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Former executive assistant, now HR department of one, grows her career with her startup employer
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"Yes, I received about a 50 percent raise," said Sara Simmons, SHRM-CP, of Chicago, "and I definitely feel it was attributable to my SHRM certification." Simmons is the human resource and office manager for Chicago-based tech startup FourKites Inc. Her story illustrates how obtaining a SHRM credential is an investment that can really pay off—in Simmons' case, literally.
Armed with a master's degree in business administration, Simmons started out building her own business. "I was working with independent entrepreneurs and startups, getting their businesses up and off the ground," she said. "This included HR-type activities for clients in several industry sectors. I've held HR responsibilities for five-plus years. I'm used to wearing many hats and being involved in a variety of business aspects." After five years of "24/7 self-employment," Simmons was ready for something new. Her familiarity with startups led her to FourKites and a position as executive assistant to the chief executive officer.
"The company was small enough, and I knew they were going to grow," Simmons said. "I had an opportunity to build and shape my role. It was exciting." Three months in, Simmons asked for a review. "We were growing so quickly, I felt I could be better utilized," she said. "What roles were opening up that I could possibly grow into? HR was one, especially given my background." A few months later, Simmons was given the option of pursuing the administrative side of her job or the HR side. "My work experience and being a people person made HR the natural career path," she said.
Simmons dove headfirst into her HR role. "The company had fewer than 20 employees, none dedicated to HR. Within a couple of months, we had more than 50 employees. Everything seemed to hit at once. We definitely needed an HR professional to make a positive impact on all the changes," she said. "I built a business case for a dedicated position, but I was already engaging in HR activities." Simmons had the support of the CEO and the chief operating officer (COO), who "understood the importance of having a dedicated HR person sooner rather than later."
The COO told Simmons about SHRM, recommending it as an organization she could "use and trust. I signed up as a member and found the website and resources invaluable during this transition," Simmons said. Further research convinced her that "SHRM is the crème de la crème" of HR credentials. Simmons was certainly motivated to become SHRM-certified: "It was discussed with the COO and CEO that I would receive a bump in pay if I successfully completed my SHRM-CP," Simmons said.
To get ready for the exam, Simmons took a virtual four-week basic HR online course through SHRM, attended a seven-week certification preparation course, spent six more weeks to finish reading all the materials, and studied 12 hours a day for five days prior to the test.
Simmons passed. Then she set out to claim her pay raise. "The discussion at the beginning of the certification process gave me huge leverage to request a significant increase," she said. "I built a case study as to my expectations of the HR role I was moving into and what value I would bring to the table." Simmons provided three salary benchmarks compiled from various sources. Her efforts came through in spectacular fashion—a 50 percent pay increase and a new title, HR manager. "If I hadn't passed the exam, I wouldn't have been able to get what I got," Simmons said. Earning a SHRM credential clearly made the difference for Simmons' bottom line.
SHRM certification has also made a difference in Simmons' appreciation for the HR profession. "Being SHRM-certified further validates my role and capabilities in taking on an integral part of our company's fast growth in terms of compliance, engagement and employee relations. The senior team looks to me to manage and communicate the importance of employee initiatives." Along with her master's degree, which helps Simmons "understand both sides—the views of entrepreneurs as well as what motivates employees," the knowledge Simmons gained during the SHRM certification process "has been an enormous benefit. Everything I do relates to the SHRM competencies and functional areas," Simmons said. "I have the books on my desk and refer to them often."
To maintain her SHRM credential, Simmons plans to attend seminars, webinars, training sessions, industry events and chapter activities at Chicago SHRM. "I anticipate being quite engaged with SHRM. It's a great resource and tool for my career development," she said. Simmons sees herself as a SHRM-SCP at some point, and in a more senior role on the job. "I'm a team of one, but I report directly to the president," she said. "We started out with only a COO and a CEO, and now we have seven on the C-level management team."
There's no chief HR officer—yet. The sky's the limit for Simmons. "As I grow my skills and work closely with my team, I do feel like 'CHRO' is a possibility."
Rena Gorlin, J.D., is an independent writer and editor in Washington, D.C.
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