HR professionals often say their line of work can offer a great deal of variety: “Every day is different,” “You never know quite what’s going to happen” or “Nothing is quite so unpredictable as human behaviour.”
This doesn’t quite cover it though — the variety within the profession is vast compared to the variety within a single position. With specializations ranging from governance, executive compensation, diversity, recruitment and workforce analytics to talent management, HR systems and business partners, the opportunities for growth and learning are significant.
And the opportunity to sample that breadth is a valuable one, especially in a world that asks professionals to specialize quickly and often — and earlier in their careers.
Six years ago, I was accepted into an HR development rotational program at a large financial institution, which allowed me to change jobs every six months for two years. This amounted to four rotations in four functional areas of HR.
Following the official end of the program, I completed a secondment before settling into a different, and permanent, position. The program was incredibly rewarding and it provided the most significant learning I’ve had in my career.
Though I was hired externally as a permanent, full-time employee, the HR development program had a limited term of two years so I did worry about what would happen next. But I reassured myself the organization wouldn’t invest all this time and energy in me if it didn’t want me to hang around after the program.
To gain further comfort, I asked a lot of questions: What had been the fate of previous participants? Was it expected all participants would move into business partner roles? Had anyone moved into any other kind of role? Would I be forced to move into a position that I didn’t want just so I would land somewhere? Though most of the participants had landed in suitable positions, there were risks involved and no guarantees — that was part of the deal.
As exciting as the program was, it wasn’t until after I accepted the position that the realities started to sink in. I didn’t really know what I would be accountable for or what would be expected of me. It was possible I wouldn’t have a job in two years and, worst of all, I would have to spend six months in the compensation team during the year-end compensation cycle.
During the program, I rotated through HR project management, employee relations, compensation and HR consulting. And yes, compensation was the most challenging. Luckily, I was supported by a generous team of compensation professionals who went out of their way to help me learn.
It was tough though, probably one of the toughest experiences in my career — I probably cried or said I was going to quit every night at home for weeks. It was my second rotation, I was managing year-end compensation for a fairly complex business unit and I had to learn about incentive pools, discretionary incentives (in different currencies), restricted share units, market data, vlookups and Pivot tables. This was not a world I was familiar with, yet I didn’t want to let anyone down and certainly wanted to succeed despite the obstacles.
I will never forget my feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction after completing this rotation. Literally surviving was a success for me. It boosted my professional confidence and built my resilience. I felt if I could get through that, I could get through anything.
In other ways, I became very aware of what I didn’t know in HR. After meeting so many professionals with deep knowledge, I learned that knowing when to admit you don’t know something and when to consult subject matter experts are important skills.
Though I did pick up a lot of technical knowledge, most significantly I had the opportunity to learn about myself and to solidify concepts I’d felt I understood but hadn’t experienced firsthand. For example, working at the same organization under a number of different leaders within such a short time frame, I observed differences in leadership styles and their impact on culture.
Moving between HR business partner teams and centres of excellence made the sometimes healthy tensions between the two groups apparent. I recognized neither side was right, but their different priorities lead to conflict. It made me firmly believe that no matter what role you are aiming for in HR, you need to experience the other side.
The program was funded centrally so participants were considered free resources within the teams they joined. This meant demand for associates was pretty high and often we had a choice regarding rotations.
But there were also some challenges with this setup. On occasion, the work assigned to the associates was not work that would provide a rich learning experience — it was work that had to be done and the team didn’t have the resources to do it. On several occasions, I asked for access to other work to ensure I was making the most of my time in the function.
Each participant had a mentor from the HR leadership team — this was a crucial support to help me sift through my perceptions, observations and learnings. In addition, my mentor helped me navigate the often bewildering politics of the organization.
The experiences I collected during the development program have become part of the HR professional I am today — I hope I never stop rotating.
Lauren Chesney is now an HR manager at OMERS (Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System) in Toronto. She recently used her development program experiences to work on an HR Business Partner and Centre of Excellence collaboration to shape an HR associate program for recent graduates at OMERS. She can be reached at email@example.com or linkedin.com/in/laurenchesney.