "Each organization usually takes a couple of hours a month. In total, I spend 15 percent of my time on these activities," says consultant David C. Miles, SPHR. He is chairman of the Miles LeHane Cos.–OI Partners, an HR consultancy in Leesburg, Va.; a member of SHRM and ASTD; and a former board member of several economic and civic commissions, including his chamber of commerce.

Widger agrees. "Be careful not to say yes too much. You don’t have to be an officer unless you’re comfortable with that role. Just being there and having the exposure to other individuals is beneficial." At the height of her involvement, she says, she was devoting 40 hours a month to organizations.

"Balance your time," Widger continues. "Don’t be afraid to say no. A wise person once told me to look at each opportunity and ask myself, ‘What’s in it for me? Is this my passion?’ If it isn’t my passion, I don’t say yes."

The author, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.


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