Being really, really good at HR is great, but it’s not the only thing that makes an HR leader. Intentional professional development is critical to get you to your goals. Of course, everyone’s goals are different, and HR leaders have a variety of educational resources at their disposal to support them on this journey.
HR professionals are notorious for neglecting themselves in favor of taking care of others. Nowhere is this truer than in their professional development. And, in the past, our options for accelerating our career used to be fairly limited. I’m currently a Senior Director of People at a rapidly scaling startup. I’ve placed a lot of emphasis throughout my career on making sure I was showing up for myself to level up and — hopefully — become a Chief People Officer. On the way, I’ve taken nearly every path to obtain the education and credentialing I needed to reach my goals and to be the most effective leader I can be. Here’s what I learned along the way.
Legacy credentialing programs are useful, but they’re not enough.
Years ago, HR or the People organization was considered personnel. The only certifications available were the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) and the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). These certifications are primarily focused on compliance and the legal requirements of HR. Now, there are two additional certifications, the SHRM Certified Professional (CP) and Senior Certified Professional (SCP). The curriculum covered by the SHRM certification programs are a bit more robust and reflect the shift from HR to the People organization.
If you know you want to stay in HR, it’s a good idea to get these certifications. They’ll help you become more effective in your role, especially in dealing with compliance issues. They are, however, pretty limited in that they are confined to only what is considered strictly HR.
An MBA isn’t for everyone, but business acumen is.
I knew that in order to get to where I wanted to be, I needed a masters. I decided to go with my MBA rather than a more HR-focused degree like MS-HRM because the modern day Chief People Officer needs business acumen. HR is cross-functional. When I’m working with marketing and sales teams who are talking about revenue and top of funnel, I can speak the lingo. This both builds trust and makes me a more effective partner. And, by learning HR theory in a classroom setting, I can better explain the foundational concepts, not just how they’re applied, so I can meet my clients where they are.
The biggest barrier? Cost. Graduate school is expensive. I’m not sure that I’ll want to stay in HR forever, so I chose a more flexible degree. I’m prepared to be a strategic partner as a CPO, but the MBA prepares me to do a lot more than that, so for me, it felt worth it. Friends who have not gone back for their masters have picked up similar business acumen through mentorship programs or by taking a strong initiative on their own.
Formal education can’t prepare you for everything.
HR has been on the frontlines of dealing with the biggest problems of this year. No certification or graduate program could have prepared us for the COVID pandemic or the Great Resignation — though some days I do feel like I should have gotten an MD to deal with it! But when every employee, plus the company itself, went into crisis mode at the same time, there was no playbook.
I can’t overstate how much informal learning and connection has helped me over the past 18 months. I’ve relied on groups like TroopHR for the thought-partnership with industry leaders and wide breadth of content, forums via investors, LinkedIn, and my own personal network to make it through difficult times. We’re all “in the trenches” together, problem solving, sharing what worked and what didn’t, and commiserating. HR can feel like a lonely place, especially in the startup world. These networks are a wealth of support and knowledge when formal training hasn’t — and realistically can’t — keep up with the problems we’re facing.
Get as much as you can out of your job.
I wouldn’t have gotten where I am if I hadn’t had stretch assignments on the job. Some of these assignments came due to startup resource constraints (somebody had to do it!) but more often than not, it was because I raised my hand for everything I could, especially if no one else wanted to do it. The stuff that everyone else avoids can be challenging growth opportunities. Often, the most painful tasks can be the ones you’re really good at. Most importantly, advocate for your own opportunities. Keep leaders up to date on the areas where you want more exposure.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to embed with other teams or leave HR entirely for a bit to better understand your business. Working at a startup, I once reported to a CFO. This was a different lens through which I’d never seen our organization, and it was incredibly helpful. The People organization is responsible for the two highest line items on company budgets (compensation and healthcare), so understanding how spend is considered at the organizational level was illuminating. After that experience, I started approaching the finance team differently when I had requests, emphasizing data and quantifying the impact of my requests. Knowing to articulate a tangible ROI has made me a better advocate for the People organization as a whole.
Be intentional about your growth.
Being really, really good at HR is great, but it’s not the only thing that makes an HR leader. Intentional professional development is critical to get you to your goals. Of course, everyone’s goals are different, and my path is not the only one. Programs like an MBA or MS-HRM are a good fit for some, while others work better under direct mentorship.
No matter the path you take, though, you must be intentional about it. Make sure to regularly take time to assess your strengths and opportunities for growth. Be honest with yourself about what you have the time for, where your interests lie, and the kind of career you want to build. There is no one right answer, but if you do not take agency over your trajectory, external factors will make the decision for you. You deserve to build the career you want, and doing this work is the first step toward getting there.