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On-the-Job Development

HR Magazine, July 2005HR Agenda: Career Development

To move ahead in your career, start by earning your HR manager's respect.

As they attempt to climb the ladders of their careers, many people focus on finding the next employer, getting advanced education or networking through professional associations. Those proven strategies are not the only ways to get ahead, however.

For human resource practitioners, especially those beginning their careers or in mid-level positions, another effective means of advancing is on-the-job development. And one of the best ways that HR professionals can hone key skills within their workplace is through their own manager or HR director.

Lower-level HR practitioners need to build relationships by thinking about the best opportunities for themselves, their bosses and their co-workers, says Ruth Schimel, a former U.S. Department of State HR director who is now a career consultant in Washington, D.C. She suggests that HR practitioners look for projects or duties that they can excel in but that don’t threaten the boss’s position.

“Everyone is used to hearing that the HR manager is running around with her hair on fire,” says Tara Hartnett, HR director of RedPeg Marketing in Alexandria, Va. “If someone came to me and said, ‘Hey, can I take this over for you?’ that would be such a weight off my shoulders.”

It’s a win/win situation: The HR manager gets to offload duties or projects that don’t need the manager’s sole attention, and the HR practitioner has an opportunity to learn a new aspect of the field and showcase his or her burgeoning talent.

Getting Started

Before you go to your boss, however, do some digging on your own. Come up with ideas on how you can help your manager, build trust and rapport with him or her, and learn as much as you can about the office culture.

Schimel advises HR practitioners to ask themselves, “ ‘What can I do to support the needs of the people I work with?’ Imagine an idea, small project or service that will show your abilities and also make others look good.”

Then, Schimel says, “check out your assumptions. Whether or not [ideas] are well received, stay alert to building relationships based on serving others’ interests.”

Because of the confidentiality aspect of many HR functions, Hartnett adds, “you have to establish trust and rapport early on.”

To build trust with your manager, first “know the vision of the organization and how HR fits into that,” Hartnett says.

In addition to understanding the office culture, you also need to become an expert on the core programs of your HR office. Then, it’s time to “get your feet wet in a lot of things,” she advises. “I need someone I can groom to be me. If a person I hire can only do one thing, that’s not enough.”

Cathie Kasch agrees. Now the assistant administrator (or what would be vice president in the private sector) for the HR division of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C., Kasch worked her way up from an entry-level clerical position 28 years ago. Kasch attributes her success to a positive attitude and a willingness to take on new assignments.

“A lot of my success had to do with my energy level,” Kasch says. “Back then, there was not a lot of interaction with managers like there is today. I had a lot of energy and drive.” Kasch applied her go-getting attitude to a stream of federal jobs that she says “didn’t make a lot of sense” in career progression. Still, she took them on and benefited by being exposed to different things, she says. Equally important, she earned a reputation for being dependable and flexible.

Personal Skills

After you’ve mastered the basic skills and knowledge for your job, most experts agree, you’ll have to rely on interpersonal skills to work your way up and gain approval from the boss. How do you approach the boss? How do you gauge the person’s mood? How do you learn the seemingly small things that may either please or annoy the boss? And how do you build a strong relationship with the boss without alienating your co-workers? Communication is key, managers say.

“A lot of this goes to emotional intelligence,” says Greg Hessel, a senior client partner and manager of the HR division at the Dallas office of executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. “There’s a bit of art to it. You need to have the emotional maturity and confidence in your skills to have a very direct and pointed conversation [with the boss] about resource allocation. ‘What is a priority and what is not? What are commitments and what are simply ideas?’ ”

Starting the conversation, Hessel says, may be as simple as asking, “How can I help you?”

Communication skills can either make or break your job performance. While that may seem daunting, the good news is that you have more power than you may think in communicating with your boss. Even if the boss is busy or is a poor communicator, you have to be assertive in finding out what the priorities are and how you can help.

“I really believe it is OK to ask questions,” Kasch says. “A lot of people feel like they will look stupid, but I think that’s a mistake. You should have enough confidence to ask the questions.”

Be a Contributor

A lack of innovative thinking and business acumen can keep HR practitioners at low- and mid-level positions, Hessel says.

To overcome this, “help your boss in areas of identifying and co-authoring solutions,” Hessel advises. “It’s wonderful when you can do things that save the company money or create efficiency, but do it in a way that makes your boss look good.”

This can be hard for a lower-level practitioner to accomplish, but it can be done through key relationships. “You’re in a position of responding rather than initiating, which can be tiring and not leave room for creativity unless you establish good relationships with people,” Schimel says.

Schimel advises a sort of public relations campaign for HR in which you reach out to people throughout your company as an ambassador for human resources. The approach helps the company, as well as the HR manager, by making employees aware of programs and benefits and by putting a good face on HR. It also helps you by creating allies with more people than just the HR manager, who may or may not help you climb the ladder.

Such outreach also allows you to get feedback on HR programs or garner ideas for new ones, Schimel says. “I’ve seen it happen so many times that people initiate something, but they don’t check it out with the people it will affect.”

As part of her consulting business, Schimel advises people in developing their interpersonal skills for on-the-job success. “It’s about how confident you are, and it’s also about good judgment about when to kowtow and when to initiate conversation,” she says.

To build confidence for better relationships with your boss or others, Schimel suggests that you first understand your own strengths, weaknesses, interests and goals, and that you learn as much as possible about your boss and his or her style.

Then, start slowly in approaching your boss about added projects and responsibilities. “Whenever you find yourself having a knot in your belly, that’s a danger zone,” Schimel says. “If you come at it from fear and anxiety, you’re in trouble.” More Pointers

Experts also suggest taking the following actions as ways of advancing your career:

  • Develop a mentor who is not your supervisor. Hartnett says being mentored by her company’s chief financial officer has been invaluable to her career development. “This is someone who wants to see me succeed, and, because he’s not my HR director, I don’t look to him as someone to surpass for my career progression,” she says.
  • Don’t take negative feedback personally. Kasch recalls a former colleague whose boss invited him to a friendly lunch within minutes of chastising him over his work performance. Her colleague learned quickly, she says, that “this is business.”
  • Practice teamwork. Reach out to your co-workers on projects or discuss ideas before going to your manager with them. “If your co-workers have been there longer than you, they know the company history better and may already know if something has been tried,” Kasch says.
  • Study an issue and make specific recommendations. “HR can get stuck in a rut of, ‘This is how it’s always been done,’ ” Hartnett says. “It isn’t stepping on anyone’s toes if you come into the manager’s office and say, ‘You’ve been advertising this job on this web site, but I found out this one gets this many more hits.’ That is offering a clear alternative.”

Most of all, Schimel and others say, be patient and have a sense of humor. Be someone who your boss and colleagues want to spend time with.

Lisa Daniel is a Washington, D.C., area freelance writer who specializes in career and workplace issues.


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