Looking to take your People career to the next level? Then you’re in the right place. Over the course of this three-part series we speak to a range of senior People and HR professionals, asking them what it takes to ‘level up’ your career in the People sphere. These are their answers.
Knuckle down, hone your skills, get better at your job – and then advance. In theory, making career progress is simple.
In reality, it’s never that straightforward.
While every profession requires certain skills to be honed, there comes a point in any career trajectory where simple up-skilling doesn’t cut it any more. At that point, to progress any further requires you to elevate your thinking beyond the scope of your current role.
This is nowhere more true than in the People sphere. Marketers can shoot for CMO roles, software developers can aim for the CTO position. Ten years ago, how many of us had heard of a Head of People?
In this profession, there is no career path laid out for you. The Head of People is the new kid on the block – nothing handed to them, and with everything to prove.
In order to progress within the People sphere, the way you think about and communicate your work must evolve, beyond the realms of your current day-to-day.
The trap of ‘Reactive HR’
This three-part guide is the result of an extensive research and interview process involving a range of senior People professionals. Together, we explored the specific roadblocks you will face as your career progresses, and exactly what it takes to overcome them.
During those conversations, one message came back time after time – that in the People sphere, making real progress comes down to escaping the trap of ‘Reactive HR’.
‘Reactive HR’ will look different from office to office, but at its core it is the same everywhere. Reactive HR is the stifling admin that comes hand-in-hand with just keeping a business ticking over – the back-and-forth of employee on-boarding, the fielding of bitty requests, or endless policing of a time off calendar. One interviewee described it as the ‘white noise’ of running a small business.
According to our interviewees, the trap of reactive HR is the roadblock to People success.
But if Reactive HR is the trap to avoid, where are we going instead?
That destination doesn’t have one name – some interviewees called it ‘strategic HR’ or ‘business-partnering’, others simply ‘People Strategy’. Likewise, what it involves will differ according to the context of every business – increasing employee retention by introducing flexible working practices, or improving team engagement with a more structured process of career progression.
What was uniform, however, was the way they described it.
While Reactive HR takes place on the back foot, People Strategy is delivered on the front. While the former involves putting out fires in the present, the latter involves building foundations for the future.
Reactive HR just keeps the status quo ticking over.
People Strategy delivers transformational change.
That’s where we’re going. How do we get there?
We heard many different answers during this process, but by the end it was clear three distinct themes had emerged. Over the course of this series, we’ll be looking at each one in turn:
- Step back, and think big picture
- Understand your people, and find your agenda
- Know your business – and earn buy-in
Step back, and think big picture
When you’re taking those first steps towards a proactive People Strategy, it can be hard to know where to begin.
In fact, for many of the People professionals we spoke to that first step was often a step backwards.
“You need to make a concerted effort to step away from the weeds so you can think bigger picture”, said one HR Manager. Instead of focussing on what is in front of you on a day-to-day basis, she suggested “stepping away from the front-line so you can start to think strategically.”
That might sound abstract at first, but in reality this is a concrete step that you can take right now.
Try not to see this as a last resort, reserved for when you are in desperate need of some headspace.
Instead, be assertive about formalising that protected time for deep work. Something Charlie’s own Operations Team has found effective is to carve out one morning per month as their '10% Time' – a chance to get off comms and out of the office to concentrate on the bigger picture.
Treat the cause, not the symptom
One point that every interviewee agreed on was that if you’re struggling to keep your head above water due to day-to-day tasks, it is almost certainly a sign of deeper, structural issues.
Instead of focussing on the symptoms, they advised going to treat the problem at cause.
“It’s important to try and see these problems at a macro level... If you are always dealing with problems in the micro then that’s where your work will stay.”
“Sometimes you are so in the weeds that you will always work to other people’s priorities. Step back and ask yourself ‘what does the business really need?’.” Valerie Mann, Head of People at Mention Me
Oversee, rather than supervise
One message we heard time after time was the importance of proactively removing yourself from as many day-to-day tasks as you can. The danger, they said, was that because HR touches so many parts of the business, you are structurally encouraged to become the ‘gatekeeper’ of every operational process.
If you’re going to successfully remove yourself from those processes, there are two principles to bear in mind.
- Automation is your ally
One of the best examples of this is tracking time off. In many companies – particularly SMEs – time off is processed manually. Often, requests will be made via email and then bookings tracked in a spreadsheet by a single ‘gatekeeper’ (usually somebody in an HR role).
Automated time off software allows that person to totally remove themselves from the time off process – giving them more them some much-needed breathing room.
The more of your role that you can automate, the more space you have to concentrate on the work that makes a real impact at your company.
- Drive for ‘self-service HR’
If a process cannot be automated, then ‘self-service’ is the next best thing.
Let’s take the example of on-boarding new hires. In the traditional model, on-boarding takes place via a back-and-forth email thread where you try and gather all the information you need to legally bring someone into your business. Once you have all their information, you need to input it manually into your records.
That process will often look something like this:
With the right HR software, you can run an on-boarding process that is essentially ‘set and forget’ – one click, and the new hire is prompted to upload their employee information themselves.
“The more HR processes that you can design to be ‘self-service’ the more time and space you have.” Valerie Mann, Head of People at Mention Me.
Remember – value is impact
The final part of this puzzle is to remember one thing: becoming a senior player in any profession comes down to making an impact and communicating it to the rest of the business.
“My first question when I got in the door was ‘where does this business want to go? Where are you trying to get to?”
“I think if I came in to my job interview and said ‘yeah, I’m going to do loads of admin for you’, then I probably wouldn’t have got the job – I was brought in to make strategic changes for the business. So make a conscious decision not to get bogged down on HR admin... If you’re not careful, you can get sucked in, and you’ll never make the difference.”. Lottie Whyte, Head of People at Hanbury Strategy
This point isn’t so much an actionable task to take away and implement – it’s a change in mindset. In the next two parts of this series, we’re going to explore what it takes to start doing transformational People work – work that really moves the needle at your company.
But that work isn’t possible unless you’re willing to be the standard bearer for the People function at your company – the one with vision, the initiative and the drive to deliver real, tangible impact.
“An HR department is actually well placed from a strategic point of view, because it works as a link from all departments... You are strategically positioned at the centre of the business to make big changes that affect everyone, not just one person at a time.” Valerie Mann, Head of People at Mention Me.