There are many things learned at business school: how to lead, how to manage, how to turn your corporation around, how to analyse situations, diagnose problems, find solutions – and so it goes on. You come out equipped with a raft of case study models to help you deal with any eventuality, and if you’re still unsure about anything, there’s no shortage of business books to come to your rescue, proselytizing and offering scientific (sometimes pseudo) advice on how to change the business world or, at the very least, your organisation, or even yourself.
By the end of it, you’ll have enough words of wisdom ringing in your ears to last a lifetime, and will feel ready to take on anything the business world could throw at you. Until that is, your first day on, or back at, the job, when you realise what business school didn’t – couldn’t – teach you: the management learning, borne out of on-the-job experience.
“When it comes to being effective in business, learning ‘what to do’ through formal education is only half the story,” says Will Mitchell, director of consulting at talent management consultancy A&DC.
“Finding out how to apply the knowledge and skills you have gained, in a way that engages with colleagues and furthers the commercial objectives of your organisation, is the real key to success in the business world.”
“It’s also important to learn from on-the-job experiences in a planned and structured way, thinking about how these experiences can benefit you and help to grow capabilities. Academic qualifications are the start, but if we want to succeed, we should never stop learning,” he adds.
With this in mind, we asked six HR professionals who have made it to the top to tell us the most valuable lessons they learned on the job rather than from behind a classroom desk.
Use influence in an appropriate way
“One of the key lessons I learned on the job is that you cannot change people; people can only change themselves,” says Grant Weinberg, associate director, international talent acquisition, at biopharmaceutical company Gilead.
“As leaders our role is to influence people, but you need to understand you risk using the power of influence to coerce someone to change.
“The best influence you can have is for that person to realise the development need that you have identified and for them to change themselves, willingly. You can take a hard-headed approach and drive the change through, but you are influencing them to do something that is not theirs.
It might work, but not as well as being able to influence individuals to reflect and recognise that they need to change their behaviours themselves. That’s what good leaders do.”
Learn how to prioritise
“This is an underrated skill in the business environment,” says Carol-Ann White, senior vice-president HR at Lewis Global Public Relations. “All good managers have the ability to wade through a number of tasks or issues at any given time, and instinctively know what needs to take priority.
“I work in a fast-paced environment, and managing ad-hoc requests is one of my biggest challenges. This is especially so in the current economic climate, where we are increasingly expected to manage bigger workloads and deliver faster. Being able to prioritise well is essential in delivering to the needs of the business, particularly as individual remits get wider and more demanding.
“As an HR director with a global remit of 35 offices, every day brings a long list of tasks, projects or objectives. I find that I’m constantly reviewing and prioritising the urgency and timing of tasks throughout the day to ensure deadlines are hit and the needs of the business met. This has been a key element to the success of my team. It’s a hugely important skill and certainly not one that comes from a textbook.”
Gain line management experience
“Until you’ve been on the frontline yourself and had accountability for delivering profit in a division or a team, it’s difficult to get your mind round that in the hot seat of HR,” argues Keith Brownlie, group HR director at specialist publishing and events company Informa.
“I believe strongly in my own people getting that line management experience. I previously worked in sales and marketing in various incarnations, and even though I’ve been with this organisation for 20 years, having worked at the sharp end gives me a much better insight.
“You must understand the business model and the financial and marketing side, and it’s difficult to do that as an HR staffer. You come across with a lot more credibility if you are in touch with the business, how it functions and operates, and after you have had some line manager experience.”
Life in HR requires resilience
“The key quality for an HR professional is a thick skin and a strong backbone – if there was an HR song it would be The Gambler by Kenny Rogers, or Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” says Georgina Corbett, group HR director at design and engineering consultancy Scott Wilson Group.
“Not everyone sees the world as we in HR do, and not everyone has the same expectations. This means that you have to be clear about what you want to achieve and how you can influence the path people take in relation to making the most of their human capital. You have to be resilient and not be diverted.
“Also, you have to be prepared to take on the big issues or elephants in the room that others may not be comfortable with. None of which I remember learning at my business school in the industrial north of England.”
Realise the importance of emotional intelligence
“A key skill is emotional intelligence and emotional behaviours, and how to get line managers to understand the importance of these,” suggests Zoe Williams, HR director at Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL).
“Many managers are technically competent, but that doesn’t necessarily make them good ‘people people’. The biggest challenge throughout my career has been winning trust and getting them to listen to me when I say: ‘If you do this, you will get a different outcome’.
“When conflict or a sensitive situation arises, managers should listen and be more of a coach, not a counsellor. At NCL I tell every line manager that their role includes being an HR manager – there’s a part of my job that I need to teach them. You can’t abdicate responsibility for that part of the role, because the relationship between a line manager and team member can be delicate at times.
“I can’t make a work marriage happen. I can only facilitate and try to give input into how I’d deal with the situation. This is a learning curve for any line manager and as soon as they understand it, the change begins to happen.
Spend time in a customer-facing role
“Some of the very best HR professionals are those that have taken time to work outside HR and are able to see HR from a customer perspective,” says Gavin Wright, director of HR at Hampshire County Council.
“I spent two years out of HR being a service manager within an organisation and working with HR as a customer. That was probably the best learning I’d ever had in terms of understanding how a customer perceives HR and how HR can really tick a customer off, but also how HR can really add value. People had said that to me before, but until I’d lived it, it was difficult to truly understand.”
Make friends with the financial director
“One of the key HR relationships is not actually with the CEO, it’s with the financial director,” says Informa’s Brownlie. “He sees the business in terms of cost, of course, but if you can get him to understand social cost, and understand people benefit not in a financial sense, but in an overall business health sense, then you can really make things swing. I’ve worked hard on that key relationship with the financial director here.”
Take the initiative
“This may seem an obvious point, but it’s invaluable in the workplace,” says White at Lewis PR. “Without it, even the best business graduate will be at a disadvantage compared to their peers. When I’m recruiting, one of the key things that I try and assess is the ability to think on your feet and have your own ideas to make things happen.
“Don’t always wait to be given tasks by your manager – think what needs to be done and do it before being asked. Being ‘proactive’ is a textbook term which you may cringe at, but this is exactly what makes good managers stand out. Even if it is merely a matter of bringing coffees into a late-night team meeting, or having those added-value documents for a meeting ready without being asked, this demonstrates that you are always planning ahead and prepared to go the extra mile.”