How to get ahead in HR

20 April 2016

Author: Kate Whitehead


How to get ahead in HR

With fierce competition for the best roles, you can’t leave career advancement to chance. People Management asked headhunters and HR leaders what it really takes to get ahead

First, the good news: by most measures, demand for HR executives in Asia has never been higher. Recruitment agencies specialising in the function report that businesses of all sizes increasingly understand the value an experienced HR professional can bring, and are prepared to pay for the right candidate. The first Hays Quarterly Report of 2016 on the pan-Asian recruitment market was particularly cheering in this respect: L&D practitioners are urged to head for Hong Kong, while in Malaysia strategic planning skills and reward experience are particularly prized. In Singapore, interims and temporary HR leaders should find a vacancy to suit their talents.
 
Inevitably, however, there is a cloud that comes with this silver lining – supply has never been more buoyant, either. Though LinkedIn is not the most scientific way to measure the depth of any profession, it gives a broadly representative picture, and a cursory search of six of the most significant Asian economies outside China suggests there are at least 43,800 individuals currently working in roles with ‘HR’ in their job title. While Singapore and Malaysia top the bill with 12,000 apiece, there are more than 7,000 in Vietnam and almost as many in Thailand.
 
Standing out from this large and growing crowd is one of the pre-eminent skills for ambitious practitioners. This brings its own problems, since HR professionals by their nature aren’t particularly careerist: they are used to helping and supporting others more than themselves, which means they may not be well-versed in the attributes needed to self-promote and build the skills to take the next step on the career ladder. But there’s no reason they can’t be just as ambitious as any other function. The question is knowing where to start.
 
There are plenty of people who will tell you there is a magic wand that will help you secure your dream job. The bookshelves are heaving with titles that promise instant career success. One of the most pervasive ideas of recent years, for example, has been the notion of a ‘personal brand’ that will make you immediately employable (and every bit as memorable as a bottle of Coca-Cola or a Nike swoosh).
 
The truth may be more prosaic. There is still no substitute for hard work and demonstrable success. But you can choose where you dispense your efforts to maximise your chances of impressing potential future bosses – and one of the most crucial, though less glamorous, attributes of any successful HR leader is proximity to the business.
 
Phillip Welburn, managing director (north Asia) at specialist recruiter Elliott Scott HR, reports that last year his firm asked people in its network for the most valued trait in an HR professional. The resounding answer was ‘understanding people’. When it repeated the same exercise earlier this year, it had shifted to ‘understanding the business’.
 
“The really great HR people are more business people than HR people,” says Bin Wolfe, managing partner, talent at EY Asia-Pacific. “I’ve spent practically my entire career in HR, but I see myself as a business person. A left-handed compliment I often get is: ‘You’re not like a typical HR person.’ There is a common perception of HR people as warm and fuzzy, focused on policies. We are here to enforce and implement policy, which is all part and parcel of the job. But the role of HR is to really understand what we are looking to achieve as an organisation and the implications for talent and human capital, and then to develop a talent strategy that will enable us to grow the company.”
 
What being close to the business looks like will depend on your sector and circumstances. It could entail ensuring you have a voice in important discussions, from board or strategy meetings to internal conferences, or taking a central role in shaping the organisation’s future direction, aligning your talent strategy with a broader vision rather than operating in an HR silo. Or it could be as simple as ‘walking the floor’ to find out what really happens, how decisions are made and how value is generated. The Dave Ulrich-inspired HR business partner model is a common way to create a more formalised arrangement for bringing HR closer to the business. But it’s equally possible to take things into your own hands. One HR director of a large café chain recalls that she rarely saw or heard from the bakers who made up a large percentage of her workforce. The solution was to dedicate at least one morning a week to a 2am start so she could join them on their early shift. Not only did it give her insight into how the business really operated and enabled her to hear problems first hand, it earned her considerable trust and respect across the employee base.
 
