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How to Make a Successful Midcareer Change to HR

A man is on a video call with a woman at his desk.

​Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I just started my career in HR, and it seems I'm behind in the learning curve. I come from a management and Lean Six Sigma background. I read the regulations and policies for my organization and try to ask my director questions to ensure I'm understanding what I'm reading. However, it seems to only frustrate my director, especially if the question is about something they feel I should already know. How can I overcome this? I feel so inadequate at times—to the point where I wonder if HR is the right career path for me.

While more insight into your job title and its deliverables would be helpful in thinking through the right approach here, I'm confident you can change this situation quickly and effectively. Here are some tactics that will help you and many others who find themselves in similar situations of having landed a job in a new field and getting off to a rocky start.

You expressed the heart of your challenge with these words: "I read the regulations and policies for my organization and try to ask my director questions to ensure I'm understanding what I'm reading. However, it seems to only frustrate my director. …"

Functionally, HR departments focus on the intelligent navigation of relevant state and federal laws and regulations while keeping the company's day-to-day operations running smoothly.

Understanding how external laws and regulations, as well as internal policies, apply to your new role is critical to your success. It's good that you appreciate the director's frustration; just recognizing the existence of a problem is halfway to solving it.

Develop Mentoring Resources

You feel insecure in your new role because you are starting at ground zero. As such, there are three things I'd start doing immediately to improve the situation:

  1. Find people and resources other than your director who can answer your questions.
  2. Take the theoretical knowledge you're absorbing and try to find examples in the real world that demonstrate how the theory is applied. Colleagues can usually help you with this.
  3. If your sources agree on the answer to an issue, all is good. If not, you can approach your boss. Show your understanding of the situation and review the options for solutions, the different practical applications and how they differ. Ask which course she or he would take in such a situation.

If you follow these steps, the questions you ask your director will demonstrate greater understanding of a question's subtleties and the range of appropriate responses, because they'll be focused on the real-world issues your company and HR department face every day.

Always Acknowledge Advice

Fortunately, many people love to give advice. This is especially true when their efforts are rewarded by your verbal thanks, which you should follow up with a handwritten note, a text or an e-mail. Such thoughtful actions are remembered and will help you build networks and allies specific to your new role.

There are other ways to build your knowledge and practical skills. Advances in technology change jobs rapidly, making it hard for anyone to keep up with all the latest updates. No matter the job, everyone is learning, so you can only benefit from knowing more people and learning from them.

How do you do this?

Develop Mentors and Networks

Join and become involved with the people and programs in your local Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter. You'll grow your professional knowledge as your professional network grows.

If you attend and become involved with your professional association's local meetings, then you'll come to know and be known by the most dedicated and best connected people in your profession. You can build on what you learn from these colleagues through books, courses, and the acquisition of professional certifications and licenses.


Associations run on the efforts of volunteers, so step up and contribute by joining committees, handing out name tags, picking up chairs and otherwise helping out. Others will notice your presence.

Become Part of the Inner Circle

Just as there is an inner circle and an outer circle in your department and company, the same is true of your profession. With professional associations, volunteering is the first step in gaining acceptance by those in the profession's inner circle.

The members of the inner circle of your local SHRM chapter are, as noted, the most dedicated and best connected people in your local HR community. Chapter membership will expand your HR knowledge base, and attendance at chapter meetings will expand your network of professional colleagues.

Note that SHRM also has groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. These, too, can help you with answers to your questions and can be very helpful if a relocation might be in your future.

By networking inside your company and at your local SHRM chapter, you'll soon learn answers to your questions and be able to ask smarter, more-nuanced queries of your boss when the need arises.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.