Communication Skills, Business Acumen Help Advance HR Career

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 26, 2008

Interpersonal communication, drive/ambition, reputation in the organization, strategic/critical thinking skills, leadership skills and HR work experience were key factors that helped HR professionals move into, or advance, their careers, according to a just-released survey.

Some factors, though, are more “key” than others, depending on where the HR professional is on the food chain.

Vice presidents and consultants place greater value on strategic/critical thinking skills than generalists for getting them to their current position. HR professionals with 16 or more years in HR placed more value on leadership skills in landing their current job than those with five or fewer years of tenure.

The research kicks off what the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) hopes will be a series of career-themed surveys, said the report’s lead researcher, Jessica Frincke, who noted that the report was created in response to SHRM member requests for more career information and assistance.

“These findings demonstrate how essential it is for HR professionals to be aware of emerging trends and issues and how they affect the organization on a strategic level,” she writes in the 2008 Managing Your HR Career Survey Report, which is sprinkled with comments from members of SHRM’s Special Expertise Panels.

“HR professionals are increasingly being called upon to create and implement strategy in the organization and show how their workforce policies affect the organization’s overall business plan,” Frincke added.

The findings, released Feb. 25, 2008, are from an online survey SHRM conducted in July 2007 to which 636 members responded.

Frincke also pointed to the limited literature on HR as a career, which SHRM hopes to supplement with its report.

The report looks at the background and experience of HR professionals, sources they found influential for career advice, obstacles they encountered in advancing their career, and factors important in landing their current HR job and moving them to their next job.

A special section was devoted to in-depth interviews with a select group of senior HR executives discussing career advancement within the profession.

Learning the business beyond the confines of HR is valuable for advancement, some of the executives interviewed for the report said, and can be accomplished through staffing customer call centers, shadowing technicians in the field, seeking help and information from key people in the organization, and class work.

Most of those responding to the survey were between the ages of 36 and 55 (64 percent); female (80 percent); held an associate’s degree or higher (85 percent); majored in business administration/management or HR (64 percent); and held one or more HR certifications (53 percent).

Among those holding HR certification, a majority of those with PHR certification were generalists and specialists, while those with SPHR certification tended to be consultants and directors.

Key Findings

Among key factors HR professionals considered very important in moving into or advancing in their careers, they cited interpersonal communication most often (80 percent), followed by drive/ambition (61 percent), reputation in the organization (56 percent) strategic/critical thinking skills (53 percent), leadership skills and HR work experience (both 51 percent).

Nearly 30 percent of all respondents overall also cited HR generalist experience, Human Resource Certification Institute certification and business acumen as valuable.

Directors (87 percent) placed the greatest value on interpersonal communication skills, followed by C-suite executives and generalists (83 percent each) for attaining a job in HR.

The key factors HR deemed very important “represent the current image of HR in many organizations; that is, HR often is seen as responsible for communication,” SHRM Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel member Phyllis Hartman says in the report.

However, “personal drive/ambition, reputation in the organization, strategic/critical thinking skills, leadership skills and business knowledge skills outside of HR should hold a higher level of importance,” she stressed, for HR professionals interested in moving “up the leadership ladder.”

Tom Darrow, a member of SHRM’s Staffing Management Special Expertise Panel, notes the difficulty in quantifying some key factors deemed important. HR professionals, he said, “seem to value intangibles [like] reputation, ambition and leadership above experience in the area in which they would like to work, [yet] each of these intangibles is harder to quantify and screen for, making it harder to assess in the hiring process.”

Other key findings:

  • Internal promotions or transfers were the most frequently cited methods in landing their first and current HR job. Men were more likely to acquire their first HR job through external job postings.
  • Supervisors and managers or other higher-level professionals in a supervisory role were the most influential sources of HR career guidance.
  • About half of respondents overall said they encountered obstacles advancing their career because they believed HR was not valued by their organization and/or senior management.
  • 72 percent said their first career-oriented job was outside of HR; specialists and consultants, though, most often started in HR (45 percent and 39 percent, respectively).

Darrow noted that the findings that HR professionals often start their career in other fields confirmed “that the majority of current professionals in HR transitioned into the field from another field and did not ‘grow up’ in HR.

“This shows the need for continuing education in HR policies and practices and certification to ensure that those transitioning into the field meet the expectations of being an HR professional by the rest of the business leadership,” he stated.

Frincke observed that “because HR is a profession that incorporates a broad set of skills, diverse backgrounds can serve as an asset to the HR professional” and that it is not uncommon to gain experience in a different business function within an organization before moving into HR.

Staying Competitive

Formal and informal training and professional development programs are available in developing strategic/critical thinking skills, business acumen and leadership skills, Frincke writes.

“Whether you are looking to advance your HR career or are considering a career in HR, it is vital to be aware of the factors that are considered important as an HR professional, especially at different career points,” she observes in the report.

That could include taking inventory of your current knowledge, skills and benefits to identify strengths and weaknesses, she suggests. The survey found, for example, that specialists, administrators and assistants cited computer literacy as a very important factor in landing their current HR job.

C-suite executives and vice presidents valued business acumen—the knowledge and understanding of business, finance, accounting and marketing as well as an organization’s operational functions—in addition to leadership and strategic/critical thinking skills for HR career advancement.

Developing a professional network of colleagues within and outside the organization, industry and profession also is important, Frincke writes, a sentiment echoed by SHRM Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel member Fernan Cepero, PHR.

HR professionals should seek coaching and guidance from outside their profession for “a more holistic understanding” of a given organization’s business strategy, Cepero suggested.

Some HR professionals have encountered obstacles in advancing their career and faulted their organization and/or senior management for not valuing HR (48 percent) or lacking opportunities to grow in their careers (33 percent). Not being valued was most often cited as a problem for those with six or more years of tenure.

HR professionals should “assert themselves by applying their knowledge and building a business case on how they can [be] effective and positively impact the business plans of the organization,” Cepero said, by setting objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-specific and relate directly to their organization’s objectives.

Gaining their organization’s support, Frincke concludes, requires HR professionals to “continuously outline their value as leaders who contribute to the organization’s financial achievements and can guide the strategic activities that impact the organization’s most valuable resource—it’s people.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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