“It’s become important for professionals to be able to demonstrate how what they are doing makes a measurable difference to the business,” says Anthony Thompson, regional managing director for PageGroup (Greater China and southeast Asia). “You’ve got to show CEOs that effective HR management can directly impact the business’s bottom line.”
 
But getting ‘outside’ your traditional confines can also mean leaving the industry, the function or even the country. “The great thing about HR skills is that they can be transferred across industries,” says Felix Yip, associate director of the human resources management programme at Baptist University in Hong Kong. “Before I moved into academia, I spent 34 years working in five industries as HR: food, telecoms, a container port, cars and retail. When you have solid HR knowledge and skillsets, you can be successful in HR in other industries.”
 
Yip believes that some newer HR professionals become too deeply immersed, too quickly, in the nuances of the profession. They begin to use HR jargon that alienates them from others in the business. “Moving beyond your functional expertise” is, he says, an important antidote to becoming compartmentalised in your own function.
 
“Having international experience is incredibly valuable since we operate in a global economy,” says Wolfe. “And talent is a lot more mobile so, from a talent management standpoint, having that experience of being in other places, understanding other cultures, is tremendously important.”
 
Welburn says international exposure is one of the things that really sets certain candidates apart for HR roles. If you come across an opportunity to work abroad, jump at it, he says. Even a secondment from Singapore to Malaysia will be a real plus: he sees many clients who are frustrated that they can’t find local employees who have worked overseas. “People move around all the time. Sometimes it makes sense to take a bit of a hit [to your salary], get international exposure and then when you come back your career won’t stagnate – you won’t hit that glass ceiling so early on and you will be in line for a big promotion later.”
 
Welburn also recommends getting experience outside HR if possible. Toyota, Cathay Pacific and other large businesses are well known for the way they rotate individuals between disciplines, while ensuring they gain a strong grounding – and the chance to pick up relevant qualifications and certifications – in particular functions. If you’re in a company that doesn’t have such a system in place, he advises keeping an eye out for those opportunities yourself and being ready to take on something new.
 
In a fast-changing environment where the talent leader often reports to the CEO, Wolfe says it’s important to be open-minded and curious, receptive to learning and agile. Welburn echoes that sentiment. When HR professionals approach him, it’s often because they have hit a flat spot in their career, perhaps staying in a role for too long and becoming too comfortable. His advice is to always be proactive and make things happen for yourself: “Put your hand up for projects, whether it’s M&A or something else. Try and do those extra things and not stay in your comfort zone.”
 
But it’s important to attend to the fundamentals of HR, too. The concept of continuing professional development (CPD) – the process by which individuals develop new skills and knowledge throughout their careers, to supplement the everyday experience they gain on the job – is important as HR increases its influence inside organisations.
 
“Ten years ago, we didn’t talk about employee engagement,” says Yip. “That means if you’ve been in HR for a decade, it’s possible that you might not even know what it means. You need to go through CPD to understand the latest knowledge and concepts – and it also helps with promotion.”
 
CPD encompasses many channels, from reading magazine and journal articles to attending conferences and seminars, watching TED Talks and completing formal courses, online or offline. It is often self-directed, and inevitably it can be hard to fit the idea of professional improvement around a busy job.
 
Increasingly, formal HR qualifications are a useful component of CPD, and a way to demonstrate your commitment to your career, as well as benchmarking and enhancing your knowledge. Welburn says he expects qualifications will become more important over time, as HR professionals increase their voice across Asia. And Shu Khoo, group HR director at insurance giant AIA, says qualifications can more immediately benefit HR professionals in some sectors: “If you’re in an industry where qualifications are important, such as financial services or engineering, having qualifications [as an HR professional] gives you credibility.”
 
But if you’ve got the business acumen, the external experience and the commitment to developing further, what’s the secret ingredient required to truly progress? The answer comes in supplementing whatyou know with who you know – not in a nepotistic sense, but by embracing networking skills that will open doors.
 
