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Five Sure-Fire Ways To Derail Your HR Career

Originally published in Boss Magazine.

At the start of the year, I wrote a piece on five qualities that I thought were common in fast-rising HR leaders.

While I’ve watched some of the most influential leaders rise from early in their HR careers, equally I’ve seen many talented HR professionals fail in leadership roles, lose their influence, and some not even get to the top at all.

If you’re in the HR profession, and you are looking to get to the top, look out for these five career derailers:

1. Making Short-Term and Erratic Career Moves

The resumes of the best HR leaders do not, over time, involve job hopping that raises eyebrows. There are plenty of valid reasons why exceptional HR talent may need to switch jobs, but be prepared to have short moves scrutinized. Choose your career moves extremely wisely and, before jumping, get the advice of experts. There will always be attractive jobs in the wider market, but having an overly jumpy resume will narrow down your options. Especially amongst those companies who value stability and loyalty.

2. Getting Caught up in Building Your External Profile

It may defy logic, but some of the best HR career leaders I’ve come across are relatively low profile outside of their company. In fact so much so, that I often refer to some of the highest potential HR talent as “the hidden gold”. These individuals are often very focused on the work at hand, and doing their best, sometimes to their detriment, and certainly at the cost of being known in the wider profession. It’s important to develop an external profile through written content, interviews, or speaking engagements. However, some people get fixated with their image and I believe this focus can be a derailer, unless you are so innovative that people don’t tire of your content or messaging.

3. Being Out of Touch with Business and HR Teams

The best HR leaders are very popular in their businesses. I’m not talking about “flash in the pan” popularity. I’m talking about them being well liked because they have robust business relationships, they are in touch with the business’s issues, and their expert HR opinion is well regarded. The same goes for HR career leaders with their own teams. With this in mind, it’s important to develop an action-oriented style where you drive change availing in the HR strategy, but remember that having the buy-in of the business–and HR structure–on this journey is the key to your success.

4. Getting Too Specialized

There is a strong demand for specialists right now in the HR profession. In fact, year-by-year, the profession is developing more areas of specialization. I believe we will see far fewer HR generalists and HR business partners in the future. It’s important to realize, however, that with HR models becoming more siloed with areas of specialization, it’s equally important to accumulate different areas of HR specialist experience. You want to be as agile as possible in your HR career growth. HR leaders who get too specialized will find, as they try to rise towards the top, that this could limit their career options. Of course, you could globally top your specialist profession, but if you hunger for the CHRO job or even the Regional HR Head job, you need to be more rounded.

5. Becoming Too Execution-Focused

Initially, talent who execute well–and get things done–can be very popular. But there does come a time over your HR career when leaders will crave human resources talent who can push back. They will look for that person who will challenge a view, proactively suggest solutions to complex business HR issues, and network internally to pull together a team together or to delegate. Those HR leaders who can go out on a limb with a controversial view, but know they have support from the business by having built-up influence, will ultimately be preferred over those who can simply just get things done.

Learning from failure and setbacks is an important part of any career development and can be as important as trying to replicate what has worked for others. By no means are these the only ways to limit your career potential, but these five career derailers are certainly worth thinking about as you plan your next HR career move.


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