Work your way up the career ladder

“When you scan an organisation for rising stars, it’s rare to hit on someone from HR.” So says Martin Reddington, author of a new wake-up call for the HR profession, Transforming HR – creating value through people, published this month.

Unfortunately, says Reddington, HR people are seen as passive and lacking in confidence, and that ‘old chestnut’: lacking understanding of the business, which hardly bodes well for any career progression.

The irony is, of course, that HR professionals spend their days facilitating career progression and growth for others, often overlooking the old adage ‘physician heal thyself.’

“It’s time for HR to build social capital,” says management expert Catherine Bailey, of Cranfield University. What she means is that HR people need to create their own learning opportunities which raise their profile and credibility within an organisation, and which ultimately give the profession more standing in the business community in general.

“The people who are really successful are those who are well connected,” she says.  The way to build these effective connections is through informal learning-employing methods, such as mentoring or networking.

“Look at external networking, for example,” she says. “Not just in HR but also in the industry arena so that you are able to provide a cogent view of what is leading edge for other businesses.”

But with all informal learning, the key is to plan your time and efforts carefully. “Don’t start with the ‘how’, but with the ‘what’. Look at what you need to know and think how and where you are going to find that information or contact. Keep your efforts focused,” says Bailey.

At GNER, HR director, Mike Goodie, agrees with the need for focus. “ If you want to get ahead in your career, know yourself, and be good at your craft,” he says.

“Informal learning works when it is targeted. Try to keep up a dialogue with experts whom you can bounce ideas off. Use networks that have developed with a focus or a discipline and find people whose integrity you respect,” he says.


What is it? Mentoring is based around a one-to-one developmental dialogue, says professor Bob Garvey, head of the Mentoring and Coaching Research Unit, based at Sheffield Hallam University.

“It can include personal and work-related issues, which may impact on work performance, but the main focus is holistic development,” he says.
Who does it suit best? Mentoring suits anyone who wants to learn and develop. However, it is best practised by people who have self-awareness and an awareness of others. Anyone who recruits a mentor with an eye on short-term gain and the desire to be seen in the right company will find that the relationship turns sour very quickly.

“There is a danger that the person offering the mentoring might feel manipulated,” says Garvey. “If the mentee is only thinking about using a mentor for self-advancement, then there’s a danger they won’t get anywhere.”

When does it work best? Garvey recommends that it works best in the context of change, such as when the mentee is moving into a new job, has taken promotion or is making a sideways career move. It is also more successful if the mentor is recruited from a different discipline from the mentee.

“A good HR person knows about the rest of the business,” says Garvey. “So when looking for a mentor, get someone with a wider perspective than pure HR.”

What is it? A form of one-to-one developmental dialogue, which can include personal and work-related issues but which often has a strong work and performance orientation.

Who does it suit best? Like mentoring, which some see as its close relation, it suits those who have an active determination to learn more. The recipient has to feel that it will help them to reach their goals, “not when it is imposed”, says CIPD learning and development adviser, Martyn Sloman.

When does it work best? “Coaching works best when the person is motivated to achieve their goals,” says professor Stephen Palmer, of City University and chairman of the British Psychology’s Special Group in Coaching Psychology.
“The caveat to coaching is that it won’t work well if the person seeking coaching is unfocused. Alternatively, it can help people to chuck out old goals and formulate new ones,” he says.
Palmer is seeing this first-hand, as he is currently coaching a head of HR who wants to leave the profession and find a new career path.
Job shadowing
What is it? Working alongside a colleague in order to understand the nature of their job. Mentoring or coaching activity can support this.

Who does it suit best? “People who are new to their job role,” says a champion of job shadowing, Ilona Hall. Hall, who is training and development manager at construction giant Redrow, has facilitated job shadowing for new recruits at all levels and encourages an exchange of ideas and borrowing of people between her department and that of HR, but she says the strategy is less likely to be successful for senior people.

“The time factor is crucial for senior people,” she says. “It’s hard for either party to be released from their job and key projects.” She makes an additional but salient point about the impression it could create if a senior person volunteers to step away from their day-to-day job. “The exercise has to be well-managed with clear objectives,” she says.

