HR spends its time helping people build fulfilling and successful careers, but the industry can be somewhat limited when it comes to their own professional development.
The top of the ladder
Traditionally, the most senior positions that HR professionals can reach within the industry are those such as HR director or general manager.
But professionals who fill these roles can reach even greater heights by taking a sideways step, according to Westney, who suggests looking laterally for roles that are challenging and build credentials in other areas.
“I once worked for a guy who had been the general manager of HR for several years and was bored, but he loved the organisation and he loved the industry,” he says.
“He went off to be the general manager of another business unit, which was interesting because it was quite a technical industry and the sort of role where you had to have years of experience in the industry to do it. Regardless, the CEO backed him because he was a good people manager and would bring a fresh pair of eyes to the work people within that unit would do.”
Getting where you want to be
Westney had been a HR director for more than three years when he started to feel restless. Fortunately, his mentor at the time was able to introduce him to other senior HR professionals also working in Wellington, New Zealand, where Westney is based. This network of like-minded professionals helped inspire him to move in a new direction.
“I was getting a lot of advice from the people [I was meeting] who were all saying to me, ‘You’ve got enough experience and you know lots of people. You should be out there consulting,’” he says.
“It wasn’t something I’d thought of doing – I’d always worked internally and filled corporate HR roles. But I think once you’ve got a certain level of experience, it pays to go out on your own and share that experience with people.”
The first step to achieving your career goals is identifying which areas you need to develop in order to get where you want to be. This will require a lot of self-motivation and reflection, while advice and support from others can also be invaluable.
“I did a lot of research and I talked to a lot of people who were doing what I wanted to be doing,” he says. “I asked them how they got where they are, how they operated and who else I should talk to that I didn’t already know.
“Then I stumbled across a small, niche HR consulting firm. I talked to them and it seemed like a good match. So I spent a couple of years working there, which gave me the confidence and the broader knowledge to actually go out and do it myself.”
What are senior HR’s professional options?
Senior professionals looking for a career change could apply their skills in myriad new ways.
Their finely-tuned interpersonal skills make them well-suited to taking a seat at the head table within their organisation. Respected professor of business, author and management consultant, David Ulrich, recently predicted the next generation of CEOs will need to have a strong background in people and culture, making experienced HR experts ideal for these roles. Same goes for managing directors, general managers and COOs.
Like Westney, professionals with a certain level of experience could also move from a corporate team environment and build their own consultancy.
Another great career segway could be into executive recruiter positions. Tasked with finding and filling job openings for senior execs, the job is ideally suited to experienced HR professionals thanks to their excellent interpersonal skills, wide networks and ability to build and maintain strong relationships with both stakeholders and staff.
Becoming a career counsellor, or a training and development consultant, is another option for those who love the mentoring aspect of their HR career. People in these roles are required to improve employee skill sets and help them develop clear career pathways – abilities that should be innate to experienced HR professionals. Often employed by organisations in a contact capacity, training and development consultants do this through workshops, seminars, conferences and one-on-one meetings.
If you’re looking to supplement your own skills development, volunteering and board positions are a great way to do this, while also building on your network and fostering your own personal career growth.
Senior HR professionals can take on leadership roles, like branch presidents of associations such as the Australian HR Institute (AHRI), for example, while not-for-profits and youth organisations are always looking for talented people to sit on advisory boards.
“If you just sit in an HR role in an organisation for years at a time, you tend to lose focus on what’s important outside that organisation,” Westney says. “You always need outside influences to keep learning and keep you thinking.”
Often, it’s simply a case of putting your hand up and applying – AHRI has a number of short- and long-term volunteer opportunities listed on its website, and sites such as SEEK Volunteer or Ethical Jobs can help you find local organisations in need of your skills.
Westney adds that whatever goal you set for yourself, don’t be afraid to “dream big”.
About Richard Westney
The HR Man NZ, Richard Westney, is an experienced HR and change practitioner. His experience spans a range of industries and roles – public and private sectors, professional services, large corporates, SME’s and technology – across several countries. His 25-plus-year career has seen him work as a Director of a rapidly growing HR consulting firm in Wellington, New Zealand, and now as a self-employed consultant.
Richard is passionate about developing the HR profession and established the very successful Wellington HR Meetup Group. He is an Advisory Panel member of the Association of People Professionals, regular HR blogger/writer, conference speaker and mentor. In 2017 he founded the successful Summer of Biz HR/marketing summer internship program.