Networking is a buzzword, and it’s been misused to make the number of connections you have seem more important than their depth. Grabbing fistfuls of business cards is unlikely to help your long-term career goals, but taking a more thoughtful approach might.
 
It also shouldn’t just involve HR. “Networking with other HR professionals may create the opportunity to progress into other roles, but it’s also important to network with people outside the business, who have an understanding of the commercial aspects,” says Thompson.
 
Khoo says she networks across her industry, contributing to initiatives outside of HR and getting to know people in different functions. She previously taught night classes on a topic related to her industry on a voluntary basis, which helped introduce her to a range of industry leaders. “The starting point of networking with business people is that you want to contribute, particularly if there is a cross-industry initiative. You want to understand more about the industry and a side benefit is that you get to know people and they get to know you and think of you when an opportunity comes up,” she says.
 
This less mercenary approach pays off. When Wolfe was parachuted into Hong Kong in 2008 after more than two decades in the US, she set aside time to network and get to know people. Having studied in the US, her network there grew organically, but on the other side of the world she had to start from scratch. She made good use of the many platforms available to HR leaders and became actively involved with the American Chamber of Commerce and Asia Society in Hong Kong, she says.
 
Many HR professionals find that taking up speaking engagements is a particularly powerful way to build a profile. But networking doesn’t have to take place exclusively offline: blogging or maintaining a considered and relevant social media presence can be a lower-key way to cultivate connections.
 
The prevailing philosophy joining these disparate strands is perhaps curiosity, and a dash of ambition. No matter where you want to get to, understanding what’s next – and what that means for HR, and for business – is likely to propel you. For Wolfe, that means being plugged into the possibilities of analytics: “I laugh when HR people tell me: ‘I’m not a numbers person.’ If you’re not, you are limited in what you can do. You’ve got to be curious about what’s behind the numbers. Let me be clear – I ask the questions, I don’t crunch numbers. The important thing is the questions we ask to get to the heart of the matter. What is the data telling me, and what is the next set of questions to ask?”
 
And, adds Khoo, it’s this constant curiosity and willingness to ask questions that will help you make decisions about your career with clarity, rather than simply being a careerist. “When you are not dealing with complexities that are stretching you, when you can cope with the challenges you face in a role, you should be on edge a little,” she says. “Look for new experiences and exposure. When a new role comes up and I ask HR people whether they would consider it, the first two questions they usually ask are: ‘Is it more senior? What is the job title?’ These things should matter less. You should be asking: ‘Will it bring me more experience? Will it bring me more exposure? What will I learn from it?’”
 
What I look for
Ash Russell
Senior business director at Hays Singapore
 
How can someone with relatively little experience stand out in an HR role?
Living or studying abroad – any kind of international exposure – is always valuable, but especially in Singapore because it means you’re a lot more internationally minded and understand everything outside of the Singapore bubble. Personality is key. In HR, people tend to have very similar skillsets, so to differentiate yourself you need to be able to proactively engage in a conversation, exude confidence or show drive and ambition.
 
What about more senior roles?
That’s more about stakeholder management skills. Someone who understands the business and can build relationships, talk to their customers and stand up to them. Someone who has influence and provides insight, which is mainly to do with communication.
 
Is it possible to promote yourself too much – or, conversely, to be too modest?
I think both can apply. You need to keep yourself grounded. I find that a lot of HR professionals believe they have much better skills than they actually do. They might be very operational but think they’re a business partner.
 
There’s also a lot of competition and a growing number of excellent HR professionals out there. When I interview someone and they don’t promote themselves enough or go into depth about their skills, it can be a hindrance because HR is very generalist so it’s important to highlight key skills and achievements.
 
Can coaching or mentoring help?
I think junior employees need to be coached and mentored. At the beginning of your career, everything ahead can seem quite daunting, so if you can find someone who can help you along it will relieve that stress. Having a mentor can give you a sense of the bigger picture when you’re starting out. They can identify your strengths, help you improve your skills and provide you with a wider support network. You need to find someone who has achieved similar goals to your own and who has the time to give the relationship a go.
 
