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Rise of HR self-service demands strategic leaders who can build business, attract talent, consultant says
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Carol Semrad, SHRM-SCP
Self-described "connector" Carol Semrad, SHRM-SCP, of Chicago, past president and current treasurer of the Chicago chapter of SHRM, has run her own consultancy since 2003. She started C. Semrad & Associates, which specializes in HR and organizational development, not long after her last employer-company went public. "I had the difficult task of laying off 100 employees—including myself," she says.
Now Semrad works collaboratively for and with dynamic organizations to help them meet the latest business challenges, such as HR automation and employee self-service. Entry-level HR professionals as well as executives can benefit from the advice she offers in the following interview.
SHRM Certification Update: How did you become involved in the HR field and then start your own business?
Carol Semrad: While in sales and operations leadership roles, I built successful teams that became "talent feeders" for those organizations. I had always been good at creating great teams—finding and developing the right people and funneling them to the departments that needed them. Soon I realized that I was the talent-feeding pool. I also recognized that talent was a really important part of the business. In 1995, I moved into HR—the people side of business, where all the action is.
My consulting firm came about when I got a call at home from a colleague asking for help with a project. Its success led to someone else asking me for help with another project, and so on. It's all about connections. Being a connector and collaborator is good for me and for my business, but it's also about giving back to the community—inspiring collaboration within organizations and supporting personal and professional growth.
SHRM: What is an example of your experience as a "connector and collaborator"?
Semrad: A client at a small company needed to hire an HR generalist. I introduced a colleague, Sally Anderson, SHRM-SCP, to the client, which hired her. She stayed there through four changes of management. Now she is a top executive at Google! She was also active in SHRM and is now on the national board. She wouldn't have her job without me, and I wouldn't have some of my clients and my leadership position in Chicago SHRM without her.
SHRM: What impact is SHRM certification having on the business world? Can certification help HR become more strategic?
Semrad: Certification is, in general, a good criterion for HR excellence. Every organization would benefit from having a certified HR professional as a part of its team, whether as a hire or as a consultant. My clients appreciate that I have a full knowledge of HR and can serve as a valuable strategic partner. As HR professionals are increasingly being seen as business partners, the days of wanting a seat at the table are gone. As a consultant, I'm invited to take a seat at the table. I get calls from employers seeking referrals to certified HR professionals, to place them in open leadership roles.
With automation and self-service the new normal, HR has to escalate its role. Businesses are hiring high-level leaders and forgoing administrators. Companies want strategic thinkers—there's no longer a need for a "cop." It's important for my colleagues to know this.
I do strategy; I develop people. Businesses want innovators who can help them advance into employers that attract the best and brightest talent. Entrepreneurial organizations, in particular, are realizing the value of HR as a partner and the professionalism and strategic mindset we bring.
A 100-person company, for instance, might have someone performing an HR role already but needs help to expand and formalize it, transitioning an office manager into the HR manager. Most small businesses are in that position. I've helped clients create and implement new programs and processes to improve engagement and retention, and I'm proud to report that several have earned "best places to work" awards.
SHRM: How do entry-level HR professionals start on the path to becoming leaders?
Semrad: Even with self-service HR, organizations still need people in backup roles that allow employees to talk to a real person. But talent is the name of the game. Anything you can do [at any level] to help the organization attract and retain talent is the most important aspect of HR now.
SHRM: How do the SHRM competencies relate to a culture of collaboration? How do you see the competencies actually being implemented?
Semrad: Organizations that want to be collaborative have to have leaders who are willing to lead by example, who look for opportunities to encourage and support collaborative processes and events. They must be willing to train to the competency, provide feedback to the team members, and measure the outcomes both individually and organizationally.
All of the HR consultants I know, for the most part, demonstrated proficiency in the SHRM competencies even before the program launched.
As a consultant, I find myself using the Consultation competency, of course, as well as Communication, Relationship Management, Business Acumen and Leadership & Navigation, all in accordance with Ethical Practice. It's just a part of me doing my work. Until recently, I haven't applied Global & Cultural Effectiveness as much, but I'm now working with clients that are expanding internationally, so I probably will do so more often.
SHRM: What do SHRM chapters offer HR professionals, particularly those who are SHRM-certified?
Semrad: I found my participation in Chicago SHRM to be of tremendous support in the growth of my business. I've been able to mentor others, earned many client referrals and connected chapter members to clients who have hired them for leadership roles.
Chapters also provide plenty of support for deploying and promoting your SHRM certification. At all Chicago SHRM events, we ask who is certified and encourage those who are not to look at becoming certified. We encourage all of our student members to obtain certification as early as possible.
Our partnership with DePaul University allows [certified] students to apply their certification to obtain credit toward their degree. And we have board members who teach the SHRM cert prep class at Northwestern University and Northern Illinois University.
SHRM: What are some chapter opportunities for recertifying? How did you achieve your SHRM-SCP recertification?
Semrad: Chicago SHRM offers more than 40 programs each year, and most offer recertification credits. Belonging to a chapter is the best way to stay connected to the HR community and maintain a network of connections. You earn PDCs [professional development credits] while you learn and stay up-to-date on the latest legal changes and trends. People can look online to see all the options for earning PDCs.
I am already recertified through 2021, thanks to Chicago SHRM chapter events and client projects. A SHRM credential-holder who does work that is project-oriented and strategic can certainly apply for recertification credit for almost any work project—say, creating a mentor program or a succession plan or building a needs assessment and delivery system for training.
SHRM: How did you originally become involved with SHRM?
Semrad: I joined SHRM as soon as I got into HR, then joined the Chicago chapter, initially to network with other HR professionals. The connections and friendships are most gratifying. Being a part of the HR community is important for expanding my own learning and to mentor others. In volunteering for Chicago SHRM since 2003, especially with the education committee, I was instrumental in planning programming, bringing in new members and building relationships—and was awarded volunteer of the year in 2007. Our chapter has a powerful leadership team. Everyone works together to help each other and the organization.
Rena Gorlin, J.D., is a freelance writer and editor in Washington, D.C.
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