Organizations increasingly depend on HR to help them navigate incredibly complex, often sensitive situations. Yet in order to be a truly effective HR leader, it’s vital to demonstrate that you have the relevant experience and a deep understanding of how a business runs — earned from having spent time in the trenches.
I’ve spent the majority of my rewarding, 20-plus-year career in HR. Somewhat ironically, the most important lessons I’ve learned about HR come from time spent working in another department. The perspective I gained elsewhere has been invaluable to how I approach HR and how I lead my teams today.
This is why I believe that in order to be the best HR leader, you have to leave HR.
A Personal Journey
My first job out of graduate school was at Yahoo!, where I spent a little over five years in a number of roles from recruiting to HR business partners (HRBP). During that time I connected with an outstanding client, who became a trusted mentor, Tish Whitcraft. She taught me valuable lessons that help inform my career to this day.
Tish told me, “If you want to be an effective HR leader, you have to show you understand the business in a more operational role. That’s going to give you the experience and chops to demonstrate that you bring more value than just dealing with people issues.”
That advice resonated, and I accepted the challenge of trying something new by joining her organization, where I eventually oversaw a 300-person department serving 27 countries. That’s when I realized firsthand that her insight was spot-on. I found myself engaging with HR from “the other side.” It didn’t take long for me to realize that my former teammates in HR would never be able to fully understand the issues and responsibilities their colleagues dealt with without at least some experience outside of the confines of the department.
It made me examine some of the practices I had formerly advocated. Did they provide a benefit or just another level of bureaucracy? Was HR acting as a strategic partner, streamlining functions essential to a healthy business, or did HR create stumbling blocks, serving more as paper pushers or patrol officers?
These questions have made for a good gut-check ever since I made my way back to HR.
Taking An HR Hiatus To Build Business Acumen
We’re living in an environment of constant organizational change driven by the acceleration of technology, changing worker demographics and the increased evolution of skills. It’s vital that HR leaders understand the business challenges that are brought on as a result of these disruptions, and be able to quickly adapt.
Aligning talent with business goals is an ongoing struggle for HR leaders. One study found that 41% of CHROs reported business acumen as the skill most lacking when searching for HR talent. HR leaders feel less prepared than their peers in other leadership roles to embrace the ever-changing work environment, according to another study: Only 16% of HR leaders felt “very prepared” for a digital workforce, versus 37% of all leaders.
HR is no longer about personnel files, data entry and record keeping. Today’s HR leaders need to be able to implement programs that accelerate organizational strategy. One of the best ways to gain business acumen and an outside perspective is by leaving HR for a period of time to run another part of the organization.
That’s going to give you the experience and chops to demonstrate that you bring more value than focusing on challenging employee relations issues. HR leaders who understand the inner workings of the business and can then overlay their unique people skills will gain a different level of currency.
Build Acumen — Without Actually Quitting Your Job
To be clear, I’m not advocating for a mass exodus of the HR profession, but rather exploring opportunities that fall outside day-to-day people operations. Even taking a few simple steps can help you strengthen your business acumen and determine which practices help and which hinder the departments dependent on your services.
Here are a few ways to sharpen your business acumen:
• Find a mentor outside your department: Forge relationships outside of your division so that you can secure candid assessments of the HR function. Invite their personal perceptions, as well as the buzz from their co-workers, on what’s working and what’s not.
• Raise your hand for new projects: Try a short rotation in another department by finding a complementary opportunity outside your division. Similarly, you may want to cover for someone on parental leave or fill in on a short-term project. There can be a definitive end point, and this temporary change wouldn’t negatively impact the company’s operations.
• Freelance or volunteer: Consider freelancing onsite, or join an internal task force where you can view your HR policies through a different prism, or participate on an external board to observe how another organization functions.
Developing Business Acumen In Your Team
HR leaders can play a critical role in developing business acumen from those in the profession. In order to do this, it’s important to foster a culture of curiosity, transparent feedback and continuous learning. Everyone on your team will perform their job better if they also step outside of their individual HR function. This is something I foster with my own team.
Our mission is to “Change the way the world works by driving innovation and change through our partnership with the world’s best talent.” In order to deliver on our mission, we need to be savvy business professionals in addition to being empathetic HR leaders. We develop business acumen through quarterly role rotations, job shadow programs and cross-functional imperative teams.
By leaving HR — temporarily — we’ll attain a broader business perspective that allows us to earn that seat at the table as a true thought partner. After all, sometimes, the only way to get out of the way of progress is to literally get out.