Over the years, Donald Holmes has made his share of career moves. The 45-year-old resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, has worked his way up through the ranks of human resources management, changing companies several times along the way. He’s worked in positions he liked and ones he despised. At various times, he has found himself discriminated against, lauded, challenged and stalled out. There have been moments he felt that his career was perfectly on track and that he was blazing forward like a bullet train; at other times he has wondered if he was about to derail and wind up as nothing more than wreckage on the corporate landscape.
Through it all, Holmes—who now serves as director of human resources for Sea-Land Service, one of the world’s largest cargo transport companies—has managed to continually gain experience and grow. He has used the negative and positive experiences to build a career path, and he believes in taking responsibility for his own success and satisfaction. “You have to be aware that nobody is going to manage your career for you. You can get counseling, you can get advice and you can read books, but unless you have a clear idea of what you’re seeking and have an idea how you might get there, you aren’t going to get the things you want and deserve. You’re going to wind up stalled out and unhappy,” he insists.
Experts agree that in today’s business climate it’s essential for those at the senior level of human resources to maintain flexibility and vision. It’s also crucial for individuals to maintain a sense of self, while keeping a laser-like focus on the corporate picture. To be sure, the playing field has changed and the rules have changed. Notes Jim Stewart, a senior HR consultant for Boston-based Watson Wyatt Worldwide: “Today, an HR professional must be a business person. [Individuals] must be able to take responsibility and break out of the old way of thinking. They must help the organization meet its goals, but it’s important that their own needs are taken care of. The golden handcuffs—staying at a company for many years and receiving automatic promotions—has been replaced by the need to grow and develop.” And that sometimes means changing companies.
Avoid a single strategy.
Be flexible and true to yourself. It’s tough enough to deal with the potholes of any career path. But for those at the top—senior-level HR managers and executives—the going can get especially rocky. Not only do fewer positions exist at the top rungs of the corporate ladder, many individuals now find themselves under greater scrutiny and pressure than at any time in the recent past—especially as organizations push to reengineer, downsize and restructure, while embracing new technology and new systems to process work. It’s certainly no news flash that today’s HR department is under greater pressure to become a strategic partner and perform. Those who manage at a senior level increasingly are expected to deliver solid results.
These days, changing jobs or companies requires plenty of thought and introspection. Of course, there are issues involving the timing of the move; whether changing jobs is actually going to advance one’s career or provide meaningful growth opportunities; how well one will adapt to a new environment; and deciding what is necessary to maintain a career path and vision for the future. Says Gary Krauthamer, founder and partner of Krauthamer & Associates, a Chevy Chase, Maryland-based firm that conducts executive searches for some of the nation’s top companies: “It’s an exceptionally difficult issue, and one that’s extremely personal. There’s no single strategy that works in every situation. It’s a matter of being flexible, adaptable and in touch with one’s own goals and ambitions. There are valid reasons to change jobs—and for companies to want change. It’s a matter of making all the pieces fit properly.”
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of roadblocks along the career path. And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out that anxiety, frustration and even physical symptoms can develop if one feels trapped in a pool of corporate quicksand. Those on the front lines of senior-level HR certainly have discovered that phenomenon. Some have found themselves butting up against advancement ceilings; others have discovered that they’ve completely outgrown a position and must search for something new and challenging. A few have fallen into companies where they feel incompatible or uncomfortable; still others find themselves reacting to the winds of change within an organization—anything from reengineering to a major acquisition or divestiture. As Steve MacGill, an HR consultant in the Chicago office of Ernst & Young, explains: “There are as many issues as there are people. Yet for those willing to embrace change and adapt their lives and their careers, tremendous opportunities still exist.”
Just a couple of decades ago, most senior HR professionals found themselves overseeing the management of transactions and serving as an advocate for the employee. Today, senior HR professionals require a broad and general level of knowledge. They must be well-versed in business and be able to sit at the table with other members of the senior management team who represent production, sales, finance, marketing and other departments. “The career track is moving away from the highly technical side of the HR business and toward understanding and interpreting principles, concepts, programs and processes,” explains Bob Marshall, president of the Marshall Group, a Scottsdale, Arizona, firm that has worked with hundreds of companies to recreate and redesign the HR function. According to Krauthamer, those who are able to become a strategic resource will find themselves catapulted to greater heights than they might have ever thought possible.
