Joe Rotella: Be a Business Professional with Expertise in HR

Defy stereotypes and resist being pigeonholed, advises popular speaker and certification trainer

By Rena Gorlin, J.D.
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​Joe Rotella, SHRM-SCP

Joe Rotella consistently garners top ratings as a leading professional speaker on the topics of HR technology, marketing and web usability. He is chief marketing officer and former chief technical officer for Delphia Consulting LLC, a national provider of HR and payroll solutions from Sage Software—but it's more than his job title that draws in the crowds. A visit to one of his legendary sessions to see Rotella in action explains his popularity. 

Before Rotella builds up his 2016 SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition audience to reach for the sky, he brings them down to earth a little. "Do your co-workers think of you as that sunshine-and-rainbows people-person, organizing the company picnic?" Nods of recognition. "Is your office described as the hiring/firing department?" Eyes roll among the listeners, who have crowded into the auditorium to hear one of his storied sessions. Now he gently admonishes them: "If you talk about yourself only as HR, you do yourself a disservice, letting others pigeonhole you as paper-pushers." But then he offers encouragement: "It's up to you to change the stereotypes. Identify yourself as more than 'just' HR. After all, attracting and retaining the right talent takes a well-honed set of skills—which is what HR is!" His enthusiasm builds. "You're the people who attract and retain the people who do the mission to achieve the vision!" Smiles all around, though a few show a lingering twinge of wounded pride. 

But pride in the HR profession is what drives Rotella's presentation. "You're business professionals, and it's up to you to present yourselves as such." He repeats his clearly heartfelt message in several forms, like daily affirmations or a personal mantra: "Say: 'I'm a business professional with expertise in HR.' Say: 'I can contribute to any business—because my expertise is in HR.' " 

There's more to the charismatic Rotella than meets the eye. He has studied industrial psychology, management and computer science. He used the very first IBM PCs when he worked in a usability lab at IBM. He was a programmer and human factors specialist at the renowned Bell Labs (now Lucent Technologies). Somehow, he finds time to be a skilled devotee of ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arranging; creative director of CreateNCraft, a company he founded for makers and crafters; and a frequent guest on "Make It Artsy," a public television program. 

Rotella's multifaceted background makes him as engaging with an individual interviewer as he is with an audience of hundreds. His talents enable him to take on numerous roles, including those he fulfills for SHRM as an active volunteer. "HR, marketing, accounting, business—they're all becoming more connected," he said. That perspective made him an early adopter of SHRM certification. "You can really see how SHRM invested in certification to do it right. The materials are impressive." He holds the SHRM-SCP credential, serves as his local chapter's certification manager, and teaches certification prep classes using the SHRM Learning System. 

"Certification is the first step in promoting HR as a profession," Rotella said. "An HR person is a business professional, as critical to achieving the company's vision and mission as a CPA [certified public accountant] or an MBA. HR is about making decisions aligned with the company's values, putting the right people in the right seats in the right part of the business." SHRM certification is important for the HR profession, he said, "because it shows that you know things from more than a technical perspective. You disprove the myths and stereotypes." Rotella reports that his students appreciate SHRM certification for another reason: "They really respect that it's SHRM. They're aware that they have the entire weight of a worldwide organization behind them. It impresses people," Rotella said. "SHRM certification makes an impression." 

Hard work is required if HR wants "a seat at the table at the highest level. Without Business Acumen, you're still just the hire/fire person," Rotella said. He regards the process of preparing for SHRM certification as a way for HR practitioners to become knowledgeable about every part of the business they touch. "You have to know at least as much as you need to provide assistance," he said. "But it's also about knowing what you don't know. Start speaking the language of the people around you. Build your network of people to get ideas." 

As a certification instructor, Rotella modified the basic SHRM Learning System program to create a customized 32-hour training course (four hours a week over eight weeks). "Students can read the materials at home, but in the classroom we illustrate examples through stories. All instructors with enough expertise and experience have stories," he said. "That's what students remember when they have to pick the right answer on the exam. The effect is like SHRM certification itself: learning plus doing." Even after the course is over, the SHRM Learning System materials can continue to be useful in the workplace—Rotella likens them to an encyclopedia of HR. 

Rotella encourages his certification prep students to maintain realistic expectations while making the most out of their training experience. "No one is an expert on every module," he said. "I tell all my students what the Buddha said: A jug fills drop by drop. The fact that you come to class every week is adding a drop—you've improved yourself just by taking the class. Even if you don't pass the exam, all the work you did resulted in self-improvement and learning." 

HR professionals who do pass the SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP exam then must take on a greater responsibility. "The hard part is done, but now you have an obligation to keep learning. It's what you do to show your stuff," Rotella said. "The credits that come with recertification are only a side effect. Maintain your badge of 'I'm a professional.' " He emphasizes the practical as well as intellectual advantages of keeping up with new developments in HR. "From a financial perspective, it minimizes risk. If HR is not aware of something, employees could be exposed. Choose to stay current—the field changes all the time, so it's up to you." 

What's next for those who have their SHRM credentials? Rotella is a certification evangelist: "Proselytize! Build it into your incentive structure for your whole staff to get SHRM-certified. You have an obligation to your profession—and to yourself—to act as a professional and to encourage others to do the same." 

Rena Gorlin, J.D., is an independent writer and editor in Washington, D.C.

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