Survive HR
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I frequently mentor young to mid-career HR professionals, most of whom invariably ask me how they can advance their career to the highest levels. As with most subjects lacking mathematic or scientific definitiveness, this question could have a myriad of responses depending on who responds.  However, in my opinion, the best way to advance your HR career is to exceed the expectations of the decision makers within your organization.  Here’s how to achieve this:

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Survive HR Podcast S1 E1
  1. Earn their trust and establish credibility by understanding and solving business problems.  The number one criticism of otherwise competent HR professionals is their lack of business acumen.  So how do you go about getting business acumen, particularly if you didn’t major in business while in college?  One of the best ways is to spend time with well-regarded subject matter experts (SMEs) within your organization.  Ask questions about their areas: Finance, Operations, Marketing, Logistics/Supply Chain, Sales, Customer Service, etc… Take notes, so you can remember and so you can perhaps ask other relevant questions to other of the SMEs you will meet with.  Always ask what their biggest issues are, including those of an HR nature.  By doing this, you will not only increase your business acumen but will establish deeper relations with those you meet with.  Similarly, most of the SMEs will appreciate the fact that you have taken the initiative to meet with them and learn more about the organization’s operation.  It will give you a really good insight into what is working well, what is not and perhaps insight into things HR can do to resolve the matter. 
  • Help your organization identify and grow its capabilities.  A one-size approach does not fit all.  Each organization has its own culture, strengths, and opportunities. It is very important to understand the strategic objectives of your organization and then look for ways to align the HR strategy with those strategic objectives.  However, please understand that often the strategic objectives will not be worded in terms of HR related matters.  You, the HR professional must look at the organizational objectives and think about how HR programs and initiatives could assist in the overall achievement of organizational objectives.  For example, in my last company, only 50% of projects and new product introductions were completed on time, costing the organization millions of dollars each year.  HR investigated and determined there was no standard methodology for managing projects.  A training program was implemented to train everyone involved in project management to use the same project management process and methodology. After everyone had been trained, the project completion rate improved to 90%, thereby saving millions of dollars.  Clearly, HR added value and helped the organization grow its capabilities.
  • Be an innovator by thinking ahead of issues. This is the most difficult thing for most HR professionals to do.  Most of us tend to get bogged down in the day to day operation and numerous “fires” that have to be addressed, leaving very little time to be innovative.  However, this really an excuse for many.  Most of my innovative thinking comes when I am cutting my grass or out on a bike ride.  However, all you need is uninterrupted quiet time to engage in this type of thought.  I use this time to try and connect dots.  Dots for me are issues at work, articles or experiences related to other related matters that I’ve read about, heard in HR presentations or podcast and networking/best practice sharing with other HR professionals.  Many times the solution or innovation is not specifically part of any one of these, but a combination of, or twist of several.  For example, several years ago my company anticipated a “brain drain” due to a flood of retirements, which were to occur over the coming years.  As I thought about this problem, I realized retirement was a difficult thing to do “cold turkey”.  I also understood that the retirement plan was based upon the 5 highest earning years out of the last ten worked, along with total years of service.  Therefore, I wrote a policy called “Part-Time to Retirement” allowing employees to ease into retirement as a part-time employee for up to 5 years.  This allowed them to transition into retirement while maintaining their highest 5 years of compensation and actually increasing their retirement dollars due to the increase in service years.  It also lowered the cost of employment to the company and allowed it to hire a new full-time employee who could then have a transfer of knowledge from the part-time to retired, seasoned employee.  This was innovative thinking that resolved a potential future problem and assured the organization of a relatively seamless transfer of knowledge from one generation of employee to the next.

One thing that should be obvious, but I will say it anyway, is that you as the HR professional must be doing all of the fundamental HR work well and accurately before most organizations will consider promoting you.  However, if you can perform your day-to-day tasks with excellence and do those things noted above you will be valued and eventually be recognized as someone worthy of a higher level of responsibility. You can do it.

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Steve Nail, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, RCC
Steve Nail is currently the Dean, College of Business, at Anderson University. He is a labor and employment attorney who began his career with the National Labor Relations Board. Thereafter, he served as Assistant General Counsel for Michelin, including two stints in France, where he worked on the structuring of the European Economic Community and served in the HR and Legal Departments. Later he served as the Vice President of Labor and Employee Relations before moving on to Hubbell where he served as the Vice President of Human Resources. Steve was appointed by Governor Nikki Haley to serve on the SC Healthcare Planning Committee and was reappointed by Governor McMaster in 2018. Steve was named the 2012 South Carolina HR Professional of the Year and awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, by the Greenville SHRM chapter. He is a frequent speaker, a published author, and mentor to many in the HR profession. He often coaches individuals and consults organizations on strategic matters. He is a Register Corporate Coach, certified by the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches and holds SPHR and SHRM-SCP certifications.