Has your career stalled?

Covid has provoked a wave of career reassessing. But for HR professionals unsure where to go next, People Management solves seven of the biggest sticking points

Has your career stalled?

As a people professional, there’s a good chance you’re passionate about helping others with their career development. But how much time do you spend thinking about your own? 2020 has provided many of us with the opportunity to rethink what we want from our careers and whether what we’re doing now fits with our future goals, as well as reconsider how work/life balance and flexible working sit within that. And although the next 12 months still look uncertain, the glimmer of hope on the horizon means it’s a good time to start thinking about what you want to achieve in the short and medium term, as well as the long term.

With that in mind, People Management has explored seven of the most common career crossroads for HR, complete with advice from others who have been there and done that.

1. I’m struggling to break into the people profession. How can I find my elusive first job?

Whether you’re leaving full-time education or trying to move into the profession from a different field, getting started can feel overwhelming. A pandemic and downturn make things even trickier. But before you panic, Matthew Whitfield, director and HR specialist at recruitment firm Hays, has some encouraging news. While 2020 was “the strangest recruitment market [he has] ever seen”, 2021 is shaping up more positively. “There is some light at the end of the tunnel and lots of organisations are going into candidate attraction mode,” he says. “It is challenging trying to break in, but there are opportunities out there.” 

The key word is ‘perseverance’. Rakhee Patel, global people and culture partner at ISS, started off as a hotel receptionist. Knowing she wanted to break into HR, she proactively started helping out the people team, building her network inside and outside the organisation. When an HR co-ordinator role came up at a different hotel, she applied and… heard nothing. Rather than give up, she rang the HR manager and the rest is history. “It worked out because I persevered,” she says. “If you see a job you feel is right, don’t give up. There are so many methods to get in touch and sell who you are.”

To get a foot in the door, build your experience any way you can, from placements to temporary roles. Employee relations business partner Velisa Bowlay-Williams was working on the shopfloor at John Lewis when she started helping out HR with rotas. This led to an internship elsewhere and getting her first part-time HR admin role while still at university. 

You should also focus on your transferable skills. Natalie Ellis, founder of consultancy Rebox HR and author of Launch Your HR Career, worked as a travel agent before deciding HR was for her. Applying for roles, she focused on the skills she was confident in – customer service and relationship building – before landing an HR job. “Think about what you have to offer,” she says. “Get your CV in tip-top condition, reviewed by someone else – a recruiter or a mentor.” And remain resilient. Ellis was getting 10 to 15 rejections a week, but took it as an opportunity to ask for feedback and develop further.

2. I feel stuck. How can I land my next promotion?

You’re not alone. A recent survey by HowNow found the number of promotions received by British workers has halved during the pandemic. Louise Sorrell, business director for HR at recruitment company Badenoch + Clark, advises being open-minded and flexible when considering new opportunities: “Could a sideways move be more beneficial than a promotion? Can you consider a new industry? Does it have to be a permanent role?”

You might need to be open to opportunities beyond the profession. Yetunde Oladipo, senior talent consultant at the Department for Work and Pensions, has left HR twice to enable career progression. “I was ready for promotion but no one was moving on and no roles were being created,” she says. “I left HR, went on to the frontline and gained experience working in the business. That helped me move up in HR.”

Think about how you can gain experience where you are now, advises Tim Pointer, SVP for HR at brand management agency CAA-GBG. Being curious and asking the right questions could help grow your profile and influence, he says: “If you’re asking the right questions, you will often come away with new responsibilities. Lean into that.”

And take your own medicine: what coaching techniques can you use on yourself? Paula Leach, who recently left a CPO role to launch Vantage Points Consulting, uses two coaching tools: a four-box grid plotting what you are good at and less good at against what you love and don’t love doing, and vision boarding. “Own your ‘stuckness’,” she says. “It’s not anyone else’s fault. It’s not the organisation’s fault. The person who has to change it is you.”

