Every HR professional should do a ‘tour of duty’ at a startup

Our roles are no longer just responsible for talent. This is why taking a tour of duty at a startup is a helpful for HR professionals.

Every HR professional should do a ‘tour of duty’ at a startup

  • Experience in the U.S. Army helped prepare me for life at a fast-paced HR technology startup, where opportunities for learning come fast.
  • These three skills can help you quickly diagnose problems and develop tailored solutions: data-driven decision-making; being agile and flexible; and having a solid understanding and vision to support your business.
  • The status quo of HR has changed to become strategic business partners who tie their work to the organization’s core objectives.

From my days in the U.S. Army, I know firsthand that deployment—your tour of duty—is a defining part of your service. The skills you spent months and years training for are put to the test, oftentimes in high-pressure environments. I find the same is true in business. At any job, you’re stress-testing your skills and working alongside your colleagues toward a common goal. The situations you encounter are not always predictable, forcing you to throw the playbook you’ve so closely relied on out the window and simply trust your instincts.

This is particularly true in the fast-paced world of a startup. I’ve found that traditional organizational lines are often blurred, and the cycles of learning come fast. Value is derived from an individual’s ability to quickly diagnose problems and develop tailored solutions that make sense for a business at any given phase of its life cycle.

These changes have created an avenue for HR professionals to become key drivers in organizational performance. Our roles are no longer just being responsible for talent. This is why I think taking a “tour of duty” at a startup is a great experience for HR professionals.

3 key skills that HR professionals can gain at a startup

In a startup, you have the ability to gain invaluable skills related to business operations that position you as a strategic partner and key driver of business results. You’re exposed to an unstructured and fast-paced environment, which often requires an agile and out-of-the-box mindset. You can develop and enhance these essential skills, gaining valuable hands-on experience.

1. Data-driven decision-making

The decision-making process and feedback loop is much faster in a startup. Everything happens quickly, including the potential negative implications of any decision made. Implementing sustainable change requires skills in critical thinking, learning to be adept at data and analyzing people analytics to drive decisions and outcomes.

2. Agility and flexibility

Being quick on your feet is now a required skill for any HR professional. Embracing a startup mentality means moving away from structured, bureaucratic decision-making and toward a more collaborative and sometimes uncertain environment. I’ve personally learned that the “whatever it takes to get the job done” mindset rings true. It means abandoning the restrictions and rigor of a larger enterprise, freeing you up to be more creative, innovative and unconstrained.

3. Understanding the business

Working as a cross-functional partner is a crucial skill you can develop while working in a startup. To succeed, startups need speed and collaboration across all functions of the organization. It requires having a solid understanding of the structure and operations of all areas of the business. The experience you’ll gain as a result of being so connected to all departments is unmatched. You’ll get to apply the full range of your HR expertise on a continual basis.

How to pursue a new opportunity

If you’re up for the challenge of a position at a startup but don’t know where to begin, there are a few strategies you can try. Start by seeking networking opportunities that get you in front of potential employers or colleagues. You can also research and identify startups that align with your values and interests. Finally, in your résumé, highlight the skills you can bring from your current role that could be a value add for a startup, especially in its early stages of growth.

But don’t be afraid to see if some of these opportunities already exist within your current organization. You don’t always have to leave to find new career challenges or upskilling opportunities. What’s most important is that you are continually seeking ways to evolve your career beyond just human resources.

More than ever before, the status quo of the HR role has been challenged. It’s paving the way for our profession to be more strategic business partners and directly tie their work to the core objectives of the organization. Working in an agile environment like a startup can allow you to further cultivate your leadership skills, which is a meaningful step forward in your career.

Darren Burton is the Chief People Officer at Eightfold AI, leading the development and implementation of people strategies and HR activities across the company.

This article first appeared on Forbes in May.

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