Be aware of different roadblocks.
One of the first things Holmes learned was that there’s no magic formula for achieving success. There’s also no way to know that every career move is the right move. From his entry into Corporate America in the mid-’70s until today, Holmes has worked hard to maintain a perspective about his career and take responsibility for personal and professional growth. He has made decisions and then lived with them—choosing to use both the good and the bad as learning experiences. “You have to put energy into achieving the things you want, need and deserve,” he says.
With more than 1,800 employees under his leadership within North America, and with a company that rakes in $3.5 billion in revenues annually, one might speculate that Holmes has been on the executive fast track from the beginning. But that’s simply not the case. After earning a college degree and attending graduate school, he began working in actuarial science for Philadelphia-based Penn Mutual Life in 1973. Eight months later, he bailed out of the job when he realized that it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. That’s when he entered human resources, accepting a position as a recruiter at the same firm.
A couple of years later, Holmes accepted a position at a bank, where he established an affirmative-action program while serving as an employee-relations specialist. Then, after a stint at ARA Services, where he held the title of personnel manager in the company’s Philadelphia headquarters, he moved onto Smithkline Beckman (later to become Smithkline Beecham PLC), where he worked as manager of personnel relations in the company’s consumer products division. That was in 1983. After assuming a management development position in HR, he returned to consumer products as director of HR. Finally, in 1990, he moved to Sea-Land as director of HR for the company’s Atlantic Division. Two years later, Holmes became director of HR for all corporate staff functions and two of three major commercial divisions. He now serves as director of HR for operations, finance, labor, law and quality.
Interestingly, Holmes has had a different reason for every career move. At Penn Mutual, he eventually outgrew the job and felt that he was a big fish in a small pond. At ARA, he felt he had hit an advancement ceiling and was the target of discrimination. He believes that he wasn’t given the same opportunities for advancement as his colleagues because of race. In addition, he was the recipient of comments that were less than encouraging about his prospects for the future. Because of the merger at Smithkline Beckman, he recognized that his career opportunities would be limited in the future—despite the fact that he liked the job and wanted to remain at the organization. So, when the opportunity came to head HR at Sea-Land’s Atlantic Division—a $900 million division with 2,000 employees—he jumped at the chance.
“In every instance, I wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing,” says Holmes. “At Smithkline Beckman, I felt somewhat hesitant because I didn’t know if I wanted to be taken out of a line position and wind up as a corporate specialist. It wasn’t until I left the position that I realized how much it had helped me.” Not only did he have an opportunity to achieve success and gain a reputation, the position gave him tremendous exposure to the organization and the inner workings of senior-level operations. “I never imagined the position would pay off the way that it did,” he says.
The one thing that Holmes learned early on is that new challenges and opportunities aren’t necessarily always linked to moving up the corporate ladder. “As companies have become flatter, a promotion or a more prestigious job title can’t be viewed as the only reward or gain,” he says. “You have to think about the next assignment or activity and how you can make an impact on the company. If you do that, you’re going to feel fulfilled and achieve success. It’s a different way of thinking about the organization.”
Such an approach is essential to surviving in a new corporate environment. “If you’re unable to gain the experience you need at one company, then it becomes necessary to acquire the knowledge and experience elsewhere,” Marshall says. Like Holmes, he believes that as the organization continues to flatten and the number of jobs at the top becomes limited, lateral moves that provide greater understanding, knowledge and exposure become more important. “What others might view as a move sideways actually might be helping one build a solid platform for moving upward in the future,” he says.
Grow or go.
The decision whether to stay at a company or move on to another can be difficult and painful. But in today’s complex corporate environment, coming to a crossroads in one’s career is as inevitable as an annual message from the president. Says Stewart: “Most people can use coping behavior and defense mechanisms only so long. If [people] aren’t valued for what they can bring to the table, they’ll find another place to go. If they don’t feel as though they’re growing, they’ll make a change.”
Diana Parkinson-Tripp is an example of a senior-level human resources professional who’s always on the lookout for new challenges. The 43-year-old is director of compensation and benefits at Haworth Inc., a $1 billion, privately-owned furniture manufacturer located in Holland, Michigan. Parkinson-Tripp previously worked at Skokie, Illinois-based Bell and Howell as corporate manager of employee benefits; and at Chicago-based Beatrice as manager of defined benefit plans, before moving onto Haworth, a company with 7,000 employees. She has been at the company since 1989.
