How To Build A Successful Career In HR


With organisations evolving every day to confront the emerging business challenges and disruptions, human capital continues to hold major differentiators for them. HR leaders play a crucial role to help manage this important differentiator and further reinvent their organisation’s policies, processes and practices for the new reality. The need for advanced, knowledgeable and bold HR leaders, who can facilitate the organisation’s transformation, actively engage with talent and help renew culture is increasing. This could be the right time to think about, develop and adapt a successful career in HR and talent management.

The HR function is the cornerstone of any organisation on which culture rests. HR leaders play multiple roles in the post pandemic era from being the first emergency points of contact to fire fighters, problem solvers, advisors, and motivators. HR leaders continue to be valuable strategic partners to the management team, to tackle unique challenges. Managing the increasingly virtual workforce, facilitating leadership visibility and active communication flow across the organisation during such times are crucial responsibilities that HR works on with senior leadership.

Many professionals view a career in HR as fulfilling and rewarding. One of the most common questions I’ve received is — “I would like to build a successful career in HR. Where and how should I start? What should I do next? How would it impact my career growth considering the rise of automation and changes in overall environment? Will the current reality change the scope of HR role?”

There is no one sure answer to all these questions but I do have few suggestions based on experiences, observations and learning from others. This list has grown over time and hopefully useful for many in early career.

• Consider taking up an HR role in an organisation irrespective of the size of the company and team with an unbiased mindset. It is great to get an early start opportunity with a solid, large HR organisation but one should not worry about starting small, by taking on wider responsibilities in smaller organisations. Smaller organisations give you opportunities to work broader lot more functionally while larger organisations tend to be more structured and specific in requirements with the complexity of scale. Stay eager to take on additional responsibilities, keep learning and get exposure to different areas, as much as possible. Set yourself a goal of mastering the fundamentals in your key area of work within a certain timeframe and then target higher degree of expertise.

• If you don’t have formal education in HR, it is helpful to acquire additional industry recognized related certifications or programmes. Focus on getting the fundamentals right initially. There is a large body of knowledge in HR and this helps your knowledge base, confidence and builds credibility with business stakeholders.

• Try to talk to/discuss experiences and learning with other competent HR professionals you meet through programmes, work, networks etc. Find opportunities or common avenues to connect with other professionals and continue those discussions deeper. Find your own mentors or coaches. Also, speak with business and other functional leaders for their views and insights.

• Follow, watch and read articles from the thought leaders constantly. This helps to get a strong understanding of the concepts/language used and will become a distinguishing strength as you grow further. Not many HR professionals seem to take continuous learning seriously and those who do, stand out.

• Build your HR experience profile patiently in specific functional areas considering your organisation’s needs and your own interests. Over time, you may decide whether you want to become a generalist or specialist (e.g. talent acquisition, learning & development, rewards). Even generalists tend to acquire a couple of strong areas of expertise over time.

• Develop self-awareness and understand what you really enjoy doing. Knowing one’s own personality characteristics is important. Don’t just go by the pressures of how external sources define functional areas of importance or growth. Your lack of passion or interest in a certain area and related questions will show up one way or the other and become a roadblock to excellence over time.

• When you apply for new roles, try to understand clearly the elements specific to that role. The more you have and can add experiences related to what the hiring organisation/manager are looking for, the better your chances. Review profiles of successful HR professionals, their experiences and career paths for pointers – it’s easier to find them on LinkedIn or other professional networks nowadays.

• Build your awareness and understanding of the organisation’s cultural dynamics. Being successful in HR includes the ability to work/align with multiple stakeholders with varying opinions and managing complexity. Successful HR professionals seem to be those who find an effective way of working/gelling with core business leaders and key constituents, while finding a way to engage actively and respectfully on topics that involve contradicting points of view.

• Continuous development and application are even more relevant for HR professionals. There’s quite a lot of evolving research from diverse areas, including business and psychology that can be applied to people management. That also involves continuous practice and adaptation to different environments.

• With increasing focus on digital, technology and analytics solutions across the board including human capital management, developing strong understanding of systems, software flows and the ability to learn and adapt to new systems becomes invaluable at any level.

• With the benefit of personal experiences as a practitioner and consultant in talent acquisition, most hiring managers tend to look for candidates with decent continuity in an organisation. If we look at the profiles of many HR leaders, we will see longer periods of employment with certain organisations before they get hired for bigger jobs elsewhere. From that perspective, it helps to seek out opportunities in your current organisation, especially during the early and mid-part of your career.

For a deeper understanding of career stages and transitions, it would be helpful to read Dr Dave Ulrich’s post ‘The HR Career Mosaic—How to Manage Your Career’.

Building a successful and satisfying career in HR takes a lot of persistence, determination and resilience. It’s never too late to get started with a growth mindset and openness to learn through challenges and failures. Depending on your preferences, conditioning and environment which may include multiple variables, consider the strategy for building your career similar to preparing for a mix of long and short distance runs, not a single sprint.

By: Tojo Eapen

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