January 13, 2021

Building a Career as a Modern HR Operator

I’ve interviewed hundreds of modern HR practitioners over the years. They all have unique approaches and perspectives, but also share some common views and thinking on what’s led them to success. I wanted to distill those traits and couple them with my own career learnings to leave you with some tangible advice on building a great career in HR, people operations, talent, recruiting, or whatever discipline you choose to pursue:

  1. Build your network thoughtfully: When a company hires you, they’re actually hiring the skills and knowledge you possess in your head – as well as the networked knowledge you have the ability to tap into to solve their problems. Be deliberate with your network. Cultivate it like you would tend a garden. Make it a point to add value and help your connections whenever you can. Build where you know you have gaps. That collective intellect will pay dividends throughout your career
  2. Prioritize (and schedule) learning: The field of HR and people operations is only going to increase in complexity. Internal factors, external factors, generational factors, economic and global factors, technology and so on – the variables are endless. Most HR roles are under-resourced and overburdened. That’s just the reality of the job. You have to find ways to push against that gravity pulling your head down into the work and look around to see what’s changing. Make time for learning. Protect it. Block your calendar. Whatever you need to do, do it. This investment in yourself is vital if you hope to stay on top of this dynamic field.
  3. Create a personal board of directors: Most of us have mentors. That concept of mentors goes back to Homer’s Odyssey. That’s too narrow a view for today’s world. What we really need are personal boards of directors. A group of advisors, reflecting different disciplines, roles, backgrounds, and experience levels. A personal advisory board will keep you honest and focused. They’ll push you to pursue things you didn’t think you could do – and help you avoid the things you shouldn’t be doing.
  4. Check your blind spots: We all have blind spots – gaps in our expertise, understanding, or thinking that can cause us to make bad decisions. Check them. Be open and humble about what you don’t know, and curious enough to find those answers. We’re all a work in progress. Don’t be afraid to seek out perspectives you know differ from your own and see what you can learn from them.
  5. Give it away: One of my favorite authors in Austin Kleon, an Austin-based artist who writes about creativity and the creative process. His second book, Show Your Work, was a blueprint for working out loud and infusing open-source approaches in your work. Give freely. Found a great hack? Share it. Built a new forecasting tool? Give it away. The continued evolution of the field is dependent on our ability to break down silos and accelerate others through our own intentional sharing efforts.
  6. Be kind to yourself: The field of modern HR can be rough. Disappointing. And let’s be honest, at times depressing. We’re on the front lines of the highest of highs and lowest of lows of all our employees. Burnout is common. I often heard the analogy of ‘putting your oxygen mask on before others’ during the Covid-19 crisis of 2020. Prioritize your own self-care and well-being in order to stay in this field.
  7. Practice resiliency: If you stay in this field long enough, you will have the scars to prove it. Projects will fail. You’ll be blamed for things you were not involved in. That’s just the nature of the work. You’ll need thick skin and an ability to bounce back from setbacks to build a career in this field.
  8. Be brave: To be a modern people operator requires bravery. Don’t compromise your ethics and lose your voice when it counts. The business and employees are counting on you – even when it’s hard. Even when they don’t know it. You are the expert in this field. Stand up for what you know to be right.
  9. Feed curiosity: The one common trait in every modern people leader I know is insatiable curiosity. The world of modern HR is so complex you’ll struggle without it. Whether your hack is building a ‘things to learn’ list, devouring books or blogs, building things, or whatever else lights you up – make sure you’re finding outlets to learn and try new things. Bonus points if they’re outside the field of HR and people operations.
  10. Build a good name: I wish I could remember who gave me this advice early in my career, but it still resonates deeply. Employers and roles will come and go. Accolades, awards, and recognition will fade. Your name is the one thing you really own. How do you want to be remembered? How do you want to honor the mentors who’ve invested in you? Where do you want to leave the field? If we want to make this industry better, we have to give more to it than we take from it. We have to pay it forward and be helpful.

This extract from Redefining HR by Lars Schmidt is ©2021 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. Lars Schmidt is the Founder of Amplify, co-founder of HR Open Source, and author of Redefining HR (2020).