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Laura Harrison

the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Head of Strategic Development For HR Capability

Read more about Laura Harrison

Is there such a thing as a typical HR career path?


There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ career in HR. 

The diversity inherent in the profession provides the opportunity to take things in a variety of different directions and to influence strategic business decisions.
This is as true today as it was 20 years ago. HR is an evolving profession and entry routes are wide and varied, ranging from formal graduate trainee schemes to an ad hoc transfer from other business disciplines. Soon there will also be the option of entering into the sector via our new Higher Apprenticeship in HR
According to our ‘HR Outlook’ survey, three quarters of HR practitioners have worked outside the function at least at some point during their careers.
The most popular background for senior professionals is operations or production (28%), with consultancy coming in a close second (27%). Among newer, developing professionals, however, a customer service (34%) or administration (39%) background are currently most common. 
But HR leaders also appear to be successfully taking on head of business roles too so the situation seems very fluid.
Some typical examples of how people got into HR are provided by Rebecca Harris, Esther O’Halloran and Tim Pointer, meanwhile.
Harris, an HR advisor in British Gas’ central functions team and student member of the CIPD, decided to specialise in HR after starting out on Centrica’s general management graduate training scheme.
Applied business discipline
“My first graduate position was in our Edinburgh call centre, managing a team of 12 new call centre agents,” she says. “My time in the call centre was probably my biggest learning curve, but I believe the experience managing a team has made me a better HR person, allowing me to relate much better to many of my current key stakeholders.”
Harris continues: “Before moving into HR, I would never have guessed how strategic and commercial HR can be and the difference a good HR function can have on the culture and operational efficiency of an organisation.”
O’Halloran, who is now managing director at patisserie Paul UK, started out in retail operations and was in the process of undertaking an MBA, before she decided to switch to an MA in Personnel Development at Westminster University in order to obtain a CIPD postgraduate qualification.
With this qualification under her belt, she progressed into an HR director role, before taking up the position as managing director at Paul earlier this year.
Pointer, head of HR at brand management company, Pentland Brands, and a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD, on the other hand, completed an MA in theatre, before joining Marks & Spencer’s graduate management scheme and choosing to specialise in HR.
He says he would advise anyone to pursue an HR career and is sure that they wouldn’t regret it.
“You’ll have an insight into the organisation and its people in a very privileged way,” Pointer explains. “Both the organisation and the people will trust you with their secrets. How you manage this gift will define you and your success. To succeed, you need to be commercially-minded, principled yet flexible, and have a curious nature.”
But regardless of entry route, once firmly ensconced in the profession, the emphasis is on undertaking continuing professional development, with a growing focus on finding ways to ensure sustainable organisational performance.  
As part of this approach, an increasing awareness of HR’s need to partner with the business is vital. This is because, rather than simply being viewed as a set of technical competencies, the profession should instead be seen as an applied business discipline with a people specialism. 
Our HR profession map provides a clear and flexible framework for career progression and continuing professional development by setting out global standards for great HR and by helping practitioners to identify the skills, behaviours and knowledge that they need to be successful.
It was created as a result of research and the input of HR professionals working in organisations of all sizes and across all business sectors and is relevant to everyone from HR generalists to specialists in pay and rewards or learning and talent development.
The map lays out the knowledge and experience required to operate in 10 different professional areas. Two of them – ‘insights, strategies and solutions’ and ‘leading HR’ – sit at its centre because they are applicable to any HR professional regardless of their role. They, in turn, are surrounded by eight behaviours (see diagram) that every practitioner should strive to display.
‘Insights, strategies and solutions’ are about developing actionable insights and responses to issues that are based on a deep understanding of the business, the organisation and its context. A key part of this relates to building and applying business savvy (Business savvy: Giving HR the edge).
Liz Ogden, HR director at G4S, says: “People who are really successful have a curiosity about the whole business. Being really current demonstrates credibility and so I read all the business papers regularly, picking up information about competitors, mergers and acquisitions and senior moves.”
Over the years, she has also aimed to move out of HR and back into line-of-business operations every four to five years.
“I see myself as a business person first, with an HR discipline; not as an HR director, but as a business leader,” Ogden explains. “I think if someone is really serious about a career in HR, they should get out of HR and into the business to really understand the organisation and get credibility.”
‘Leading HR’, meanwhile, is about HR professionals showing active, insight-led leadership. Although not everyone will have a role in which they lead others, it is still important that they develop the ability to own, shape and drive activities within the organisation.
Getting your voice heard
As with many professions, having professional membership status can also boost careers and open up job prospects. Professional membership of the CIPD demonstrates that you have met global standards for best HR practice, as laid out in the HR Profession Map, and are committed to undertaking continuing professional development.
Possible entry routes include studying for a CIPD qualification or signing up to our Experience Assessment scheme, which involves demonstrating that you have gained suitable knowledge and experience within a workplace context.
Toby Lott, HR business partner at University College Falmouth recently joined the CIPD as a chartered member, after eight years of working in HR, for example.  
“Professional membership is important for career development in HR as it assures your employer, and prospective employers, that you’ve been assessed by the CIPD and confirmed as possessing a high level of skill, knowledge and experience,” he says.
Such a move opens doors to potential employers and “makes your CV stand out from the crowd and gives you global credibility as an HR professional”, Lott adds.
And such considerations are important, because gone are the days when HR was a predominantly administrative profession. Today’s it is all about HR practitioners being able to show business savvy and become real agents of change in their organisation.
Nonetheless, Paul UK’s O’Halloran says: “I believe that HR has come a long way, but we still have some way to go. We need to have more confidence within ourselves to be able to stand up and be true guardians and commentators for our brands/business.”
All too often, HR is still regarded as the old-fashioned ‘tea and sympathy’ department rather than a true business partner, she believes.
“We are not just there to pick up the pieces, but we do need to be stronger in getting our voices heard and not be afraid to speak out,” O’Halloran concludes.
Laura Harrison, head of strategic development for HR capability at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
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Laura Harrison

Head of Strategic Development For HR Capability

Read more from Laura Harrison

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