“I have always looked for opportunities to grow and expand, but at the same time kept a base point within benefits and compensation,” she says. “Money has been important; family issues have been important. But the driving force for changing positions and companies has always been a feeling of getting stale and feeling like it’s time to move on. At times, I’ve felt like I’m listening to the same music at a different show.” During her six years at Haworth, she has managed to remedy the problem by asking for greater responsibilities—even if it hasn’t meant a promotion or a fancier job title. So far, the company has obliged. Most recently, she was given the task of overseeing the employee health and fitness centers.
Whenever Parkinson-Tripp does consider a new job at a different company, she takes several factors into consideration. Perhaps the most important issue, she says, is how the organization views human resources, and how much value and respect it puts on senior positions. “Some companies talk a great game. They put these wonderful words in their mission statements, but you find that there’s very little to back up all the rhetoric. They still view HR as little more than an adjunct.”
How does she deal with that potential problem when she’s interviewing with prospective employers? To begin with, Parkinson-Tripp does as much research as possible on the firm—mostly by talking to colleagues, including outside consultants who’ve worked with the company. Then, while being interviewed, she asks plenty of questions. “Some companies like that and some don’t—they feel they’re being placed on the spot.” If she senses that there’s a feeling of uneasiness over her questions, she isn’t adverse to asking why. “They’re painting a picture by what they say, how they say it and what they don’t say. It’s important to pay close attention. At the senior level, they’ve already determined your capabilities and talent. It’s really more of a chemistry match between personalities, beliefs and cultural attitudes.”
Regardless of what’s discussed during the interview process, it’s clear that the norms are changing. In today’s work environment, people do change positions far more often than in times past. Stewart describes it as a portable career. In other words, a person stays at a company long enough to gain valuable experience and then moves on—if opportunities for advancement or growth don’t exist. Typically, that translates into a move every three to five years. Of course, the approach is far removed from the paternalism of the past—where employees were blindly loyal and stayed at the same company their entire career. “Today, there’s a quid pro quo,” says Stewart.
Corporate cultures vary. Walk softly.
Although changing companies may be the best move at a given time, it can be difficult and nerve-wracking. Making all the pieces fit can be a daunting task—regardless of an individual’s knowledge or a company’s reputation. When John Ritchie decided to make a switch to TDS Computing Services in Milwaukee six years ago, he examined the company closely to make sure it was a solid match. He found an organization that valued its work force, respected senior management, provided opportunities to contribute and utilized leading-edge technology within HR. Moreover, the company would pay for his MBA.
Ritchie, presently vice president of HR and total quality management at the 5,600 employee firm, nevertheless discovered that he had to make major adjustments. Although he had worked within the upper echelon of HR at other companies, his knowledge and expertise didn’t translate directly. “It’s a huge wake-up call when you start at a new company and you’re trying to apply previous experience to a new environment and new people. The rules are different, the entire ball game is different. Adapting to a new culture requires a degree of humility and an openness to change.”
Still, assimilating into the new culture is often a delicate and nettlesome issue. The challenge, says Stewart, is to bring the desired skills and qualities that one possesses into the new organization, while not rocking the firm to its foundation. In other words, a bit of sensitivity and introspection goes a long way toward meshing with the new culture. Says Parkinson-Tripp: “Above all else, you have to earn respect. And the only way to earn respect is to know and understand how things work and why. You can’t go in and make changes too quickly—even if you’re absolutely convinced it’s the right thing.” She believes that it’s important to serve as a facilitator and to listen carefully to what people are saying. It’s also crucial to understand the subtleties of the culture. “You don’t want to bring a Chicago answer to a Holland, Michigan, problem,” she says.
Sea-Land’s Holmes has learned that different industries require drastically different management styles—and that it’s a good idea to know that going into a new organization. Over the years, he has worked at companies, such as Smithkline Beecham, that have prided themselves on using a gentlemanly approach. Politeness, civility and a soft-spoken demeanor were emphasized. However, when he arrived at Sea-Land, he found himself immersed in a culture that was nothing less than macho. “Management is predominantly male dominated, people pride themselves on hard work and long hours, and everyone is very knowledgeable about the company. It became very clear that I couldn’t apply pharmaceutical-industry thinking. I had to adapt to the culture, while retaining my skills and applying my knowledge,” he says.
