Training & Development

How To Succeed in HR Without Really Trying

by Clifford Stephan |

July 3, 2017

Recently, I started thinking back to my first position and career choices that took me from entry level to founder of my own consulting firm, and I realized something…I shouldn’t be where I am today.

You see, when I got my first position in HR about fifteen years ago, the typical career path for a young professional in HR was to keep your head down, put in at least a few years in one position, and slowly make your way up to the next “reasonable” position. Maybe within ten years, you might be a manager. The problem was, I was starting at the bottom, and I didn’t have the patience for the traditional path.  Instead, I decided to take a lot of risks and move quickly. Thinking back now, I wondered, could anyone leverage a basic HR position into something bigger and better in just a few years?

Absolutely. While my path isn’t the only (or the best) way to do it, I do think that there are a few ways that a young HR professional can accelerate his or her career, and have a lot of fun doing so.

Getting started in HR…even if you’re not sure where you’re going

The great thing about HR is that there are multiple career paths and specialties available, even from a basic starting point. Especially for the Millennial generation, this is good news. A Forbes article from August 14, 2012 reported that younger generations of workers tend to stay in positions for about two years—in large part because they are motivated to find positions that are interesting to them. Especially if you’ve just landed in the HR industry, it’s a great place for someone who may not be sure of her or his dream job yet, but is excited by exposure to a lot of different aspects of an organization.

Getting that first position in HR may seem like you’re low on the ladder, but it is a fine first step, and a great position to start identifying the aspects that are most interesting and fulfilling to you. For one, you’ve got a starting point, a place to get some exposure and learn how an organization works. But your greatest advantage is that you can (and should) meet everybody! Using your status as the “new kid” gives you a lot of excuses to ask questions, be curious, and learn a lot of different positions.

Take the advantage to meet everyone on your team in the HR department, but think bigger than just HR. Being in HR means that you have easy access to people in other departments—for example, you’re going to find a lot of natural allies in finance and legal, just as a starter. The more people you meet, the easier it will be to quickly leverage yourself into the next position.

Of course, you may be pigeon-holed and labeled because you’re just a “coordinator” or “assistant” or a “level 1 analyst,” and the longer you stay in this position, the harder it can be to break out of it. But achieving liftoff from there only takes a little time, strategy, and creativity to take your career to the next level.

Bend and stretch: Anticipate the next move before it happens

Bending and stretching is not just for the gym—it can do wonders for your career. Extending yourself beyond the day-to-day of your job can help you learn about new opportunities and can help you get ready faster for the next one.

Push yourself to meet people within all levels of your HR organization, whether it’s compensation, recruiting, benefits, or HR systems. Every part can teach you something about how HR works, and where your best fit may be. The more people you meet, the more you’ll get to know your options, and the more you’ll learn how your skills and personality can be a great fit for different aspects of HR.

Get beyond your own job description

One of my key pieces of advice for new HR professionals is “manufacture experience.” Everyone has a job description, but that doesn’t mean you can only do certain things. Getting a resume that’s going to help you get the next job means learning what happens at the next level, not just doing what’s required of your position.

Learn to find those opportunities where you can learn more or get an inside look at a more advanced position. For example, you may ask to assist with an annual salary survey participation and help out with candidate interviews. See if you can sit in on meetings or presentations, “just to learn a little more.” With enough exposure, it’s perfectly reasonable to then say on your resume “assisted with job surveys…” or “experienced with job search process and on-boarding.”

Just as soon as you start getting this new exposure and skillset, start looking for opportunities internally or externally to wash off that entry role and move on up to bigger challenges (and a bigger paycheck)! There’s no reason to think that you need to “do the time” if you’re a good fit for the next level. In the worst case, you won’t be hired, but getting to that next level will happen a lot faster the harder you push for it.

Above all, hone those people skills

That’s right—hone those people skills. Getting ahead fast means being a likeable people-person, and I’m sure that’s not a surprise to you. Cliché as it may be, nothing’s going to be more helpful to you as you position yourself for those jobs that may be beyond your experience, but are within your reach because you are known and you are liked. Being open, eager, and friendly will get you mentors, allies, and raving fans.

While there are lots of different ways to carve out your own path in HR, don’t hesitate to step on the gas pedal and push yourself. With a drive for new experiences and an eye on the next level, moving up the pay grade and onto an exciting career shouldn’t take too long at all.

Clifford Stephan founder and principal consultant for OneCompensation has shaped and implemented compensation strategies for Fortune 100 and other emerging companies in some of the fastest growing industries.