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Your Next HR Role: To Specialise or Not To Specialise?

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Does being an HR generalist mean you’re holding your career back? Or does your broad understanding of a company’s most complex resource stand you in good stead for more senior roles? We share our insights into why keeping your options open can be a good thing and how to do it.

Does Being a Generalist Hold You Back?

Being a generalist means you know a lot about a lot. But you don’t know any one area to the same depth as a specialist.This might be fine if you want to continue working as a generalist or remain at your current level. But if you have aspirations to be an HR Director at some point in the future you could find yourself at a disadvantage when competing against those with a more varied career path.And, should you find yourself at the heady heights of HR Director without any expert knowledge, you’ll be basing your decisions on papers written by your specialists without the knowledge to be able to question their recommendations.If in doubt, have a chat with a specialist HR recruiter. They should be able to tell you how their HR candidates are progressing their careers including any moves to specialist roles that have bolstered their expertise. For example, one HR generalist we’ve worked with recently has gained experience in Reward which has allowed them to move on to become a Senior HR Business Partner.

Can Specialising Be a Disadvantage?

Understanding which moves to make at which stage of your career is not always straightforward. In our experience, there are several things to consider to help you get it right:

  • What to specialise in – those who start as specialists in resourcing often struggle to progress into generalist roles as they don’t broaden their horizon.

  • How long to specialise – staying in a specialist role for too long can make it more difficult to move into another niche, particularly if you’ve failed to keep up with changes in other disciplines

  • The level of role – if you choose to specialise and end up being promoted, you could find yourself in a senior position making it more difficult to take a sideways step onto another career path. If this happens, you may need to take a step backwards in order to go forwards.

While there are definitely benefits to specialising, how you go about it will make a big difference to your future prospects. Here are our recommendations about how to make your career moves effectively.

Think About the Long Game

A strategy is essential to help you achieve your career goals. Not everyone wants to be an HR Director, but if you do then some specialist experience is likely to stand you in good stead. However, if you want to be Head of Resourcing, Learning and Development or Reward and you’re currently an HR generalist you’re definitely going to need experience in the relevant niche.Once you know where you want to be, map out the relevant career steps to help you get there using the following tactics.

Know Your Strengths

If you’re terrible at numbers and hate detail, specialising in Reward is a recipe for disaster. But if you love interacting with people and get a kick out of helping people learn, a move to L&D is likely to be a better fit. Nobody’s perfect, so understand your strengths and work with them.

Broaden Your Experience

If you’re starting out as a specialist make the effort to accumulate more general experience. Ask to sit in on cases and offer to take notes ensuring you’re involved from start to finish. Or see if you can represent HR on a business-wide working group to get an understanding of the challenges that face the business in a more generalist area like diversity and inclusion. If you’re a generalist, make yourself stand out by specialising early on in your career. Learning different methods to recruit or train people or becoming an expert in data management will stand you in good stead later. Just make sure you don’t stay in one role for too long. Short-term secondments are excellent at helping you gain experience while ensuring you can go back to your old role to keep your hand in. While the security of a secondment would be ideal they aren’t always available. So you may need to take the plunge and take on a temporary contract in another organisation. It’s likely you’ll have to find another job at the end of the contract, but you could gain even more experience by working in a different sector which will expose you to new ideas and different ways of working. Keep an eye out for our latest blog on this topic.

It’s Your Career – Own It!

It’s your personal responsibility to improve yourself and get your CV to where you want it to be. There are plenty of ways to keep the door open for your next opportunity:

  • Network with the right people – working with a specialist recruiter and letting them know your career intentions can be the difference between being on the radar for new opportunities and not.

  • Get a mentor – they can guide you and may even be able to point you in the direction of a perfect opportunity.

  • Identify training and development opportunities – this could mean putting yourself through your CIPD qualification if you don’t already have it or attending conferences in the area you want to work.

  • Take on extra projects – put your hand up to front projects that will take you out of your comfort zone and put you on a learning curve. How steep is up to you!

Whether you want to specialise or generalise, use the tips in this blog to take control of your own future and see where your career takes you.