It goes without saying that the human resources profession has changed tremendously in the last several years, in line with changes in the workforce and business environment. Today, HR professionals are taking on more strategic roles within their organizations, partnering with other functional leaders to create and implement people strategies. The complexity of the HR function has also grown. “There are more functional areas within HR than ever, and HR professionals have asked for, and gotten, greater involvement in strategic areas such as business development, mergers and acquisitions, ethics, compliance and risk management,” remarks Joseph McCann, Ph.D., principal researcher of The Conference Board’s Human Capital Practice.
As the function evolves, there will be more opportunities for those on the HR career path. Employment for HR professionals is expected to grow 21 percent by 2020, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the 2012–13 edition of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. The handbook also projects that employment will increase 55 percent in the employment services industry, which includes employment agencies, temporary help services and professional employer organizations.
McCann notes that there are new challenges for which HR professionals should prepare. The talent shortage tops his list. While growth in many companies is still slow, the economy will recover with new demands for talent across industries. “Being able to find and develop talent quickly enough will be a determinant of company growth rate, not just capital availability,” McCann explains. Similarly, HR professionals will need to focus more on engaging talent “for high performance after a long period of slow or no salary growth, abbreviated career paths, and distrust in senior management.” Global scale and complexity is third. Managing in a very culturally diverse economy with an equally diverse workforce remains one of the greatest challenges for most organizations competing internationally. Fourth, HR professionals should prepare to continue justifying their business practices from a business performance perspective. To meet this challenge, they need to make effective use of existing analytical models and technology systems, or partner with external resources to access technology that provides appropriate reporting capability.
As the role continues to evolve and new challenges surface, HR professionals need to display a long list of competencies to remain competitive. A strategic mindset is critical. “Functional myopia is deadly for any professional in a dynamic global economy,” warns McCann.
Indigo Triplett, chief executive officer of Careers in Transition Inc., echoes this sentiment. “We cannot continue to compete in the global economy if we are using yesterday’s processes and formulas.” She adds, “HR professionals must be able to look at something from a variety of vantage points, dissect it, gather additional information, rule out weak points, make sense of the unfamiliar, and take a risk in proving their theory.”
Business acumen has become a critical leadership competency for HR professionals. “Graduate degrees, often MBAs or specialized master’s degrees with a strong dose of accounting, finance and operations, are now the norm,” explains McCann. They are being challenged in unprecedented ways to get results and solve problems. Developing strong business acumen in these areas supports strategic thinking: how can you help to develop a digital marketing team if you don’t understand the changes that are occurring in this functional area? It also provides HR professionals with the language and understanding they need to have a dialogue with leaders outside of HR function.
Human resources executives will be looked upon to work with management to provide information to the employee population, be the voice of reason, subject matter expert and to bridge differences within the organization. This makes a mastery of all forms of communications crucial to success. “You will not get a seat at the management table if you do not present good ideas and are not able to articulate them so others can envision your plan,” says David Hanley, president of First Step HR Associates.
Hanley, who currently serves as the president of the New York Chapter of the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources (NAAAHR), believes in the importance of high technical aptitude. Technology has been and will continue to be a force of change across industries. “Regardless of the size of the organization, next-generation HR professionals must be capable of using all of the technology at their disposal. Many times, your knowledge of technology will provide a quick and efficient solution to the problem,” explains Hanley. “As technology advances, companies must be ready to train their employees to keep pace so they can remain competitive. HR will have to consistently keep pace with changing trends so that they can make strong recommendations.”
Problem solving skills are essential. As professionals rise in an organization, not only will they encounter complex problems, but they also will be looked upon to find solutions. The ability to spot problems on the horizon and find solutions early on will be an asset. “If you have a clear understanding of the business, you can link HR policies and programs to the organization’s missions and service objectives and stop a potential issue before it gets serious. If the problem has already reached that level, developing a way to reduce and eliminate the damage and/or disruption quickly and efficiently will prove your value to the organization,” says Hanley.
African-American HR experience
African-Americans and other people of color continue to be underrepresented in professional HR positions, which inherently make the experience more challenging. Triplett of Careers in Transition, who also authored Playing by the Unwritten Rules II: From a Job Defense to a Career Offense, advises professionals to drive their “CARS,” acronym for colleagues, advocates, resources and supporters. All of these can help professionals move their careers to the next level, based on the professionals’ performance and political savvy. “If you want to be part of the group you must understand what the group talks about when they are together during downtime,” explains Hanley. Whether that topic is sports, traveling, sailing or any number of leisure activities, you should learn them if you want to be part of the conversation. “Deals are made in these situations and your social skills are on display,” Hanley says.
Senior-level professionals must be concerned with developing a level of expertise outside of the HR discipline, ideally in line with a future need in their career or company, he adds. And even though the word makes many professionals cringe, “networking,” online and face to face, is also essential. Networking is not only about landing a new position, it’s also about fostering the sharing of ideas, innovations and best practices. Networking will also let you know how you and your company measure up to the competition, giving you an opportunity to identify and address areas of improvement.
Triplett advises those new to the HR profession, or new to an organization, to “observe, observe, and observe.” It is imperative that HR professionals take the time to understand the culture of the organization and its values, and then make a plan of how they can add real value to the organization, she says. “Far too often, we don’t spend enough time understanding the depths of the waters in which we find ourselves, and we get in over our head before mastering our lane,” she explains.