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From HR Business Partner to Head of HR

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It’s not easy to make the leap from HR Business Partner to Head of HR. In the past, career ladders gave HR professionals the opportunity to advance their careers by taking smaller, more manageable steps. But the flatter organisational structures so popular today have made the transition from operational partner to strategic board member far more difficult.

We look at the snakes you need to avoid and the ladders you need to climb when it comes to positioning yourself for the top job.

Flat is Good?

Since the 1990s, HR has been responsible for removing organisational levels both within the business and the HR department itself. This delayering aimed to streamline communication pathways, speed up decision making and enhance efficiency with anticipated cost savings via a reduction in overheads.

Within HR this change culminated in the Ulrich model which advocated a strategic role for HR. HR Officers were freed up to become HR Business Partners through the introduction of centres of expertise (like Resourcing and Reward) and administrative shared service centres.

One of the consequences of this change is that there is now a chasm between career levels, making the jump from HRBP to HR Director feel like a step too far.

Making the Leap

And it’s not only at the most senior levels that this challenge exists. With the removal of some of the rungs on the traditional HR career ladder, it’s now tougher than ever to get from junior HR roles to more senior ones.

In the past, the career path for generalists used to look something like this: <

  • HR Administrator

  • HR Coordinator

  • HR Assistant

  • HR Advisor/Officer

  • HR Business Partner

  • Senior HRBP / HR Manager

  • HR Director

Many businesses now operate with an HR Assistant, Business Partner and HR Director with support from specialist areas roles in Learning and Development, Health and Safety, Resourcing and Reward. This takes a seven step career ladder down to just three roles with a yawning chasm between each one.

The Role Gap

To add to the challenge, not only is the leap to Director level significant, but HR Business Partners are spread incredibly thin.

While there’s no right HRBP to employee ratio (it depends on a range of factors like desired level of support, extent of shared services and desired level of manager accountability), benchmarking shows an average of one HRBP to every 200 employees.

However, this figure ranges dramatically depending on industry with the most favourable ratio of one HRBP to every 145 employees in manufacturing through to one for every 500 employees in the energy sector.

Combined with the removal of more junior roles, the HRBP is required to be both operationally effective and strategic. Which makes it difficult to find time to bridge the experience gap up to board level where strategy and influence is everything.

How to Position Yourself

While it might sound like an impossible task, people do make the transition from HRBP to HR Director. Here are some of the ways our candidates have made the move:

  • Stay up to date with overarching business strategy

  • Seek mentoring from an experienced HRD

  • Put your hand up for strategic projects

  • Continue to develop yourself

  • Build strong relationships up and down and make yourself visible to senior people

Leaping over career chasms isn’t for the faint of heart. Be prepared to put yourself out there, learn as much as you can from a broad range of projects and build your profile as a credible candidate. Even if an opportunity for progression doesn’t come up with your current employer, you’ll be well-placed to make your move when the right role comes up.