Stepping stones to a career in HR

Written by
Changeboard Team

26 Apr 2010

26 Apr 2010 • by Changeboard Team

HR - a multidimensional function

HR is one of those slightly odd functions everyone thinks they can do it but actually its not quite as easy as most people think.

The general perception is that its largely about recruitment (well that cant be hard, all that sitting around talking to people all day), administration of payroll and Benefits (just to make sure that everyones more or less happy), training people to do things (always playing to the budding thespians) and talking to people about their problems (effectively more sitting around but this time with a more sympathetic attitude). But that view is very one dimensional and, with the final observation, just plain incorrect.

Human capital management - what is it?

While the use of apparently bizarre modern jargon such as human capital management may somewhat grate at times, actually the phrase is quite accurate in terms of what the modern HR department does (or, ideally, should do).

The largely accepted definition of human capital management - a strategic approach to people management that focuses on the issues that are critical to an organisations success - feels right in todays commercial context. And, of course, that means a much wider remit than previously thought with the old functional definitions of recruitment, employee relations, reward and training and development becoming much more inclusive and broad based. 

Educational requirements for HR professionals

So what do you do if you're attracted to a career in HR? Where do you actually start? In the twenty years that I have been recruiting in HR, there has been an increasing preference for degree-educated candidates although this is by no means universal.  Interestingly there are now no end of vocational first degrees that specialise in human resources as a discipline. My personal experience indicates that, in HR, organisations are often more keen to see graduate status as a sign of intellect, rather than specific subject knowledge.

Having said that, some form of professional qualification is very often required with the attainment of professional status via the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development being the obvious one, although the apparent plethora of courses in Strategic HR Management and its various components appear increasingly popular.

HR as a 'personable' function

The successful completion of tertiary education is indicative of a level of academic attainment and post-graduate study shows a commitment to wanting to progress in that particular area. But perhaps these are more important for those starting out in HR. It allows organisations, on initial sifting, to use a selection device that may, superficially, appear a little unsophisticated as it does not take into account such intangibles as ambition, drive and aptitude.

And it's not just these three personal attributes that are key differentiators. Relationship management skills, flexibility in approach, assertiveness, the ability to influence and the willingness to work both as part of a team and alone all feature highly in role specifications.

HR as a commercial function

Increasingly, however, it's the area of commercial understanding that can really make a difference. After all, isnt todays insightful HR person more of a general commercial being who really understands the role of the human resource that is the workforce of an organisation? 

Financial awareness is critical; the ability to understand the economic dynamics of an organisation, the implications of lack of financial performance. To be really successful, HR professionals (a slightly elitist phrase but the one which most appropriately sums up the functional grouping) need to be able to appreciate external commercial context to be able to understand the internal implications of business decisions.

HR professionals as project managers

For me, probably the one skill that appears to be most in demand is the ability to manage projects. While HR will always necessarily have a strong element of ongoing reactive support on a daily basis to the people issues that arise in an organisation, so much of the work is instigating, leading and completing subject-specific projects which assume a wholly more strategic dimension.

So much of the modern HR remit is about, in response to the business need, being able to scope a project, to define what success will look like and to plan what is needed in terms of manpower, finance and additional resources to achieve that success. Its about selecting the right tools and the right people, making sure that the time frames are not only acceptable, they are achievable and that the impact on the business is positive and enhances both corporate and individual performance.

Larger organisations have always had (and continue to have) the resources to move people around internally, encouraging cross-functional development and, thereby, increasing the opportunities to move into the human resources function. For most people, this is not an option with the way into HR being on the open market, pitching yourself against others.

Adaptability - key for HR professionals

A brief article such as this only scratches the surface of how to move into human resources.  But if you are to succeed, for me there are there are two things to continually bear in mind. 

Firstly, remember that HR is a more complex and multi-dimensional discipline than is often generally accepted and, very much linked to that assertion, the best HR people are able to demonstrate a wide range of relevant technical, commercial and interpersonal skills that will impact positively on the organisation for which they are working.

Good luck.