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 – administrative support for the HR team and managers.
- HR Coordinator – more analysis and reporting but still with a strong emphasis on administrative work.
- HR Assistant – supporting more senior roles with a strong element of administration.
- HR Advisor/Officer – likely to be CIPD qualified and advising the business on day-to-day matters and less complex cases.
- HR Business Partner – responsible for an area(s) of the business and for implementing the HR strategy.
- Senior HRBP / HR Manager – responsible for large areas of the business, likely to lead a team of HR Business Partners, feeds into strategy set at an organisational level and is responsible for ensuring strategy is implemented in their business areas.
- HR Director – a board member responsible for setting strategy across all HR disciplines (including Learning and Development, Reward, Employee Relations and possibly Health and Safety) and accountable for its success across the business as a whole.
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 – this will equip you to talk intelligently about business challenges when speaking with senior leaders and build your credibility.
- Seek mentoring from an experienced HRD – not only will a mentor open up connections for you but they can guide you on how to improve your CV and share their insights. After all, they may have been where you are now.
- Put your hand up for strategic projects – there’s nothing like working on a large-scale project to expand your horizons, particularly one that’s outside the scope of your normal role. You’ll get an insight to the kinds of issues people in more senior roles need to consider, the nuances of relationship management and experience about how to position new ideas.
- Continue to develop yourself – if your organisation offers managerial or strategic training ask if you can be considered for it.
- Build strong relationships up and down and make yourself visible to senior people – some of this is in your own hands by ensuring you make the most of meetings with more senior managers. Asking outright how your activities impact their strategic priorities is a great way to learn and shows you’re aware of what’s going on beyond your own sphere. And you’ll also earn brownie points if you can find solutions that work for everyone.
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.