Nebel Crowhurst, people and culture director at Roche, takes a similar approach, with a career development plan broken into short, medium and long-term goals set at the start of each year. “You have to practise what you preach,” she says. “All those hours I’ve spent career coaching other people; it would be stupid if I didn’t do it for myself.”

3. I’m considering self-employment. How can I get started?

The people profession offers multiple opportunities for self-employment and has a thriving community of independents. But being your own boss brings challenges as well as opportunities, especially in the current climate.

Alastair Swindlehurst is the owner of Swindlehurst Consulting. He made the move to self-employment in June 2018. “I was head of HR and I don’t think I was showing the best side of me,” he says. “Doing the same thing in the same office day to day was not fulfilling.” Years of networking and experience in the business process outsourcing space gave him the confidence to go it alone, and he hasn’t looked back.

But he says anyone thinking of a similar move should really question it. “It isn’t for everyone,” he says. “Some people love the support of a business behind them – there’s nothing wrong in that. Most people need to go out and generate their work. I took the approach of saying yes to every opportunity to meet people, develop business and create opportunities. You never know who people know and where it will lead.” 

He has used the pandemic as an opportunity to define his true proposition, helping business owners with their people challenges, and has set up another business: EZHR. “Know what you can contribute and be confident about that,” he advises. “If you present yourself as an expert on everything it can undermine what you excel at. Don’t give away your time cheaply. And get a good accountant.”

For Mandy Coalter, founder of education sector HR consultancy Talent Architects, the driver was work/life balance, having been an HR director for more than 15 years. “I wanted control over my working life,” she says. “Having worked in the education sector for a long time and published a book, people were asking me for support. I saw I could have a bigger impact and a better balance.”

Her key advice? “You have to be able to cope with peaks and troughs, in workload and finances. Have a safety net to give peace of mind. Learn how to market yourself, but focus on relationships rather than the hard sell. And be very clear about your USP: know when to turn work down.”

4. I’m about to come back from parental leave. How can I get back into work?

It’s normal to feel apprehensive. Julianne Miles, co-founder and CEO of Women Returners, points out that professionals returning to work after an extended break face multiple personal and structural challenges, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. “Personally, some of the biggest challenges are internal,” she says. “After a long period out of the corporate world, it’s easy to lose your ‘professional identity’ and confidence.” Structural challenges around caring commitments and lack of flexible working compound these worries.

If you’re looking for work, Miles advises focusing on what you bring rather than what you lack, creating a list of achievements and identifying your strengths. Use specialist sites like Timewise, Working Mums and Ten2Two to search for flexible opportunities, as well as Women Returners for lists of organisations offering returnships. 

Coming back to the workplace, think about how to regain your professional identity: read industry news, consider L&D options, network and arrange to ‘talk shop’ with current or former colleagues. But Miles warns: “Don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself – either to quickly find a job or to immediately hit the ground running when you’re back at work.”

Valerie Hughes D’Aeth, former CHRO at the BBC and now pursuing a portfolio career, has taken maternity leave three times. If you are yet to go on leave, she suggests deciding how much you want to be involved in work while you are away (do you want to be contacted by your team? Do you want to use your ‘keep in touch’ days?). Before returning, meet with your manager and honestly discuss what you are coming back to.

Hughes D’Aeth took a step back when she returned after having her first child. “I went from being UK HR director to managing a project. It’s not all about status, but broadening your skills,” she says. Your confidence might take a bit of a knock, but remind yourself what you add. As she puts it: “You bring a fresh breadth of perspective, rather than being down in the weeds.” 

5. I want to move sectors, but job adverts always insist on industry experience. Is there any way around this?

One of best things about a career in the people profession is that it is transferable across all sectors. But the narrow views of some hiring managers can make this easier said than done.

Sorrell acknowledges it can be a challenge, particularly for juniors and in sectors such as financial and professional services. If you are passionate about moving to a sector, be specific, she advises, and don’t dilute it by applying to lots of other sectors. Be clear in conversations with recruiters and in applications. Use your network: do you know anyone in that sector who could help you? And use your recruitment agency. As Sorrell says: “It’s easier for us to bring you to life for hiring managers.”

