Benefits Beat

The Next Generation of Benefits Leaders

Why do HR professionals "fall into" benefits? Employee benefits touch the health and financial security of nearly all Americans and millions of people globally.

Like many of you reading this article, I stumbled into HR as a career.

As a journalism student who had never heard of employee benefits or HR or consulting, I was drawn to benefits because of the complexity and challenge of making sense of such meaty topics. But I soon discovered a much deeper sense of purpose in this work — and that purpose has kept me both in benefits and incredibly passionate about this industry.

Here’s why: Employee benefits touch the health and financial security of nearly all Americans and millions of people around the world.

Working in benefits is one of the few careers in which you can know you’re making a difference in what’s really important to people — almost all the time. Whether you’re working as a provider, a consultant or in an employer HR department, you’re having an impact on a lot of lives. You’re doing work that matters. The same can be said about so many other important areas of HR — training, learning and development, organizational development, to name just a few.

But how many people outside our industry know that? Does anyone grow up wanting to be an HR pro?

I’ve been thinking about this since my company, Benz Communications, concluded our interview series of 27 benefits pros as part of celebrating our 10th anniversary last year. (You can read all the interviews on LinkedIn.) They are an inspiring group of benefits leaders at large employers and benefits providers.

When we asked, “How did you get into employee benefits,” nearly everyone we spoke with confessed they stumbled into their career in benefits, and then fell in love with the space — much like I did. Without exception, what struck us was the absolute passion and the sense of pride and purpose these benefits leaders have about their careers.

Sarah Lecuna said she “fell into” benefits. “I wanted to be in the HR function, but wasn’t sure where would be the best fit for me and I the best fit for it. When I got a job in benefits I thought it would be temporary, but I love the work, the ever-changing landscape, and the impact it has on people’s lives.” Now she’s the global benefits leader at Intuit Inc. And Lecuna was named one of Workforce’s Game Changers in 2014.

Allison Wendelberger also didn’t get into benefits by design.

“I was finishing grad school and didn’t have a clear path in mind. Since I was a math major, I decided to take a couple of actuarial exams to make my résumé more enticing,” she recalled. She landed at HR consultancy Mercer and then spent 15 years with Aflac until she moved to her current role as business development manager for ITA Group.

“Essentially, we create programs that motivate behavior change in all the people who matter to an organization,” she explained.

Virgin Pulse President and CMO Rajiv Kumar started out as a doctor, but said, “Working in employee benefits allows me to positively impact the greatest number of lives. In clinical practice, I’d only be able to see a finite number of patients each day. Virgin Pulse, on the other hand, has touched more than 5 million lives around the world. The potential is inspiring.”

Inspiring, it is. The scope of all we touch in benefits is huge, which most people don’t realize.

“I love the fact that we make an impact at both an individual level as well as a social level. In benefits, I have a view of the difference we make not only in our employees’ lives, but also in our company culture, communities and even legislation. I find it extremely gratifying,” said Rosemary Arriada-Keiper, senior director of global benefits at Adobe.

Most people want careers that give them a sense of purpose. They want to do work that has meaning and value in the world. Employee benefits are ideal in that sense. But how do we make it less happenstance for great young people to get into the industry?

Clearly, our profession isn’t exactly front and center when children are aspiring to what they want to be when they grow up. There’s no Benefits Adviser Barbie or HR Director Lego set for our career.

But, we can all play a role in making HR a more desirable — and earlier — career aspiration. Accepting external speaking opportunities, sharing our stories and talking in the press about the great work our companies do is a start. Finding ways to brag about your career at your kids’ school or a college career fair can’t hurt, either.

All of those efforts can help inspire the next generation of game changers.

Jennifer Benz is CEO and founder of Benz Communications, a San Francisco-based employee benefits communications agency. She was named one of Workforce’s Game Changers in 2013. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.