Viewpoint: Where Do You Go from Here? Planning Your Career Next Steps As an HR Generalist

The path to leadership positions may be winding, but use that to your advantage

By Arlene Hirsch, M.A., LCPC Nov 23, 2016
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​Love Anderson has some career advice for HR generalists: "Don't be afraid to take risks, to speak out, ask for help and even to fail." Her path to an HR leadership position has been unconventional—but it worked.

Anderson is the director of human resources at the University of Chicago–Harris School of Public Policy. While positions at this level are typically held by people with 10-15 years of HR experience, she's a relative newcomer to the field. She was recruited for her post because the organization wanted someone with excellent communication skills, a willingness to take risks and the ability to implement processes—all of which were in her wheelhouse.

Anderson moved to the U.S. from Turkistan to study psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. After earning a master's degree in counseling from Trinity International University in Chicago, she worked briefly for a nonprofit youth organization before moving into higher education to work with international employees and scholars.

Her next job was at the University of Chicago in 2010 as an advisor to international scholars and employees.

She then switched jobs within the university multiple times, working as a coordinator for employee services, assistant director for the Office of International Affairs and recruitment manager. Her most recent stop: HR director.

Her nonlinear approach to her career illustrates the myriad ways in which HR generalists can move into new HR roles.

Map Out a Strategy

Generalists with broad HR experience have a variety of career options to choose from. They can continue on a generalist track while moving up in responsibility to managerial and leadership roles, specialize in an area of interest (such as compensation, training and development, or labor relations), or adapt transferrable skills to other roles and fields.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

Where you focus your effort and attention depends on where you want to go.

"To help map out a path for yourself, ask yourself what you enjoy most about the work, because you may want to convert that into a specialization," said Phyllis Brust, a career consultant in Chicago with Career Tactics. "When you have an endgame in mind, you can set goals that move you in that direction."

Wendy Bliss, founder and principal of Bliss & Associates, a human resource consulting practice in Colorado Springs, Colo., recommends considering the following questions to map out a strategic career plan:

  • What are your short- and long-term HR career goals?
  • What skills and experiences are needed to be a successful HR professional?
  • What are your relevant HR skills and experiences?
  • What are the gaps between your current skills or experiences and those needed to be a successful HR professional?
  • How can you close your skills or experience gaps?
  • What types of companies and work environments are best suited to your goals?
  • Where can you find good career advice?

Many career experts recommend a three- to five-year career development plan with concrete goals and timelines.

"Without goals, you never get anywhere; you just repeat similar jobs from company to company ad infinitum. When you have goals, then there is always a focus on something concrete to reach for," said Martin Yate, a career coach and author of the Knock 'em Dead series of publications for job seekers.

Anderson, who admittedly has a "passion for results," takes a more nuanced view toward goals. She likes to give herself room to let new experiences guide her career path instead of getting stuck in pre-established goals and potentially missing out on other opportunities.

"It's important to have goals and a road map for where you want to go, but also be open to change," she said. "I set or re-evaluate my goals every six months, and I don't usually have a long list of goals."

Her HR career is part generalist and part specialist. While she wanted to experience all aspects of HR, she also wanted to develop a specialization. Recruitment became her signature strength because she viewed it as a natural extension of her counseling skills and experience. She encourages others to focus on developing signature strengths as well.

Her flexible approach falls under the rubric of what Australian career management expert Jim Bright calls "opportunity awareness."

Opportunity awareness is the ability to identify ways to improve your situation. It requires a mindset of optimism, curiosity, calculated risk taking, exploration and experimentation, as well as a bias toward action.

"Recognize that taking an opportunity may be less of a risk than doing nothing," said Bright, author of Chaos Theory of Careers (Routledge, 2011).

Research and networking can help open your eyes to possibilities and your ears to new opportunities.

Research your field to know who the movers and shakers are and what's happening, he said, "and always be looking for ways to expand your network."

Move Up

Assess your current situation to determine whether growth is possible within the organization and, if so, how?

"Look at the role of HR in your current job to see how it's perceived and what kind of skills and experience it takes to be successful in that environment," Brust said. "This will help you determine whether you need to change jobs."

To prepare yourself to move from a generalist role into HR management, Yate recommends performing a gap analysis. Start by collecting half a dozen job postings for that next step up the ladder in order to identify requisite skills and typical priorities found at the higher level.

