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What Makes a Manager?

A group of business people sitting around a table in an office.

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR.

I've been managing an HR department by myself at a small company since 2004. I handle most everything one could think of, including all HR communication, benefits administration, various recruitment responsibilities, onboarding, employee relations, legal compliance, payroll, and all the related accounting for payroll and benefits. Can I be called an HR manager even though I am a department of one and have no direct reports? I manage vendor issues and relationships (e.g., payroll vendor, benefits vendors, etc.) constantly, and I often manage complex projects (e.g., changing 401(k) recordkeepers, software and payroll systems etc.). I am being told I can't be considered a manager if I don't have direct reports. 

As an HR manager at a small company, your role is to manage a comprehensive sequence of functions that enable the company to operate efficiently. As a company grows, more staff is required to handle those responsibilities, and the issues that occur within each function become more complex.

A larger company requires more HR professionals to manage these functions and an HR manager to supervise that team of professionals. The skills required to manage the people who would do each of those HR tasks are entirely different from the skills needed to do those tasks.

The HR Manager You Are Today

Right now, you are managing the entire HR function for a small company. If you were to apply for an HR manager job in a similarly sized company with an HR department of one, you would be a great match. You may also be a good match for an HR manager job at a potential employer who is expanding a one-person HR department to a manager and direct report. It would definitely be worth your time to apply for either of these types of jobs, if for nothing else than getting more experience in job interviews. 

As an HR manager with direct reports, you may still be responsible for some hands-on duties, but your primary responsibility will be to get work done through others. This means that your success depends on hiring and onboarding the right people and on dealing with the myriad problems people management presents. Ultimately, you are responsible for other people's work and success.

The Right Target Job

People get hired for a job based on their credentials far more often than they do based on their potential. Your current employer is more likely to take a chance on you and promote you to a higher title, because your credentials are proven and there's first-hand knowledge of your ability to successfully take on increasing responsibilities.

Because of this, I think your career will be best served by making the move into management in two carefully planned steps.

Skill Development

Stack the odds in your favor by becoming the best you can be in all your current areas of expertise and supporting that with SHRM credentials and certification. Then pursue a position as an experienced HR generalist in a somewhat bigger company that offers greater opportunity for professional growth. You'll find the best opportunities with companies experiencing their strongest growth period, which typically occurs within in their first 10 years. Approximately 80 percent of job growth is with such companies.

Once in that new position, develop the skills necessary to win a key step up into people management, backing up your potential with practical credentials. There are many pathways into the ranks of management, but regardless of which you choose, you should definitely pay special attention to two areas of professional skill development that will bring you into ongoing contact with both line and staff management:

  • Legal compliance.
  • Talent acquisition and management.

These two functions are critical to a company's survival and any manager's toolbox. The talent acquisition functions of recruitment and selection bring us back to the prime responsibility of every manager: to get work done through others.

Target Job Growth Strategy

In hindsight, one of the smartest strategies I employed in my own HR career was to informally coach individual managers on how to hire effectively. Employee selection is both an important management skill and a common weakness. I would work informally with individual managers to develop strategies and tactics to recruit and hire new employees, right down to exactly what questions to ask, how to phrase them and when to ask them. We'd address:

  • Why to use phone interviews (as a time management tool) and the questions that would quickly rule candidates in or out.
  • What questions to ask and how to sequence them in first, second and third interviews. For example, the best hires are competent, motivated and manageable professionals, and all three areas are of equal importance; yet a first interview should focus largely on competency because without the core skills of a job, motivation and manageability are irrelevant.
  • How to leverage second opinions from other managers.
  • How to build selection skills in promising staff members. This skill-building is both motivational and self-serving, because having someone ready to step into your shoes is an integral part of the succession planning necessary for any manager to move upwards.

Over a period of time, these managers developed their skills and I developed a greater sphere of influence and support, something which definitely aided my own upward mobility. 

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions, is available at the SHRMStore. Order your copy today!


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