But what about HR professionals themselves? Are we looking within and examining our own career options and development plans with the same scrutiny? Are we taking our own advice? Sometimes the simplest career advice we give—find something that you’re good at and that you enjoy and keep finding new and creative ways to do it better over time—can be the hardest to take. That’s especially true if it includes the possibility of forcing ourselves to step outside our comfort zones. In a world of ever-evolving business models, the variety of career paths to consider can and should be much broader. In fact, perhaps HR generalists, compensation directors, and diversity specialists should just get out of HR entirely—and then come back. Here are the top five reasons why:
1. To appreciate the value of a non-HR perspective
Sometimes critics complain that HR doesn’t have the right business perspective, or that our perspective is too narrow. They believe that HR is limited in being able to get at the heart of key strategic business challenges. The response from HR is almost always that we do recognize the key challenges. We often argue that the real challenge is in influencing managers and helping them to look at their own businesses in the context of the most critical human capital concerns.
However, the truth is that if we have never held a single job outside of HR, then our perspective is decidedly an HR-oriented one. A career entirely in human resources can make for a very effective strategic business partner for certain companies, and has in countless cases. But a career in HR that also includes some time outside the function can help us to become that much more effective, since it can be invaluable in helping us to see the workplace from the perspective of those we most want to help.
Search out the names of HR leaders at some of the most admired companies and you’ll find a wide variety of backgrounds. The ones who have had job experience outside of HR stand out, and for more reasons than just that they are not “real” HR people, or not truly dedicated to the HR function, as some HR purists would contend.
The reality is that they’re versatile and smart about multiple job functions. They can prove that acumen with real experiences that are undoubtedly applied to their work—and success—in the HR field. These individuals have a perspective that can only come by spending some time outside the function. This is an alternate view of the business that most HR people would fight for—if only they knew what they were missing.
2. To get a taste of your own medicine
If you leave HR for a non-HR job, you’ll experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the people initiatives and processes that you crafted when you were in HR. The interview process is a good example. HR generalists and staffing managers in particular could benefit from sitting on the opposite side of the interview table. In addition to actually applying for a new job, the interview process can be experienced by making a pitch to a prospective client, presenting an RFP response or withstanding a panel interview that is part of a potentially large business deal. All of these are experiences that would place former HR interviewers in the position of interviewee, and give them renewed respect for the challenge every job applicant faces: mastering the skill of confidently presenting skills and experience in the hopes of landing the job.
Another taste of HR medicine is performance reviews. Some companies have implemented very complex performance review processes that require managers to spend long hours over several days sitting in conference rooms with other senior leaders, reviewing their people and talking about development needs succession plans. In many cases, even managers who understand the importance of such a process find it hard to be torn away from the operational demands of their jobs to dedicate so much time to these sorts of activities.
If we HR people could experience the dual challenge of managing a business function while simultaneously managing and leading a team or multiple teams, then more of us might be heartier advocates of streamlining lengthy processes for efficiency, instead of overcomplicating or perpetuating them to the point of diminishing returns.
3. To discover an organization’s unarticulated, unmet needs
Many HR professionals are great at targeting their internal business clients’ needs and then crafting solutions such as training, on-the-job coaching or a new process to meet those needs. Arguably, many HR pros could be even better at this with some non-HR experience. When you’ve worked outside of HR for a while, you learn about business managers’ unmet needs—things that they either haven’t articulated to their HR partners or that they’ve overlooked in favor of more pressing needs. A good example of identifying an unmet need and matching it with a good solution can be seen in a sales trainer who has worked in direct sales. He knows the challenges from experience, and understands how to address them.
The same can be said for understanding organizational problems and figuring out how to solve them. Let’s face it: There are certain workplace conversations that HR people are not privy to, or only hear about later. Many employees are hesitant to speak openly and honestly in front of HR. They either think that they’ll be judged or face retaliation for expressing themselves, or they might simply fear saying something inappropriate. When you move into another job function and stop being the face of HR, you gain exposure to discussions, complaint sessions and water-cooler talk that you might never have experienced firsthand before. By working outside HR, you not only develop a broader view of certain unaddressed needs, but also get insight into those problem areas that aren’t normally articulated (at least not within earshot of an HR manager).
4. To better talk the walk
Working outside of HR can provide opportunities to strengthen your overall business acumen. You’re already well versed in HR concepts and terminology, but now there may also be opportunities to expand your knowledge of such concepts as operational risk management, green-building engineering, or EBITDA vs. actual cash flow analysis. When HR people can speak intelligently about human capital development and leadership and compensation, and can also engage in their company’s “shop talk,” they instantly become more credible to their internal business clients.
An HR professional who understands and speaks the language of the business is viewed as the “complete package”— the kind of person that more and more companies want to hire. As companies strive to find new ways to enhance their competitive advantage, they seek out people with broader experiences, such as HR experts who also have the potential to manage other businesses, and who can be step up when times call for creative ways to leverage talent within the organization. An extensive HR background that is supplemented by proven experience outside of HR shows your capacity for adding value broadly throughout the organization.
5. To know what you didn’t know
The prospect of leaving HR for a while to work in another function is daunting for many. The questions of whether you’ll be good at it or whether you’ll even like it will abound. It’s also true that there aren’t an abundance of value-added jobs out there designed for HR people who have little or no experience in other job functions. But, presuming that those obstacles are overcome (and they can be, in many companies across industries such as financial services, consulting and technology), working outside of HR will help you to learn more about the broader organization in which you work. It will also help you see with greater clarity everything that you never knew—but may have thought you did.
Depending on your current job, your appetite for challenge and your willingness to live with that queasy feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you know you’re out of your comfort zone, a role outside of HR will expose you to parts of the business in ways you might never have imagined.
Making a presentation about the company’s real estate holdings, running a business audit, or even helping to craft a PR strategy for the firm are activities that most HR people can only experience vicariously. None of us can do every job, nor should we try. But moving outside of HR for a while can provide a better sense of everything you were missing before you made the move. Chances to learn more of what you didn’t know before will pop up everywhere. And when you come back to HR, perhaps two or three years later, you’ll bring that knowledge and experience with you, and use it to be an even more effective, strategic HR business partner.