Take the bull by the horns

Grabbing development opportunities, spicing up HR and the French system of
professional patronage. Advice by Neil Winter

Q: "I have a senior HR role in the financial services sector. After five
years I feel I have a good fit with my organisation. However, it is becoming
clear to me that a move to a senior position outside HR is the best way for me
to progress my career (the current position I am being considered for is head
of a customer services unit). I am concerned this may somehow backfire. What
should I do?"

A: Go for it! For anyone who is looking for development to the most
senior HR positions in an organisation, this sort of opportunity is heaven sent
and, in most cases, should you turn it down, unlikely to be repeated. The
answer, from a career development perspective, is to accept the assignment.
Clearly, the concern many HR professionals will feel in addressing this sort of
challenge is facing the unknown – ‘how will I match up to the challenges of a
completely new area of responsibility?’

I suggest you put these concerns to the back of your mind. If you have been
earmarked as someone who can rise to these new responsibilities, your
supporters in the firm realise your capability. In order to make the most of
your new assignment, set yourself some targets regarding what you want to
achieve and the areas of skill you want to develop through this opportunity.

If your targets are about learning the business and approaching challenges
from the mindset of manager with operational responsibility, be sure to
articulate this in a personal learning log. Then approach each and every
challenge in the assignment with the intention of achieving your learning

HR professionals who have ‘line’ experience have a tremendous advantage when
it comes to credibility with their colleagues and the executive team. They have
a perspective that is difficult to capture for those of us who never break out
of the HR silo. So, grab the opportunity with both hands.

Q: "How can I spice up a dull set of HR responsibilities?" is a
question frequently asked – especially in the era of the shared services

A: There is no doubt about it, the shared services approach to HR can
make your work feel dull and superficial. As soon as a meaty issue comes along
you have to brief an expert and pass on the baton. How do you avoid the
‘post-box’ syndrome?

The answer lies in your mindset and approach to learning. Think about the
challenges a shared services role provides – the nature of relationships you
have with your internal customers and the organisational influences you can
bring to bear.

These are areas in which learning is going to take place and in which you
should set yourself clear developmental targets. Make the most of your position
power within your company’s management structure. You have a consistent view of
the HR issues that matter to people in your organisation. If things need to be
changed, you are in a position to use your current knowledge, relationships and
influence. Your operational targets need to be about responsiveness and
achievement of process improvements.

If you cannot see areas for development opportunity in your shared services
role, look again – if necessary find a mentor, internal or external, who can
help shift your mindset and get you focused on some positive development

Following our discussion of international HR careers last month, I received
a question from an HR professional currently on assignment in France: "I
am intrigued to find a system of professional patronage operating within the
French branch of our organisation. What is this all about?"

A: It is common to find variations on the ‘patron-protégé’ system in
different parts of French industry and commerce. Essentially the nub of the
system is that a more senior person looks out for the development and progress
of their more junior ‘protégé’. If this approach is openly acknowledged to be
the system supporting career development, it can operate perfectly effectively.

The problem comes if the workings of the system become inadvertently or
deliberately hidden – as sometime occurs if there is an Anglo Saxon overlay to
the management dimension (for example, a British takeover of a previously 100
per cent French operation). The danger then clearly becomes that people who
have not grown up in the patronage system feel excluded – and also that the
patron’s ambitions for their protégé can no longer be initiated on their word

Both these outcomes are fraught with danger and emotion. The mission for HR
then typically becomes one of replacing the system quite publicly with a career
development/progression approach whose major characteristic is transparency of
operation. Good luck!

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