Career Clips – Is Your Career Stuck at the HR Advisor or Generalist Level?

By Natalie Michael, CHRP

Last month, I was conducting a recruitment search for an HR manager position for a company that will remain nameless. This company was open to hiring a “high potential” candidate for the role – someone who was currently at the HR advisor/generalist level but showed potential for management.

As a result, I spoke to about a dozen people at this level and about 50 HR managers.  This market research revealed an interesting trend:  Many HR managers progressed to management level after only having four years of advisor level experience.  In contrast, there were a number of HR advisors who had about ten years of experience and aspired to management. 

Key Questions to
Ask Yourself

When you are given a new assignment, what is your typical reaction?

When you feel uncomfortable with your level of expertise, what is your self-talk?

Do you have a “personal system” for finding answers to business problems you have not faced before?  (i.e. a personal network, websites, books, library resources)

How well do you understand your business?

Can you answer the following questions:

–          How do we make money?

–          What pressures do we face?

–          Who are our competitors?

–          What differentiates our company?

–          What are our top three strategic priorities?

–          What keeps the executive team up at night?

Does your professional development contribute to breadth, as well as depth, of expertise? 

Why do some people progress from advisor to management  after four years of professional experience?  Why does it take other people longer?  There were three primary trends. 

First Trend: Embrace Not Knowing
The people who progressed faster embraced challenge. When they were charged with an assignment they had not done before, they saw it as an opportunity to learn something. When probed, they had a personal system for finding the information they needed to get the job done, typically involving internet research, buying periodicals, accessing online libraries, reaching out to their network for samples, and getting feedback from mentors.  Interestingly, they spent a lot of time researching information online and had a number of websites they would access when they needed critical information.  In some ways, they ascribed to the “fake it ’til you make it” philosophy.  By doing their homework, they came across as credible even if it was the first time they were managing a problem.  Not surprisingly, this worked.  With this attitude, they quickly built up their experience base.

In contrast, people who were slow to progress despite their management goals often experienced anxiety when they “didn’t know” or were given a new assignment. Their self-talk would sound like: “I don’t know how to do this. Why did they give this to me?  I’ve never done this before (panic!).  I’m not an expert in this area (heart palpitations).”  When this anxiety started to come up, it blocked them.  They became focused on getting rid of the uncomfortable feelings rather than finding out how to approach the business problem.  This had a number of implications: first, it blocked their learning; second, it prevented them from getting future challenging assignments.  Because of their obvious distress when outside their comfort zone, their boss gave them “comfortable assignments” instead. 

Second Trend: Business Acumen
People who progressed faster understood the business they worked in and tended to have more of a strategic orientation. They could articulate how their company makes money, their competitive pressures, top priorities in the strategic plan, and how their company was different from key competitors. What was interesting is that they didn’t know this because they worked for an executive or CEO who was excellent at communication. They knew this because they were curious about it. They would read articles about the company, did research on their on own time, and asked strategic questions. 

In comparison, the blocked group was not as clear about the broader business context they were operating in. Although they could vaguely articulate what the company did and some of the strategic priorities, their understanding stopped there.  Typically, they were more focused on their job or tasks rather than the bigger company issues.  This blocked them for two reasons: first, the advice they gave when doing management or employee relations was not balanced.  It was so “people focused” that it often did not consider the business and financial pressures that also factored into the issues; second, it negatively impacted their credibility with executives.  Executives came to rely on them for completing tasks rather than adding business value to their discussions.

Third Trend: Learning Focus
The third factor that differentiated the two groups was learning focus.  The fast-track group seemed to have a broader education base.  They did not focus their learning on their domain of expertise (benefits or performance management, for example).  They took courses in different facets of HR and/or business. Interestingly, many of these people had a joint major in university such as marketing/HR.  As a result, they grasped different parts of the business and had a greater depth of understanding about business operations.  

The other group tended to focus their learning in a few HR areas and/or relied on their organizations to train them.  They had deep expertise in one or two areas yet did not have the broad base of business knowledge that would best prepare for them for management. 

It’s important to note that there is a third group of HR advisors and generalists.  These are the people who simply wanted to stay at the advisor/generalist level.  They liked doing the advisor work and found that the lifestyle and type of work fit with their strengths.  That group was highly-competent and not blocked from meeting their career goals. This article isn’t for them. 

Natalie Michael is Managing Partner of The Karmichael Group, a recruitment strategy and search firm. An award winning HR professional, she has HR certification from Canada (CHRP) and the US (SPHR). She has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and is currently completing her Masters in Organizational Development.


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