· Features

The new path to high-level HR, Part 2

"To mitigate the risk of being automated, be relentlessly useful,” says HR consultant Alastair Gill

How can new HR practitioners get ahead? In this second part of our cover story for the March/April 2024 issue, Dan Cave examines how HR career paths are changing, amid increased expectations, the use of AI, burnout and economic uncertainty.

Catch up on the first part of this cover story, here.

Rising up the ranks
The belief among younger HR professionals that the sector is both accessible and meritocratic is showcased by the widely varied career pathways of senior professionals. Alastair Gill, founder of HR consultancy Alchemy Labs, has worked with brands such as Giffgaff and Beavertown Brewery, but he first trained in art, travelled the world, and worked in hospitality. Hardly a straightforward path to his first head-of-people role.

He tells HR magazine that the opportunity for anyone with the in-demand skills and the right mindset is only growing. “If those entering HR look at current business problems differently, they can help drive true business partnership,” he says. “A psychology or business degree can help but from there, youngsters in HR can truly decide the future.”

Trudi Parr, head of people and development at the restaurant business Mollies, also came into HR from another career. She had a sales and marketing background which, she explains, coupled with her whole-career passion for solving people’s problems, only boosted her standing when she stepped into the function.

“I had an understanding of business and operations but also of how people fit into that,” she says, noting that a CIPD qualification and a genuine interest in people has helped progression too.

Read more: How do you get to the top in HR?

Parr is a passionate advocate of alternate pathways into HR, and says that barriers to getting involved with genuine business change from the off are at an all-time low, pointing to the success of a recent hire she made.

This hire had an accounting background but changed the way the business engaged with neurodiversity. “She had no HR background but she’s smashed it out of the park because of her previous experience and passion,” Parr adds.

According to Jig Ramji, chief talent officer at Aviva, this diversity of interests and skillsets has never been more critical as HR increasingly seeks to deliver both operational excellence and business strategic impact. “I’ve worked with people who are interested in the operations side but we also need people who are interested in the business and how we make money,” he says.

“Whatever your passion in HR, we should support that as a career. To be successful, HR needs to include different skills, capabilities and motivations.”

Is AI a threat to a career in HR?
With technology ever-evolving, recent headlines have referenced how AI could wipe out many white-collar job roles. A World Economic Forum study shows that 85 million jobs could be lost to automation next year. As Hall sees it: “AI causes fear for people.”

This fear is largely driven by predictions of what the technology could do. Pearson Skills Outlook research found that 30% of HR tasks could be completed by AI. Traditional tasks that make up HR administrator roles, such as meeting, scheduling and training coordination, can be automated.

Despite widespread concerns, Dylan Hall, HR project officer at Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland, says he will embrace AI as it will enable him to focus on more business-impactful tasks. “HR is a very diverse role and you can’t be expected to be an expert in everything,” he says. “I’d have had no chance of putting anything together without the support of the AI programme.”

Read more: Mitigating risks: How HR can safely navigate AI

It’s this business-centred use of AI that Gill recommends younger practitioners engage in. “My biggest advice to mitigate the risk of being automated is to be relentlessly useful,” he says. “Use technology to find your boss’s biggest problem and solve it.”

The junior practitioners that HR magazine spoke with are optimistic that AI will help drive their careers forward. It can save time, and allow them to showcase value in the parts of the job that are more human, they say.

Parr adds that AI can help make roles lower down the hierarchy more dynamic by picking up rote tasks. This can be a retention tool. “As AI information still needs bringing to life, it can improve their access to strategic conversations at an earlier point,” she says. The subtext: jobs become more interesting sooner and HR keeps top talent.

AI can also help reshape perceptions of HR merely being an auxiliary function, she adds.

“We need to keep people in our industry but sometimes if you’re doing [a junior] task that is discrete, you don’t understand how your role fits in,” she says. “AI can change that.”

With AI on the rise, Liz Sebag-Montefiore, founder of the consultancy 10Eighty, adds that while a wider range of skills will need to be hired by the function to check its output, AI could heighten the value of HR: “Humans will need to review and use the data to meet the needs of organisations and the organisational context.”

As the use of HR technologies, including AI, grows – the HR technology marketplace was already worth around £19 billion by 2021 – James has seen the function grow. Technology, as it stands, is changing rather than abolishing roles.

While he does foresee future automation of whole parts of HR, he believes that professionals should focus on building skills to supplement technology processes, such as stakeholder management or data-led storytelling. “If someone wants to be successful, they can’t just sit back and let AI do all the work. They need to understand the building blocks of HR,” he adds.

Delivering for HR
With AI already redefining junior job roles, it’s important to define what less established practitioners need to aid their progress.

Idris Arshad, HR partner at St Christopher’s Hospice, suggests there will be an increased demand for capabilities that fulfil organisational needs. He says: “Getting a generalist grounding is crucial, as then you will have a better view of how to deliver when the business asks: ‘How can you save me £50,000 in this process?’”