Laura Walker, consultant, coach and specialist in mid-life careers, has worked across various sectors, from financial services to retail, aerospace to pharmaceuticals. “I’ve always made it an advantage on my CVs and in interviews,” she says. “Once you’ve done it, it’s easier to do it again. Emphasise your transferable skills.” She advises moving earlier in your career if you can and before you’ve spent five years in one sector: “If you’ve worked in one company for 20 years, people might find it hard to believe you’re committed to moving to another sector.”

However, Leach managed a move into the CPO role at the Home Office after 18 years at Ford. “In those 18 years, I moved context lots of times – supporting different functions, living in different countries and doing different aspects of HR,” she says. “Even if you work in one sector, you can find diverse experiences.” 

Similarly, Hughes D’Aeth, who has worked across technology, construction and media to name but three sectors, advises looking for experience where you are: “Think about moving around divisions. If you are in the construction sector but want to get into technology, can you be HRBP for the IT department?” 

“Don’t take no for an answer,” she adds. “Keep marketing yourself and showing your passion for the sector. I had no media experience before the BBC, but it didn’t take that long to learn. HR is transferable: people are people.”

6. I’m about to start my first leadership role. How do I step up?

There’s a difference between managing and leading – something that can take some adjusting to. “Management is about having a team, objectives and a budget. Leadership is about the vision, creating something for people to follow, coaching and delegating,” says Hughes D’Aeth. That means letting go of the day to day, which can be a challenge. Recalling her first leadership role, setting up recruitment teams across Europe, she admits that “letting go and trusting others was the hardest part”.

“We think leadership is about having more control, but it’s all about letting go,” agrees Leach. “Taking on the CPO role at the Home Office, there was loads I didn’t know. I had 350 people working for me – who all knew more than me. I had to trust others. I was transparent about what I needed and what I could give. Leadership is a collaboration.”

Looking back on her first leadership role, as head of HR in a local authority, Coalter admits she made “loads of mistakes”. “The biggest mistake was thinking I had to be the person who had all the answers,” she says. “It’s about leading through people.” This means not being afraid to surround yourself with people who are better than you.

If you want to practise your leadership skills before getting the role, Hughes D’Aeth suggests volunteering to chair meetings or lead smaller projects, but believes it is difficult to fully comprehend before actually doing it. Pointer advises identifying leaders you admire and who energise you, and working out what it is that makes them so special. “That will help you work out what kind of leader you want to be,” he says. 

7. I’ve only ever worked as a generalist. Should I get specialist experience?

It only takes a glance at the CIPD Profession Map to show what a rich diversity of specialisms exist in the people profession, from L&D to I&D, reward to talent management. You need to think about what you want long term.

If your ultimate ambition is to get into an HR director role, you’ll need certain building blocks. Crowhurst started off as a talent and learning specialist, but knew she wanted a senior leadership role. “The reality is: there are fewer senior leadership roles as a specialist,” she says. “If you want to be a leader, you need to have generalist experience. If I’d stayed in L&D, it would have been hard to get a director role.” She advises finding ways to gain that experience by helping out your colleagues. In earlier L&D roles she offered to take notes during restructuring meetings and consultations, giving her insight into a different side of HR. “When you hit something like a reorg, it’s all hands on deck,” she says. “Your HR colleagues will be delighted to have help.”

Hughes D’Aeth advises trying out different specialisms early in your career, as it can become more difficult as you climb the ladder. “I was advised by a mentor early on that if I wanted to get to the top of the profession, I had to get stronger reward experience,” she recalls. “I thought I knew it all, but I had no idea. When you get to CHRO level, not having credibility around a RemCo can really sink you.”

Patel feels you don’t need to settle on either one specialism or being a generalist too early. “I was told not to be pigeon-holed,” she says. “The work we do in HR is evolving all the time.” She advises looking at different job descriptions and identifying where your gaps are, and aligning these with the CIPD Profession Map. And thanks to the magic of social media, there’s nothing to stop you forensically examining the career paths of people you admire and would like to emulate.

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