Looking to take your People career to the next level? Then you’re in the right place. We spoke 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 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.
But knowing exactly where to turn your new focus is not always obvious.
According to the People and HR professionals we interviewed, plotting that route forward often meant going back to first principles. What had drawn them to a career in People in the first place?
For many, the answer lay in a desire to help others to do great work.
“I see my role at Adzuna as being to create an environment where people can do amazing work. That’s how I create the biggest benefits for the company.” Adzuna
We heard this sentiment echoed time and time again during our research – it’s a mission statement that serves as a useful ‘north star’ for professionals in this role. Once you have that end goal in mind, your path is much clearer.
But even still – helping others 'do great work’ is a wide, wide remit.
Where do you even begin?
First – find your agenda
Before you can deliver the change your company needs, you need to know what change is required.
“If you want to create a ‘great place to work’, then you need to really understand who you have working at your business. You can’t create the conditions for people to produce amazing work without first understanding them as people. Use a generic, one-size-fits-all approach and you’ll get generic performance." Adzuna
Before you can begin your work, you need an agenda – and this process starts with talking to your team.
“The first thing I did when I joined my company was to have an off-the-record chat with everyone in the organisation. If you run a startup or a company of up to 40-ish people, then take advantage of that – there’s no excuse for not knowing exactly what is going on." Hanbury Strategy
"Once you know the problems you face, then you have an agenda.”
The first step in this process is to put in place a system of regular one-to-ones – the best cadence will depend on the size of your company but once a month is a good place to start.
Remember – these conversations are exploratory, not prescriptive. Use open-ended questions, and you’ll be surprised by what you uncover.
- ‘What is holding you back at work?’
- ‘What would make your day-to-day life easier?’
It can be natural for people to feel nervous when discussing work or their colleagues, so start these conversations from a basis of confidentiality. Remind them that you are ultimately here to help them make progress – not trip them up.
And let your agenda find you
Remember – these one to one conversations are the beginning of a process, not the end. The end goal is to incubate a culture where team members are happy to bring you their challenges, rather than you needing to seek them out.
Your role becomes much simpler when this information finds its way to you naturally.
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Data is your ally
Talking to your staff is only the beginning. One to one chats will teach you a lot about your people, but it won’t tell you everything. There are a few reasons for this:
- Anonymous feedback is honest feedback
There will always be feedback that people will prefer to give anonymously – no matter how open you are to difficult conversations.
“A recent staff survey told us that 30% of our employees feel they don’t have a good work/life balance. This was really surprising, and we want to unpack it further. We didn’t think we had a culture of presenteeism at all, so this wasn’t expected.”
- You need the full picture
One to one conversations are incredibly valuable for the insight they give into your team’s day to day life. But they are also an inherently ‘narrow’ source of data, that doesn’t always present the big picture on a particular issue.
Using data allows you to view People issues in the macro, rather than just the micro.
- Numbers cut through the noise
“In order to have good conversations with the executive team you need to have data. Everyone has opinions on People issues– but to cut through the perceptions you need numbers. The better your analytics, the easier it is to think of real solutions and make strategically useful decisions." Mention Me.
People issues are never black and white – and the subjective nature of the challenges you identify can be a real roadblock. Data gives you a way to cut through any debate with cold, hard numbers.
The best metrics for an HR dashboard
So, we know that good People Strategy begins with understanding the problems that your team faces – and we know that the best way to get a handle of those problems is with data. But which what metrics do we include on our HR dashboard? Which numbers can we trust?
- Employee churn/employee turnover
This is perhaps the most widely known metric in the world of HR, and for good reason – it serves as a great indicator of the ‘health’ of a company’s workforce. Is employee turnover trending upwards over time? If so, that’s a strong sign that you haven’t created a work environment people feel they can thrive in.
- Revenue per employee
This is an important number for obvious reasons. Look at your company revenue over the financial year, and track it against your current headcount - how does that number stack up against previous years?
If it’s going down, then that could be an indication that something isn’t right.
- Holidays taken / untaken
If you want your team to do great work, then regular and timely holidays are an important component of that. Having a clear overview of your team’s time off allows you to identify a team member who might be at risk of burning out.
- Sick days and illness
A pattern of repeat absences can often indicate that all isn’t right with a team member. It might be a sign they are pushing themselves too hard, that things aren’t going well at home – or even an issue with their mental health (have a look at how you can mitigate mental health and performance here). Whatever it is, having a clear overview of sick days taken gives you the chance to ask that question and offer support if it is needed.
- ENPS (Employee Net Promoter Score)
A ‘Net Promoter Score’ is a metric traditionally used to measure customer loyalty. It asks customers to rate their likelihood to recommend a product or service to a friend out of ten.
An Employee Net Promoter Score takes the same principle and applies it to the question of employee engagement. To run an ENPS survey, you simply need to ask your employees this question:
“How likely are you to recommend this company to a friend as a place to work?”.
There are a variety of software options out there that can run this for you, but even a DIY Typeform could do the trick.
The beauty of an ENPS survey is its simplicity – it gives you a single number that you can track clearly over time, and the brevity of the survey means that it tends to yield a high response rate.
- Staff engagement surveys
Data on sick days and holidays taken are important, but those numbers really only tell you if someone is in the room or not. They don’t speak to how that person feels about their work, their role or their future at the business.
This is where engagement surveys come into their own. Many different types of HR software now offer features that help you to keep a finger on the pulse of your employee engagement, happiness and loyalty.
An option like Peakon, for example, allows you to collate large amounts of data to help you measure, track and assess how your people are doing at work.
"Peakon gives us access to a huge amount of data about our team, and helps open up lines of communication between team members and managers." Bud
However, data with that much depth is potentially overwhelming for someone just get started with their HR metrics. In that case, an option like Charlie's own Polls feature might be more useful.
Reading the data
If you can open up a dialogue with your team and start tracking at least a few of these metrics, then you should be able to put together a picture of the challenges your team faces at work.
But always remember… Surveys must be acted on.
“Engagement surveys are great – but the caveat is that if you do a survey then you have to act on it… if you don’t, then morale will just plummet again, and will end up lower than it was beforehand." Founders Pledge
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many surveys you run, how many metrics you track or how many one to ones you schedule. The true value of the People function lies in not just identifying problems, but communicating those problems to the wider business and then delivering solutions.
But you can’t deliver these solutions on your own. To do it, you’re going to need buy-in.
You need buy-in from your fellow colleagues and team members. But most importantly, you’re going to need buy-in from the senior leadership team.
And if you need to learn more about what is performance management, have a look at our guides: