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How Fit Is Your HR Career

April 16, 2009
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Related Topics: Career Development, Your HR Career, Work/Life Balance, Employee Career Development, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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It’s the unspoken tension in the HR profession, especially today, especially in tough times: HR practitioners are, at one and the same time, both the most and least able to manage their own careers. They are responsible for acquiring and managing their organization’s talent, but discharging that responsibility leaves precious little time for them to take care of themselves. They spend all day, every day working to advance the careers of their co-workers, yet often feel guilty about tending to their personal professional well-being.

This dilemma now jeopardizes the careers of countless HR professionals. The workplace has never been more hostile to people in all professions, crafts and trades, but HR professionals are particularly vulnerable. They work in a field that corporate America defines as "overhead," which is just another term for expendable. When the budget ax swings, therefore, their careers are often the first on the chopping block.

The irony of this situation is that HR professionals actually serve both their employers and their co-workers better when they serve themselves as well. Caring for their own career’s health improves their ability both to manage talent effectively for the organization and to help employees realize their full potential. Said another way, HR professionals make their best contribution by focusing first on their own well-being at work.

How is that so? Practicing healthy career habits makes HR professionals more credible—they walk the talk about successful career self-management. And it gives them the tools they need to be effective on the job. When HR professionals care for their own careers, they acquire a better understanding of how to help others care for theirs. They gain the knowledge and the experience to provide the best possible counsel to co-workers.

There’s an equally important second benefit to such an approach. Attentive career self-management also enables HR professionals to be ready for and react effectively to sudden changes in their own fortunes. The current economic crisis will eventually be resolved, but the 21st century world of work will always be a turbulent and challenging environment. Being prepared, therefore, is the only prudent protection against career cardiac arrest—or what most of us call termination.

Thankfully, there are a number of powerful principles and tools for building a healthy career in our modern workplace. They integrate both the best of what was developed in the last century and the new ideas and technology that have emerged in this one. They empower working men and women to direct their own destinies in the workplace so that they can express and experience their unique talent. All HR professionals have to do is take advantage of them and take charge of their careers.

What does it mean to take charge of your career? The following excerpt from my book, "Work Strong: Your Personal Career Fitness System," explores the idea further. The book begins with a very simple premise: In order to achieve true career security in today’s tough times, we must re-imagine ourselves as "career athletes." We must see ourselves as a new breed of worker-champion. Our model is not that of the athletes engaged in professional sports, but rather, the athletes who are most like us. Worker-champions are the workplace version of Olympians, at least Olympians as they were originally envisioned. These champions are not amateurs; they are athletic activists.

Such athletes have a number of special attributes:

They are independent. They decide where and when they will exercise their physical abilities and under what conditions. It might be jogging around the neighborhood or playing in a tennis tournament, but they determine the content and duration of their activity.

They are passionate about their sport. They love the doing of it and are energized and fulfilled by that activity. It strengthens and conditions them, exhilarates and rewards them and leaves them with a pervasive sense of physical and psychological well-being. Indeed, athletic endeavor can actually create a pleasurable physiological response—what is sometimes called a "runner’s high"—that replenishes the spirit as well as the body.

Their goal is to be the best they can be in their chosen sport. Successful athletes continuously strive to excel and then extend the limits of their performance. There is no end to their effort because they believe there is no limit to what they can achieve.

They can be anyone. Athletics are a democratic activity. All of us have a body, so all of us have the inherent ability to engage in and enjoy physical activity. Some of us will perform better than others, but all of us can be athletes and all of us can reach for and attain the peaks of our own personal excellence.

Career athletes aren’t amateurs either; they are career activists. Their attributes are identical to those of athletes engaged in sports:

They are independent. Career athletes decide where and when they will work and under what conditions. It might be for one employer rather than another or as an independent contractor, but they determine the content and duration of their activity.

They are passionate about their field of work. They love the doing of it and are energized and fulfilled by it. It strengthens and conditions their self-expression, exhilarates and rewards their personal growth and leaves them with a pervasive sense of mental and emotional well-being. Indeed, a career athlete’s work can actually create a pleasurable physiological response—what is sometimes called "flow"—that replenishes the spirit as well as the body.

Their goal is to be the best they can be in their profession, craft or trade. Successful career athletes continuously strive to excel and then extend the limits of their performance. There is no end to their effort because they believe there is no limit to what they can achieve.

They can be anyone. Career development is a democratic activity. All of us have a mind, so all of us have the inherent ability to engage in and enjoy the work we do with it. Sure, some of us will perform better than others, but all of us can be career athletes, and all of us can reach for and attain the peaks of our own personal excellence.

We can’t become successful career athletes, however, by simply stating our intention to do so. We also can’t rely on serendipity, fate or good fortune. We certainly can’t look to our employers to make it happen. We won’t transform ourselves into career activists by wishful thinking or by being loyal and dependable and showing up for work every day.

There is only one sure way to establish ourselves as genuine career athletes, and that’s to practice what I call career fitness. This concept is based on two lessons all of us have learned about our physical health. From our earliest days as a child, we are taught that:

• Each of us is individually responsible for the well-being of our own bodies; and

• We must work at strengthening and protecting our physical well-being every single day.
These responsibilities are nontransferable and non-negotiable. When we ignore them, we harm ourselves; and when we accept them, we better our lives.

In the 21st-century workplace, the same facts of life apply to our careers, as well:

• Each of us is individually responsible for the well-being of our own career; and

• We must work at strengthening and protecting the health of our career every single day.
These responsibilities are also nontransferable and non-negotiable. When we ignore them, we harm our standard of living; and when we accept them, we better the quality of our lives.

Career fitness enables us to become career athletes and face down the bullies among our employers. It gives us a new vision for our work and the fortitude and self-confidence with which to redesign the nature of our employment. It transforms the reality of our workplace experience. It alters the possibility in our lives from simple survival to prosperity and fulfillment.

Career fitness will restore us. It will give us back what many of us have lost: our belief in the American Dream. But it will not re-create the past. It will not bring back the gold watch or a workplace built on (seemingly stable) career ladders. Instead, career fitness enables us to reset the conditions of our future. It empowers us to end the abusive behavior of bad employers and to reach for the extraordinary occupational goals that all of us are naturally capable of achieving. It liberates us to claim our right to full citizenship in the American workplace as well as in the American community. Ultimately, career fitness gives us the vision and the tools to transform our work into a personal and potent pursuit of happiness.

How do you translate the concept of career fitness into a fit career?

As with physical fitness, you have to condition your career on a regular and repetitive schedule. You have to develop occupational strength, endurance and reach by working on your seven centers of career vitality. I call these the career fitness "exercises." They are:

1. Pump up your cardiovascular system: The heart of your career is your occupational expertise, not your knowledge of some employer’s standard operating procedures. Re-imagine yourself as a work in progress so that you are always been adding depth and tone to your HR knowledge and skill set and memorializing that enlarged capacity on your résumé.

2. Strengthen your circulatory system: The wider and deeper your network of contacts, the more visible you and your capabilities will be in the workplace. Adding to your network, however, means exactly what the word says—it’s netWORK, not net-get-around-to-it-whenever-it’s-convenient. Make nurturing professional relationships a part of your normal business day.

3. Develop all of your muscle groups: The greater your versatility in contributing your expertise at work, the broader the array of situations and assignments in which you can be employed. Develop ancillary skills, such as the ability to speak a second language or knowledge of key software programs. Such skills will give you more ways to apply your HR capability in the workplace.

4. Increase your flexibility and range of motion: In the 21st century world of work, career progress is not always a straight line, nor does it always look as it has in the past, nor does it stay the same for very long. Moving from industry to industry, from one daily schedule to another, or even from one location to another, is never easy, but your willingness to adapt will help to keep your career moving forward.

5. Work with winners: Successful organizations and co-workers aid and abet your ability to accomplish your career goals, while less effective organizations and less capable peers diminish it. Working with winners enables you to grow on the job, develop useful connections that will last a career and establish yourself as a winner in the world of work.

6. Stretch your soul: A healthy career serves you and it serves others as well. A personal commitment to doing some of your best work as good works for your community, your country and/or your planet is the most invigorating form of work/life balance. It regenerates your pride in what you do and your enthusiasm for doing it.

7. Pace yourself: A fulfilling and rewarding career depends upon your getting the rest and replenishment you need in order to do your best work every day you’re on the job. The human body and mind have limits, and those limits cannot be extended by multitasking or even a BlackBerry. Instead, you have to discipline yourself and your boss to set aside time to recharge your passion and capacity for work.

Understanding what’s involved in these exercises and then performing them on a regular basis is the foundation of a "system" for building career fitness that everyone—midcareer professionals, executives, managers and those just entering the HR field—can use effectively. Think of it as a plan for preserving and protecting your future in the HR profession.

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