Editor of Human Capital Online
Iain Hopkins is the managing editor of HR Director Australia, HRD Canada, HRD New Zealand, and HRD Singapore, and also editor of Human Capital Online (www.hcamag.com). Iain loves writing and is passionate about the written word. He works across a number of creative fields, including film-making and blog-writing.
It's unique in that it is fresh, it's not tied to the past like many industries and professions are. It's dynamic and is at an interesting point on its evolutionary journey. For many years HR professionals (or personnel departments before that) have wanted to be noticed at a more strategic level of business. This battle, for the most part, has been won. Most organisations - especially large organisations - now include the HR director as part of their executive team, and the HRD reports directly to the CEO. The new battle is to retain that foothold and build on it. Now they have the position, how will they retain it? All of this means HR professionals are open to new ideas and best practice - they want to prove their worth and add value to the business.
There are major trends across a number of areas. One is change management. Change is the new norm in business and HR professionals play a critical role in ensuring the 'people elements' are not left behind in any change initiative. Another trend is a growing reliance on data and analytics to ensure decisions made by HR professionals are not based on 'gut -feeling' but instead have meaningful data to back it up. This means that finally HR has the same sort of tools and insights that other areas of the business have had for some time. Finally, I'd suggest there's an ongoing trend of HR being seen as business people first and HR people second. That is, they need to be across all aspects of the business but perhaps save their strongest views and most forthright actions for the people-related matters.
Although it may seem daunting to think about when you're just starting out, invariably HR professionals go in one of two directions. Either they become a generalist - and work across all HR functions (from performance management to recruitment and through to compliance and employment law), or they become specialists - they concentrate on one particular area of HR. Hot areas at the moment are learning and development roles, change managers, industrial relations/employee relations professionals and remuneration and benefits professionals. Early on it might be beneficial to enter into a generalist role, to get a sense of the breadth of the HR function. Then you can specialise later on. Some organisations will offer rotations around the different HR functions. Use these opportunities to your advantage. Also try to obtain a mentor, someone with a bit of experience who can outline 'how things are done around here', and can show you the easier path (and the landmines!)
Most would start as a generalist in a HR coordinator role. While there might be some rotation between speciality functions in the early days of a career, a straightforward linear career path for a generalist would be: HR coordinator, HR officer, senior HR advisor or consultant, HR business partner, HR manager, HR director. There might only be two or three steps in speciality roles. For example, work health and safety (WHS)/occupational health and safety (OHS) coordinator, WHS/OHS manager/consultant, WHS/OHS head. Many HR professionals favour time overseas - especially if they work for large multinationals where such moves are commonplace. This can act as a career booster.
1. Business acumen: It's not enough to simply be 'good with people'. HR professionals must understand and speak the language of business.
2. Empathy: This is the 'human' part of 'human resources'.
3. The ability to think outside the square: Sometimes you will be up against naysayers and people who are keen to cut costs - and often that means HR's initiatives. Be ready to compromise and bargain.
Commit to lifelong learning. This is something HR people will roll out within their own organisations, but frustratingly they will not follow their own advice themselves! Whether it's short courses or an MBA or other Master's, or attending a conference, HR professionals need to keep up with the rapid changes occurring in business. Hopefully you also get to learn from the people around you: those with a 'friendly' CEO often talk about how much they learn from that person.
Perhaps just a note about the ongoing myth that to be a HR professional you must be a good 'people person'. Of course, it helps if you do genuinely like people and have an interest in making their working lives better. But it's not all about touchy-feely stuff. HR professionals are often in the frontline in many difficult business decisions - for example, downsizing. It's often HR who have to have the difficult conversations with people who are made redundant, or are asked to leave because they are not performing. That said, there are so many positives to this profession and these far outweigh the negatives. Whether it's implementing memorable perks and benefits, or creating a constantly challenging and invigorating work environment, HR can make a massive difference on the enjoyment people take from work - and this happiness naturally has a flow-on effect to all parts of life. There are not many corporate roles you can say that about.