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Move your HR career onwards and upwards

What better time than January to assess your next career move? HR magazine explains how to get from where you are to where you want to be

The new year: a time for taking stock, dusting off the smoothie maker, resolving to learn a new language, reflecting on what you really want from life… and your career.

The average HRD certainly has much to reflect on. There are now many more opportunities available, explains chair of Advanced Boardroom Excellence Helen Pitcher.

“There are more opportunities and structural backing for HR to progress and develop in differing directions than there have ever been,” she says. “This is the result of a number of trends: a more educated HR population, a more open career field, and the emergence of HR as a mainstream business player and increasing area of focus for the board.”

However, this can present a challenge as much as an opportunity. Alex Arundale, group HRD at software company Advanced, says getting out and talking to as many different people as possible about what they do has always put her in good stead. “A network of people who do similar things will give you one set of ideas; talking to people outside of that gives you far more,” she says.

Pitcher agrees that deciding where to go next should be an ongoing process of being ‘out there’ as much as possible. “January is as good a time as any [to reassess career goals]. However, as with nearly all new year ‘resolutions’ it’s important to ensure it is not a flash in the pan,” she says. “What is more conducive to effective career planning is a six-month rolling review of whether you are achieving your stated goals.” She adds the importance of having a three-year strategic plan.

Arundale says it’s important to bounce ideas off those around you. “There’s nothing wrong in demanding that [your boss act as a career mentor for you],” she says. “I challenge mine and say: ‘What do you think about my development?’”

“It’s a big world out there,” she adds. “And you’ve only got one life, so just have a go!”

Wise words indeed. To help we’ve compiled a guide to the broad roles you might want to consider, and how to get there…

From HRD to… Interim HR professional

What’s the opportunity?

Keith Robson, who has worked on an interim basis with Aviva and Rolls-Royce, explains that with the quickening pace of business companies can ill-afford to leave key HR posts empty for long. Interim hires are the obvious solution.

“There are more search firms out there starting to do interim work without having an interim practice,” he says. “People know a job is so important, they’re having to dip into the interim market. That’s how I got my first assignment.”

Amanda Johnston, head of HR practice at Alium Partners, adds that demand is being driven by the number of businesses transforming HR from operational to strategic. “Reward has always been one of those areas where there’s a high level of demand because often an organisation doesn’t need a reward director 12 months a year.”

“Interims are often seen as an alternative to consultancies,” says senior interim professional Craig McCoy. “Or you end up working alongside major consultancy firms, more on the client’s side, to act as a bridge.”

The obvious benefits are flexibility and the ability to pick projects. “Some of the most senior HR leadership roles take you away from the frontline. So [with interim] instead of sitting in the boardroom every day you get back to the coalface of helping businesses develop their HR capability,” says Johnston. Robson adds the benefit of being freed up to do rewarding pro bono work alongside paid jobs.

The right HR type

This opportunity suits the growing number of people attracted to the freelance lifestyle, McCoy explains. “Some of the characteristics we associate with the younger generation – that people want flexibility, variety and progression – suit interim,” he says, explaining that while previously HR interim-ers tended to be people later in their careers, now they are often younger.

The most important quality is tenacity, says Johnston. “They need a self-starting ability and resilience, because the routes to market are much more diverse and fragmented: headhunters, internal recruitment, some legal firms entering the market, and the consultancies,” she says. “Having a wide network has never been more relevant. For someone who doesn’t like going out and feeling like they’re pushy that can be a challenge.”

“Some people prefer clear structures, coffee on tap, people to delegate to and a predictable flow of work,” adds McCoy. “You need to be comfortable with ambiguity.”

Making it happen

Developing business skills before taking the leap is critical, McCoy warns. “You’re [likely to be] going into a limited company so you learn a lot about running a small business,” he says.

HRDs should also take the chance to develop consultancy skills, advises Johnston. “I was talking to a candidate recently who decided he wanted to be an interim five years before he left, and spent this time developing internal consultancy skills,” she says. “When he left he could articulate pieces of work he’d done, and how he’d managed the stakeholders and delivered outcomes.”

Combining high-level exciting jobs with less sexy work to pay the bills will be a must for most, says Robson, with non-executive roles another way to stay busy and connected. He advises gaining a clear idea of what “you’re there to do” at the start of each project. “You’re inevitably going to see things where you think ‘god that needs fixing’ but that doesn’t mean you should, as they might want your attention elsewhere,” he says. “You’re not the new HRD – you’re an interim.”

From HRD to… group HRD

What’s the opportunity?

A group HRD role is the obvious next step for many. But this means different things depending on context. “People get fixated on job titles but the important question is: what does that business want to achieve?” advises Alex Arundale, group HR director at Advanced. “For me it’s about creating ‘one Advanced’. But some group HRD roles will be the opposite: to keep different business units separate.”

Tim Baker, a consultant in Odgers Berndtson’s HR practice, advises that group HRD roles in listed and non-listed companies will typically be very different. “In a non-listed environment you’ll be far more focused on the pure people side of things; so succession planning, culture and so on,” he says. “A listed firm typically gives the narrowest brief: someone who’s done it before, and it’s heavily focused around governance.”

“I’ve generally operated in listed companies and that means I’m the one dealing with the board, the non-execs, the remuneration committee, the nomination committee, the shareholders… You have to worry about the external context a lot more,” agrees IMI group HRD Geoff Tranfield. “You’re looking in all directions: at your level, the level below and the one above.”

The right HR type

A group HRD, particularly in a listed company, will need serious diplomacy skills, says Tranfield. “It’s being able to marry up lots of different needs to come out with the best solution.” You also need “real intellectual curiosity about the economy, society and wider business context”.

“For years the group HRD brief has been ‘commercial acumen’; someone who understands the business. But the last two or three years it’s also been about someone who can use people data and analytics to bring evidence-based decision-making to the board,” adds Baker.

Significant experience in remuneration is a must in a listed environment, which means increasingly it’s reward directors taking these jobs, reports Baker. He adds that HR’s lack of analytical and numerical skills means HR has serious competition from other functions. “You can come up through the HR route, but I think it’s helpful to have done a variety of other roles, maybe outside the function but also a combination of generalist and specialist roles, particularly in reward,” adds Tranfield.

Making it happen

Where you’re not able to work in reward, getting to grips with company reports is a great alternative, advises Baker. “It’s easy to do; the remuneration section is always between page 60 and 100. You’ll be amazed how much insight you get,” he says. “Wherever you are in a business get close to your reward team.”

Arundale’s advice is “project, project, project” – so grabbing all stretch projects with both hands. “The best will be those where you’re working with, and learning how to engage with, employee representatives and other stakeholder groups where you don’t know how they’re going to respond and can’t second guess,” she says, stressing the importance of developing confidence by “pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and doing [lots of] face-to-face presentations”.

Baker highlights the importance of getting the right kind of global experience: “It’s a global world and that can be a differentiator. It’s no longer just about Hong Kong and Dubai, it’s Mexico and China – emerging markets.” Pragmatism is also key: “You need to consider taking a sideways move with a view to going up,” he adds. “If your group HRD isn’t going anywhere you need to do a divisional role in another business. If you’re considering that just do it. Don’t wait another 18 months.”

Check back the rest of this week for the other pieces in this series