Family and personal issues also enter into the equation. For example, when Parkinson-Tripp took her present job at Haworth, the job required a move from Chicago—a place she had worked for more than 15 years. Because her husband is self-employed and her children were young, there weren’t any major roadblocks. In fact, the only real relocation issue for her was that she didn’t want to move away from the Midwest, a bias that nixed several possibilities. “There are things I will compromise on and things that aren’t negotiable,” she states.
And, more often than not, timing is everything. The right job at the wrong time can create enormous obstacles; being prepared for new challenges and positions is a key to seamlessly making a transition. Wood Kinnard, who spent 11 years at Sprint Corp. in Kansas City, Missouri, saw all the pieces fall into place for a major move earlier this year. The director of employee development felt he had outgrown the job and that he needed fresh opportunities and challenges. Giving up the corporate offices and 16 business units wasn’t easy. Nor was it painless to leave a company he genuinely liked, and one where he had a great benefits package, including a pension. He contemplated the issue for six months, finally realizing that he had to go outside Sprint—and that the timing was right. “I realized I couldn’t let a benefits package rule my life, and that if I didn’t take a risk, I might not have such an outstanding opportunity again.”
That opportunity came from Personnel Decisions Inc., a Minneapolis-based consulting firm with 500 employees, worldwide—about 10% of the employee base he worked with at Sprint. Although Kinnard has a law degree and corporate expertise, he wanted to remain within the HR field. So when PDI approached him with an offer to become general manager of the firm’s Chicago office, he engaged in extensive interviews and discussion. He examined the company’s business practices, its value system and its opportunity for growth. That made it clear that he had found the right job. But it also was the right time. The 42-year-old was no longer caring for his ill mother, who had died a year before. And his teenage children no longer required as much attention as in years past.
Kinnard also considered where he was in his life and how his values would be affected. “I knew that at this point in my life I can’t work at a company that doesn’t fit my value system. When I was younger—and when my children were younger—that might have been a bit different. I might have overlooked a lot of things. But I like to think that a person reaches a point in his life where he’s able to ignore things that are unimportant and superficial and concentrate on what makes him feel satisfied.” Two decades in Corporate America also have taught him that bigger isn’t necessarily better. “You can’t worry about all of society’s measures—you have to worry about your own,” he reasons.
Choices involve some risk.
Regardless of whether one stays at a company or moves to another, experts agree that the essential quality in the ’90s is flexibility. As organizations become flatter and broad-based teams become more common, senior-level HR professionals must understand how to adapt—and help workers adapt. As new technologies and new knowledge enter the organization, it’s crucial to upgrade skills. “A lot of what senior HR professionals will need to know in three to five years doesn’t exist today,” says Krauthamer. It’s also crucial to understand the broad perspective of the business. “If management asks you to sit at the table and become a strategic partner and you aren’t ready, you’ve set yourself back and the company back,” Krauthamer warns.
Marshall also believes that it’s essential to maximize learning opportunities. “These are the days of the senior generalist. An HR executive must have both knowledge in a wide array of areas and leadership skills. There are still those who will work at a company for several years in the same capacity, but it’s increasingly important to gain exposure to as many HR functions as possible. The bottom line is adding value, and if you’re able to do that, you’ll be considered an asset, wherever you’re working.” Adds Stewart: “Today, reputation is everything. One’s knowledge, ideals, vision, leadership, credibility, judgment, honesty and integrity are what companies look for.”
The way many see it, change is inevitable and desirable. The key is making good choices, and also learning and growing from occasional mistakes. Says Parkinson-Tripp: “Staying too long at an organization can hurt in the long run—for both employer and employee. The company needs fresh ideas and new people coming in to stir the pot, and individuals need to recharge and have new opportunities. My father worked at the same company for more than 40 years, and the question always was, ‘Why are you changing jobs?’ Today, the mindset is different. The question is: ‘Why aren’t you changing jobs?’ Growth is the most important thing.”
Personnel Journal, October 1995, Vol. 74, No. 10, pp. 100-107.