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Moving Up to Manager

What do you need to do to make the career jump from HR generalist to manager? 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. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column. 

I have six years of HR generalist experience, which includes two short stints as an assistant vice president of HR. I’ve worked at both nonprofit and for-profit employers, and currently I'm an HR generalist at a manufacturer with two labor unions. I have a master’s degree in HR management and hold PHR and SHRM-CP certifications. I'm in a lean and flat organization with virtually no career path. What skills should I focus on now to eventually become an HR manager, and at what point do you think I should become an active job candidate? I get contacted for HR generalist roles, but not for HR manager positions. 

Fred, Philadelphia

With six years of good experience under your belt, it sounds like your professional competency is being recognized with valuable temporary higher-level assignments, and your commitment to career success is apparent by thinking strategically about career progression. Kudos.

Employee selection is based on a wide range of criteria that might be broadly summed up as: People get hired based on their credentials and not their potential, meaning that we tend to get chosen for new jobs based on the skills we already have.

Your path into HR management will become clearer and be faster if you deconstruct the differences between the responsibilities of an HR manager vs. those of an HR generalist. While you already have some idea from those higher-level assignments, I’d suggest doing an analysis to identify the gaps. Collect half a dozen job postings for that next step up the ladder and then deconstruct them, identifying how employers prioritize the responsibilities and deliverables of that target job. Once you have identified the skills and priorities of the job, highlight the skills that need development and experience, revealing the gap between the credentials you already have and the credentials you need to qualify for an HR manager job.

Your findings will become the foundation for a personalized professional development plan that will give you the experience and credentials you need. You can then seek out assignments that will deliver this experience. When you look at the requirements of your next target job and see that you have about 70 percent of the skills and experience required, then you can start applying with the realistic expectation of landing interviews.

I’ve noticed that those who climb the highest tend to have a history of internal promotions within each of the organizations they have worked for, so I’d recommend being patient by pursuing an internal promotion before applying externally; a track record of internal promotions is also attractive to potential new employers. 

Stacking the Deck in Your Favor

When you are ready to start a serious promotion campaign at your current organization, you’ll need a resume that showcases your skills that qualify you for the target job. I’d recommend doing this in advance so that next time an opening arises, you—like the external candidates—are ready to apply with carefully focused documents.

I make this suggestion because often we settle into a company, do a good job and don’t make waves; for these efforts we frequently get categorized, stereotyped and pigeonholed. While we may think the higher-ups know of our capabilities, all too often they have no idea whatsoever. Even when it is clear, as in your case, that management does see your potential to do higher-level work, applying for an available job formally with competitive documents will make your current employer consider your candidacy more seriously—and this will occur in a venue where you have already been singled out as being worthy and capable.

Practical Career Growth Strategy

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. You have better odds of getting a higher-level job with an existing employer. This strategy will also strengthen your credentials when the time comes to pursue opportunities outside your current professional home base. And having that targeted resume will subtly tell management that you are ready for and serious about professional progression.

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. You might not always achieve your goal, but you’ll never come up with a handful of mud, either.

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.


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