Long reads

How much of your career should you spend in HR?

15 Jul 2021 By Rob Gray

It’s common to gain work experience outside the people profession – but what skills does this bring and will it put you at an advantage?

Every career path has its twists and turns, taking us to experiences that shape our outlook and capabilities. Everyone’s route is different, but some are more different than others – for better or worse. And the same is true for HR practitioners. With the function being so wide-ranging, there’s no ‘correct’ path when it comes to qualifications, experience or industry, and while many have spent their whole career in HR, others bring alternative perspectives after cutting their teeth in different roles, be they in finance, marketing, operations or others.

But for those who gain experience in other business areas, does this put them at an advantage in terms of the skills they consequently bring into their HR roles? And how do they compare to those who spend their entire careers in the field? And conversely, what expertise can people professionals offer if they choose to move to another function?

Harvey Francis, executive vice president of Skanska UK, considers himself fortunate to have spent the formative years of his career in sales management operations before moving into HR via the organisational development route. Of particular value, he says, were the skills and experience he developed in people leadership, sales and marketing, and general business management including profit and loss. 

“This continues to provide the context for HR within the business, avoiding any risk of HR becoming the ‘end’ itself rather than the means to the end. That said, I’ve worked with highly skilled and talented people who have spent their entire career in HR, so both routes are credible,” he explains. “Equally important are the personal characteristics that people bring with them to their work, and their understanding of how people and business need to come together in the ‘sweet spot’ to do great things for everyone involved.”  

As Aseel Ibrahim, lead consultant  in Tiger Recruitment’s HR division, puts it: “Whether you have worked on the trading floor, the shop floor or the factory floor, having an insight into how the wider business operates will be a valuable addition to your HR skills.” 

Linda Kennedy, CHRO at manufacturer Klöckner Pentaplast, is a fan of the “diversity of thinking, and often a commercial or practical approach” that those with experience outside HR bring to the team. “Individuals who have held roles outside the function tend to have a good understanding of the business and can bring a fresh perspective on things,” she says. “They are also able to review proposals objectively and challenge them, which helps to make solutions more robust. They also typically have a good understanding of the P&L and the key drivers of the business and, coming from a business or finance background, they can be more numerate and analytical, a skillset HR is increasingly in need of.”

Kennedy sees huge value in “stepping outside your comfort zone” and experiencing a business role beyond HR as a way to broaden thinking and gain greater exposure to all aspects of the business. She has done it more than once in her own career, once as part of an R&D team and then in an M&A team. On both occasions, it enabled her to broaden her network, make valuable connections across the organisation and learn new skills such as lean and project management. Consequently, she has become a fan of KPIs, believing that what gets measured gets managed.

Dean Wilson, HR director at Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust, is another senior practitioner who sees the value of experience in different functions. It’s important to guard against HR being saddled with a reputation for not understanding frontline issues, he feels. 

Wilson’s own career entailed a move to HR from finance just prior to completing a full Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) qualification and he’s pleased to have done so. “Finance experience has helped me put together budgets and understand balance sheets, P&L, annual accounts, M&As, etc, all of which have helped later in HR when dealing with those issues,” he explains.  Wilson has also worked extensively in HR in both public and private sectors, and found the experiences to be very different. He recommends HR professionals do the same to obtain a wider knowledge base.

In a slightly different vein, Beth Sampson, OD and people lead at Investors in People, and strategy and transformation director Mark Corden both have experience in retail that has stood them in good stead since moving into HR. For Corden, exposure to customers transacting with an organisation’s products and services has kept him focused on the importance of the internal customer relationship between HR and the wider functions.

While for Sampson, the move from retail, where tangible results come rapidly, was initially a shock. “It took me a while to realise that the outcomes of my work would be longer term in arriving and probably more subtle in terms of impact on business performance. I actually found this a lot more rewarding in the end as I knew that I was making a difference for people and their lives rather than ‘just’ to the bottom line,” she says.

But HR has long required skills and knowledge from outside its traditional arena, argues Emma Parry, professor of human resource management at Cranfield School of Management. For example, an understanding of employment law, and the borrowing of concepts from marketing such as employer brand, employee value proposition and segmentation of the workforce. And over the past couple of decades, the function has come under increased pressure to prove its strategic value to organisations through an impact on the delivery of business strategy and competitive advantage, which call for expertise in strategy, finance and people analytics. 

“In my experience, the most successful HR functions are those that develop effective partnerships with those who have the relevant knowledge and experience,” says Parry. “Take people analytics. HR practitioners need to be able to ask the right questions and interpret data effectively but the analyses themselves can be undertaken by a data scientist.”

Chris Forde, professor of employment studies at Leeds University Business School, sees virtues in both kinds of career paths. “Some have argued that those with insight and experience from other areas can help HR in achieving a strategic impact in organisations, by being able to ‘translate’ and communicate HR actions across to senior managers and leaders in finance, marketing, sales, CSR etc,” he explains. “However, others such as Dave Ulrich argue that HR specialists can also be very effective – and sometimes better – at doing this, with the specialist understanding they have of HR practices, how they fit together, and the potential impact of these actions on individuals and the organisation as a whole.”

But what of individuals being given HR leadership roles without HR experience under their belts? William Hogg, a consultant in the HR practice at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson observes that while it’s not unheard of for non-HR professionals to move into such roles from an outside organisation, the majority of non-HR appointments to chief people officer roles he sees come from within the organisation because the individual brings a strong brand. 