When does it work best? When new people need to understand the internal workings of an organisation. Hall advocates that senior people involved in job shadowing look outside their organisations for inspiration. “At the moment, I make sure I read all the relevant publications, take part in external benchmarking exercises, and learn about other organisations,” she says.

Acting up
What is it? A type of temporary promotion.

Who does it suit best? Experienced people who are looking to progress up the corporate ladder.

When does it work best? When it can be seen to lead somewhere. “Acting up often leads to permanent promotion but this is not guaranteed,” says Bob Garvey.

At Skipton Building Society, former HR manager, Chris Worts, had five years’ experience of acting up before moving into his current role as head of HR and training. Worts had stood in for his then boss at pay negotiations and in various committees.

“I was fortunate that it was made clear that I was being groomed for the role,” says Worts. “I got plenty of exposure and now that I have actually succeeded to the post, it has been a seamless transition. It was good succession planning all round.”

On-the-job learning
What is it? Learning while doing a job. Despite its lacklustre connotations of that old-fashioned favourite ‘sitting next to Nelly’, it is often the best way to learn a job role. Its status can be elevated and effectiveness enhanced if a coach or mentor facilitates the process.

Who does it suit best? Anyone who is serious about their own learning and development. But it isn’t a method that should be shelved until the next appraisal meeting. “On-the-job learning is what we should aspire to all the time,” says Garvey.

If HR professionals are keen to be seen as part of the business for which they work and the climate in which they operate, then they should certainly be looking to practice on-the-job learning. In 2002, CIPD research demonstrated that it was the most popular method of training for more than half the respondents.

When does it work best? When all participants realise that a level of support is needed. The status of on-the-job learning can be elevated or its effectiveness enhanced if the process is facilitated by a coach or mentor. You need to make sure adequate feedback, reinforcement and support from managers and peers is in place.

Effective networking
What is it? A way of building relationships with a wide variety and range of people, and maintaining these relationships through good communication.

Who does it suit best? Anyone who needs to establish contacts and relationships in a business context.

When does it work best? When these relationships lead to career development opportunities or help with the establishment of a knowledge community at work. This was the experience of Gillian Ince, head of learning and development at retailer Claire’s Accessories.

Ince used the organisation’s networking programme, which allowed employees to book and set the agenda for a meeting with the key people who impacted on her role. “I spent time with a buyer and the finance director,” she explains. “This informal learning method helped us all to understand the results of the decisions we made and encouraged a sharing of product knowledge.”

Ince believes that, in turn, this had an impact on how some things were done in-store.

Case study: Chris Worts, head of HR and training, Skipton Building Society

“You can’t expect opportunities to come to you,” says head of HR and training at Skipton Building Society, Chris Worts. “You have to find them or make them and keep your skills refreshed and updated.”

For Worts, the objective was to broaden his perspective of commerce in general and increase his knowledge of the company’s business in particular.

He set up two mentoring relationships to do this – one with a retired local managing director who Worts recruited as an informal mentor, and another through Skipton’s formal mentoring scheme.

The informal mentoring is kept just that. “We did try to keep log books of our meeting, but found that they hindered the informality,” he says.
Worts has known his mentor for many years, so there is enough mutual trust to keep the discussions informal yet challenging, he says, admitting that his informal mentor knows how to ask tough questions, “so that I don’t stay in my comfort zone,” he says.

The second, more formal relationship involves a meeting every two or three months with an executive coach. However, the coach can also be approached for specific guidance. “If, say, I need some advice on a board presentation, I can contact the coach,” says Worts.

Worts is also a keen networker and meets regularly with his peers. These meetings are more targeted than social ‘chit-chat’. He advocates specific events, such as forums for HR directors and regional CIPD meetings, where peer groups can share business and technical information on subjects such as remuneration strategies or employment legislation.

“I find these generic networks have more value than conferences or less focused gatherings,” he says.

Worts’ final strategy for informal learning is a disciplined approach to updating his professional and general knowledge.

“I have time blocked out in my diary to read business and professional publications,”
he says.

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