Over the past 30 years the HR profession has moved centre stage. Its professionals are now known as business partners who get the best from people in order for organisations to succeed, and it has shed its label of a backroom function that only reacts when prompted.
The positioning of HR at the heart of the business has opened up exciting and varied career paths. Professionals are likely to have the opportunity to blossom into respected generalists, or develop a specialism (such as reward or learning and development). Another option is to make horizontal moves across an organisation and reach the top either as HR director or as a managing director, bolstered by an understanding of how people and commercial awareness are mutually inclusive.
“HR really is a flexible discipline,” says Aileen Brown, regional director at Hays HR. Brown makes the comparison with other professions such as management accounting, which do not usually offer diverse options. “One of the attractive traits about HR is that there are so many career paths within it and when someone specialises it doesn’t mean that anything else is closed,” she says.
As the global marketplace expands, Brown adds that the flexibility of HR careers and a go-anywhere set of skills (reinforced with local knowledge) leaves exponents well-positioned to take advantage of the ensuing career opportunities.
How to get to the top
So, where do you start and how do you get to the top? Broadly speaking there are six rungs on the HR career ladder, with job titles and salaries dependent on the size and type of organisation:
- HR assistant or HR administrator
- Adviser or officer
- Senior manager
- Director of HR
- Group director of HR
Some professionals develop their careers by consistently applying for the next rung on the ladder or by moving to a similar role in a larger organisation. Others take a zig- zag route by first getting some general experience under their belt at officer or manager level, then specialising in an area such as organisational development in a large company, before moving back into a generalist role, perhaps as senior HR manager in a slightly smaller company.
Finding a way through the profession has become easier with the CIPD’s HR Profession Map. This is available to view online and can be developed in detail as a personalised tool. It illustrates what HR people do and deliver across every aspect and specialism of the profession and looks at the underpinning skills, behaviour and knowledge that they need to be successful. Commercial awareness is key.
“At the heart of the HR profession map is HR’s impact on business,” says the CIPD’s membership director Sue Upton, adding that HR professionals are expected to position themselves at the heart of a business.
Other research from the CIPD, published in its guide "Next Generation HR", shows the personal qualities that HR professionals need to get the top: “The most common descriptors of them are professional, transparent, insightful and thought-provoking,” it says.
So, applicants who are looking to get into HR because they see it as a people-oriented profession may be misguided. It might be far better to go into HR because it offers the opportunity to see how an organisation and its people can get the best from each other.
Hays HR regional director Aileen Brown cites the example of an international HR business partner who wanted to return to the UK as an illustration of the flexibility offered by an HR career.
He took the post of a generalist within a UK charity and has now taken an assistant HR director’s post in a major organisation.
For Brown, career flexibility is derived from a skill in managing people and reading what an organisation needs to give it competitive advantage. This skill can take an HR professional anywhere.