“Those ‘non-HR’ appointments often reflect a specific, moment-in-time requirement,” says Hogg. “Moving a senior executive into HR can be a hugely important part of their development as a leader. The art of partnering with a CEO to unlock an organisation’s potential is not easily learned.” Incidentally, the company’s report The Ideal CHRO found that two of the attributes CEOs look for in a CHRO are commercial focus and coherent leadership skills.

Hogg reveals that Odgers often hears from HR leaders who have been offered a route outside HR in their careers but have chosen not to take it. Often that’s driven by a belief that their business-wide impact will be lessened by moving to a specific general management role. The ability to influence across a vast range of topics, navigating treacherous waters as a business and people leader is a tremendous strength of HR professionals and a significant value add for those who do wish to pursue roles outside the function. “The irony is that it is that strength which is perhaps the biggest reason as to why HR leaders are reluctant to make such a move,” asserts Hogg. 

But even though HR professionals are keen to stay put in the field at a senior level, Phil Sproston, region manager for UK and Ireland at the Top Employers Institute, believes the shortage of CEOs appointed from HR backgrounds is also a major issue for both top HR talent and organisations. “The perceived greater commerciality of someone from sales or finance still trumps the amazing skills that a senior HR practitioner has developed across their career,” he says. “Both current CEOs and HR themselves need to invest more into developing the current crop of HR talent into the CEOs of the future.”  

That said, many HR practitioners are arming themselves with wider commercial and strategic skills, through their own personal development goals and often with the support of their employer and the CIPD. Although first-hand experience can be helpful, you don’t necessarily need to have worked in a different career to bring those ways of working into HR.

And what’s more, the notion of HR sitting to one side of an organisation is fundamentally outdated. These days, HR professionals work across the breadth of an organisation’s strategic ambition and anyone who wants to succeed in HR needs to acquire a wider skill set. “One of the things that as an organisation we have focused on in recent years is ensuring that our professional standards have that breadth of remit,” says David D’Souza, the CIPD’s membership director. “We are setting up professionals to excel not just in HR but as leaders and contributors to an organisation.” 

He adds that today’s HR practitioners typically have both a social conscience and a performance mindset – qualities that stand them in good stead for leadership roles. The pandemic has brought these further to the fore.

Kinga Peers, a consultant in the HR Practice at headhunters Russell Reynolds, says that over the last year the expectations of the HR function have multiplied and its potential reach has extended. “There are now very few companies where HR has to fight for a seat at the table. But with raised expectations, leaders who are up to the challenge are in high demand regardless of their functional background.” 

Zoe Moorhouse (pictured right)
Senior HR business partner at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust 

“I came into HR after trying out several different careers and sectors. I would like to say I planned the move, but in reality this wasn’t the case. I had been involved in a number of small workforce projects like building local induction packages for new employees, and working with apprentices in an engineering firm. I also led a team in my role as on-call manager in a conference centre. All of the roles had a ‘people’ focus so these experiences helped shape an interest in HR and were crucial when I attended my first interview for a role in HR.

“When building credibility with managers you are supporting, it helps to share your own experiences as a manager and ensure that advice does not simply repeat what a policy says, but is real and pragmatic, using the policy to frame your advice. 

“Having an understanding of different roles and businesses does help. I’ve found there are quite a few things that are similar. In the hospitality sector you are focused on your customer and ensuring their experience is exceptional. Retail is the same – if your customer has an excellent experience they will remember that and come back to buy from you in the future. In my laboratory technician work, reviewing data and seeing patterns in the information has been helpful – and in my current role this has been invaluable as I am responsible for the annual staff survey. 

“As a PA, being able to juggle competing demands and organise things is essential – aligning this experience with organising a disciplinary hearing , for example, these skills have been invaluable. 

“From a personal perspective, having been a manager means I have experience to draw upon when advising managers and this has been useful. That said, I do think it’s important to be qualified as an HR practitioner and gaining that qualification on the job is essential. Apprenticeships have helped with this and it may well mean that the qualification is achieved while the individual is employed in another function, which in my experience is a positive thing.”

Omotunde Dipo-Lawuyi (pictured left)
HR case consultant at ACCA

“One of the big advantages is a grounded professional identity as an HR professional, which has come from my credibility and the experience gained from being in HR for my entire career. The confidence and conviction I have in my abilities as an HR professional translate into how I coach and support my stakeholders, having a thorough understanding of the impact and importance of HR and making sure this informs how I support the business. 

“But I don’t think any teams should be closed off to any function or disciplines; I appreciate cross-functional experience. However, I think the level at which they move into HR is important, as it is not uncommon at senior levels for people who have not been in HR to be brought into senior roles, which is unfair to those who have built careers in HR. Having said that, I believe HR should learn from this and perhaps introduce a cross-functional element as part of the training and development of our teams, because businesses like the expertise of those who have been exposed to other functions. 

“Experience has shown that more commercial exposure is beneficial to HR, plus businesses seem to prefer this. I make a deliberate effort to understand the area of the business I am supporting and ask my stakeholders to talk me through what they do, explain their side of the business to me, and so on. I would like to experience some other areas of the business, to learn more, to gain the experience/exposure and hopefully this will help further my career. 

“HR people can get pigeonholed and bogged down by day-to-day firefighting. I started my career as an HR management trainee, but had a six-month rotation in other areas of the business before settling in HR and that was invaluable experience. I believe at the very least mid-level HR professionals should branch out of the business for some time and return, and this is something that the CIPD and employers should actively champion – asking why businesses look outside of HR when deciding on senior roles should be the starting point and then work from there.”

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