"Your findings will become the foundation for a personalized professional development plan that will give you the experience and credentials you need," he said. "You can then seek out assignments that will deliver this experience."

He encourages people with managerial aspirations to pursue internal promotions, when possible, before looking externally.

"Use this approach with every job you hold: Land it, secure it, maximize your performance, identify the next career step, develop the needed skills and then pursue a promotion internally long before you consider moving on," Yate said.

The SHRM Competency Model provides a set of useful guidelines for skills development. It identifies nine competencies (organized into four clusters) that are essential to a successful HR career:

  • Technical Competency—HR Expertise (HR Knowledge).
  • Interpersonal Competencies—Relationship Management, Communication, and Global & Cultural Effectiveness.
  • Business Competencies—Business Acumen, Critical Evaluation and Consultation.
  • Leadership Competencies—Leadership & Navigation and Ethical Practice.

Building competencies in all four clusters has been key to John Hudson's success.

Hudson is an HR business partner for business management consulting firm Slalom LLC in Chicago. He is responsible for building an internal HR practice to support the organization. This frequently involves challenging stereotypes and misperceptions about HR and fostering an environment where HR is viewed as a valued, strategic business partner. Although the work requires patience and persistence, it plays to his signature strength: building relationships across the organization.

Hudson began his HR career recruiting IT professionals for Fortune 500 companies. In 2001, he switched to HR generalist work at CNA Insurance in Chicago. As a generalist, he had access to people throughout the organization and was often included in leadership meetings. Looking back, he realizes how fortunate he was to work at a company where HR was viewed as a respected strategic business partner.

"That's always been my thing," he said. "I have to have a voice and be a part of the leadership team."

When he was ready for a new challenge, he discovered that PepsiCo prized his business acumen.

"You can't just talk the language of HR," Hudson said. "You have to be able to talk the language of business. That's how you get to know your people."

To do that, he suggests what he calls "drive-bys."

"Walk the halls," he advised. "Say hello; strike up a conversation. Let them know who you are."

Bliss recommends rotating assignments through non-HR functions or working on cross-functional teams as a way to learn about the company and build valuable relationships.

"The surest way for HR professionals to become strategic business partners is to learn more about the business they serve. An HR executive who has actually walked in business shoes has the most credibility as a business partner."

Commit to Learning

In a competitive and constantly changing workplace, a commitment to learning and growth is essential to success and satisfaction.

This dovetails with Hudson's philosophy: "As HR professionals, we should view every job as a steppingstone to the next great thing. If I'm not adding a bullet point or two to my resume every year, then it's time for me to have a discussion with my boss about my career progression and if I will be able to grow based on what I've set out to accomplish."

He values certifications, among other things, as a way to add to his credibility.

"It's a stamp of approval that demonstrates that you have mastered a body of knowledge," he said. "Consume any kind of learning or content that you can."

HR professionals can supplement their professional experience through involvement with trade associations. Throughout her career, Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, president of PGHR Consulting, a Pittsburgh-based human resource consulting firm, used Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) resources and contacts to facilitate her own career development.

While working as the main HR staffer for a small manufacturing firm, she found that she didn't always know how to resolve a problem or address a challenge. Through her local SHRM chapter, she was able to connect with more-experienced people who could offer her advice and guidance.

"I needed to talk to people who were dealing with the same things that I was," she explained. "I couldn't always go to my boss with my questions."

Anderson gained valuable leadership, presentation and organizational skills through her involvement with NAFSA: International Association of Educators (originally known as the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers).

Working in so many different roles "was like playing with Legos," she said. "You always end up with something more interesting than what you started out with."

Build Relationships

HR can be a lonely place if you work in an organization where the employees view you with suspicion or leadership doesn't respect your role or efforts.

"It is important to build allies and communicate with people throughout the organization," Hartman said. "When you find those places where company needs intersect with your individual needs, that's where you're likely to be able to get the most support."

Alumni associations are another potential resource. You can reach out to your alma mater and find out more about what services are available and whether the school can connect you with possible mentors. You can also use LinkedIn to expand your network and develop strategic alliances that are mutually beneficial. SHRM members can use SHRM Connect to find HR peers who may be willing to become informal mentors.

Ultimately, your career is your responsibility. Manage it wisely. 

Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC, is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago, where she specializes in working with emerging adults and their families. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is www.arlenehirsch.com. 

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