Continuing professional development – how much and how often?
Throughout your career you should improve your skills as much as you can in different areas. With new technology, it’s more important than ever to stay up to date and ensure your skills are cutting edge. If you don’t keep up with new innovations, you’ll have newer employees snapping at your heels and you could find yourself out of a job. And it’s not just keeping up with new technology. There’s leadership development, dealing with Generation Y – it can be anything.
 
My career path
Debbie Cross
Vice president human resources at Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, on how she reached her current role
 
I started in the hotel industry in 2000 in the UK. At that point, I was doing a specialist role in recruitment and had a background in talent acquisition. I studied for my CIPD qualification and graduated in 2007. It was great to have because it gave me much broader exposure to all areas of HR. I had a chance to interact with other HR professionals in the industry while I was studying, and to learn about HR outside of the hotel industry.
 
When I joined Four Seasons, I knew I wanted to be director of global recruitment. On my first day with the company, I purposefully looked up who was doing that role because I wanted it. I volunteered to be involved in projects, got to know the person who was doing the job and became more visible to the senior leaders, really putting myself out there and sharing successes from my own hotel with them. I got the job four years later, after working with the individual in the corporate office – I took over from her when she retired.
 
After eight years with Four Seasons, I got a call from a headhunter about the opportunity to join Shangri-La. My move to Asia was great for me in terms of culture, the whole work environment, work ethic and differences in HR practices. In my current role, I oversee a really diverse region: from Canada to Europe, the Middle East, India and the Indian Ocean. Coupled with my Asian experience, it means I have a global picture of HR.
 
If you want to get ahead, make yourself visible, get yourself a mentor and volunteer for projects above and beyond your existing job. For those who want to push themselves, it’s always about setting goals. There’s a learning curve in any role, and when you get to a certain comfort level sometimes it’s just good to push yourself to the next level, to go that bit further.
 
What I look for
Richie Holliday
COO at Morgan McKinley Asia-Pacific
 
What makes a successful applicant for an HR role?
Someone who will step up and do more than is required for the role. You want to hire people who are too good for the job they’re hired for. If you’ve got someone who is just capable of the role, that’s great and they could do it fantastically well, but they’re never going to be looking to push forward to the next level. You want someone who is keen to get involved in external assignments and take on extra within the team. The team might already be high-flying, but, if someone can come in and see ways that it can be even better, they will single themselves out and be very successful.
 
How would you recommend someone go about singling themselves out?
There’s been a mindset over the last 10 years that getting exposure and getting known by senior management is an important part of career development. You can go about this the wrong way and try and seek the limelight for yourself. That can be a good thing, but it can also be seen as a bit grasping. One day, the boss is in town and suddenly you’re working until 10pm, whereas everyone in the office knows that you never normally do that. People spot it quite quickly. So you should let your work speak for you. Deliver within and above expectations, but just make sure you deliver. And if you consistently do that, that’s all your organisation could ask for.
 
Is it useful to have a career plan?
A career plan with a timeline is helpful, because we’re all busy people and time flies. If you don’t write down some things you planned to achieve in the first half of the year and constantly remind yourself of them, they may not happen. It can be too rigid: if you are obsessed by it, it can be a little demoralising. There’s always going to be something that comes up and gets in the way of your particular goals. But if you have flexibility in your goals, that shouldn’t demoralise you.
 
Does a social media presence help?
I think it’s important to have a professional online presence – people will want to research you when it comes to an interview. The difficulty is knowing what is an effective way to broadcast your message, whether that’s a tweet or a blog post. Then there’s the sheer amount of noise online – the volume of content that is just put out for the sake of it. People are told they must tweet five times a day, but if you’ve got nothing interesting to say you probably shouldn’t. I’m not a social media guru, but I share a lot on LinkedIn. However, I only share selectively because no one has time to read things you’ve shared all day.