Marina Kawarazaki, talent attraction and employer branding manager at the Dorchester Collection, adds that this shouldn’t come at the expense of soft and analytical skills. “It’s important to be an understanding listener,” she adds, “and to show that we’re a partner to the business, driven to make people’s lives better in the company.”

Parr points to her own progression story, in which she unified business and people perspectives, to show how solving people’s problems can deliver more senior jobs. “In hospitality, turnover can be high. I started thinking: ‘How can I stop this and how can I help them have a career?’”

While the jury is out on whether qualifications are essential – Parr says: “Some might say qualifications are a checkbox but they do make sure you’re taking everything into account [in your role]” – she adds that younger people shouldn’t rule themselves out of an HR career. Increasingly, the function’s leaders are looking to build diverse teams to take on multiple work crises.

“HR can’t be put in a box,” says Parr. “The diversity of HR practitioners is going to be huge. We need people who understand the trends of the day, such as why values attract staff.

“And we also need those who speak to the crises of the day: how to care for younger staff impacted by the pandemic, and how to match skills to roles in a tight market; the opportunity is huge in our function.”

Fuel HR talent’s success
The sky is the limit for people entering into HR, according to Parr. “Now, HR people can be MDs or COOs,” she says. “They can also specialise and head up EDI or data or technology.”

To reach these heights, whether that’s entering into an HR specialism, trying out lateral moves or getting a mid-career business grounding, Ramji believes that the function needs to do more to encourage and safeguard against career risk-taking. He reckons this will benefit the esteem that HR is held in, in the longer term.

“For the most senior HR roles, often global or diverse experiences are needed, sometimes with business experience too,” he says. “We don’t do enough to protect the people taking those chances. We, in HR, need to be more deliberate with our succession planning.”

Like Ramji, James sees the key to an individual’s success as being the ability to develop different critical HR skills or access different experiences. He says: “Those who will have a good future, and deliver the senior HR skillset that businesses can struggle to hire, will have bolted on different experiences.”

Arshad adds that this doesn’t just mean grounding practitioners in today’s agenda-topping skills, such as neuroscience and systems thinking, but giving them the tools to be resilient. He says: “We need to be honest with those coming into the profession and not paint an overly rosy image; the higher up the ladder you go, the more political and tough it becomes.

“It’s not all yoga or pizza Fridays – you are dealing with employees’ lives. But that’s what’s so good about it.”

Building the resilience of junior staff should be a critical part of the senior practitioner’s role, adds Parr. This means regular development catch-ups, an open culture, signposting peer support, and modelling not always being on, as well as setting boundaries with other functions.

“HR people traditionally don’t do this well, as we take on others’ problems. We should say we can help but can’t solve all the problems,” she says, adding that it is increasingly important that employees come to HR with mental wellbeing issues as business expectations ramp up.

“Coaching and mentoring have opened up opportunities for me,” says Arshad, “at every stage of my career.” For Kawarazaki though, “mentoring was useful but also there are webinars, podcasts and allowing people to find their own role models”.

Support and develop new talent
Get development and support right, and the opportunities in HR are essentially limitless as the function evolves, Kawarazaki adds. “There are so many different ways to grow; there are structured opportunities but it is not always vertical, it could be lateral. Career paths are changing,” she says.

Parr agrees that with the function growing in stature, the opportunity for entry into, and development within, only appears to be growing. “The diversity of opportunity will be huge,” Parr explains. “There will be more specialisms. I’m excited for the future.”

As Parr sees it, this will mean HR niches in technology, mental health and even AI, all with access to the business. “For projects on increasingly important topics like sustainability, which hit multiple business areas, you will need people who can align others in the business,” she says, stressing that this is an opportunity for HR.

Yet it isn’t just the responsibility of HR leaders to guarantee progress and grow the function. Gill thinks junior practitioners will also need to better understand the business, work hard and not just be driven by superficial elements. He says: “Stop chasing the job title. Try different things. Think about the impact you can make.”

Arshad agrees, adding that by ignoring quick progression and grounding oneself in the profession, practitioners can start thinking about shaping a people-focused career. “You’ve got to build up the experience,” he says, “and have that passion for people.”

Counterintuitively, this is when opportunities for impressive remuneration might occur. Since 2017, HR salaries have ballooned to £25bn in total, with James adding that remuneration has ticked along well. “Salary growth for people leaders has been strong as businesses recognise HR’s importance,” he says.

Not that this is the only thing driving those at both ends of the HR career pyramid. As Butler says: “I’m eagerly committed to contributing to the evolution of HR, and I’m optimistic about the future. It’s not just a career path for me; it’s my passion.”

Gill emphatically agrees: “HR used to be considered an expensive resource, and had the least power. But the crises around work means there is no better time to be entering HR.”


This is the second part of the cover article that was published in the March/April 2024 edition of HR magazine.

Subscribe today to have our latest articles delivered to your desk.