A while back I moderated a discussion of HR senior vice presidents of Silicon Valley star companies about what it takes to lead a world-class HR career. We talked passion. Commitment. Walking that hard line between serving the corporation vs. serving the employees. And, of course, the whole seat-at-the-table thing came up. But one special distinction that they all agreed to took me by surprise:
To be able to really make it all the way to the top in HR, you must be willing to lose it all.
Why? Because it’s part of your job in HR to deliver unpopular news now and then. No matter where you are in your HR career, you are an adviser to someone. And, as such, you can play the role of being a passive ear or even a cheerleader. That’s appropriate — especially in your earliest years. But the higher up the ranks you go, you’re going to find yourself hearing some very knuckle-headed notions — perhaps even the hatchings of strategies that are flat-out criminal. And you’re going to be put in the position of saying to increasingly powerful people, “No, you can’t.” Eventually one of those people might say right back to you: “Oh yeah? Well, guess what. I’ll have security meet you at your desk.”
Are you prepared for that moment? If you aspire to the top HR spot, you might want to think about building a career in which you’re prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. One of those Zen challenges, you know?
Here are some of the issues to consider as you navigate that path:
- Keep building that financial cushion. We all know about saving for the rainy day. You’re also saving for The Moment of Truth. When it comes down to your values or next month’s mortgage payment, you will want to be able to take care of both.
- Know what your values are. We’ve seen so many business headlines in the past decade that have prompted the question, “Where the heck was HR during all this?” Where will you be when you start seeing shenanigans coming down from the top? Upfront and center, speaking your mind? Or head down at your desk hoping it will all go away soon?
- Be known as someone who is alternatives-oriented. Sometimes a really bad idea is just the first idea that has occurred to the other executives. And, if a better (or legal) alternative comes from someone they respect, they just might pay attention. Whenever I hear of HR being the corporate moral conscious, I always cringe. It makes you the corporate scold. Where’s the fun in that? But, if you’re known as a resource for creative alternatives, then you will be consulted more often and listened to more willingly. If your track record up to that point has been a long series of creative yes’s, then one one-in your-face “forget about it” won’t be such a bitter pill for your colleagues to swallow.
- Circulate. We know the value of networking for looking for a new job. But here I’m talking about the value of networking before you’re out of work. That network you’ve been building will give you the soft place to fall, should you discover that your truth to power is sending you to the unemployment line. These people already care about you. They know who you are and your ethics. They get that if you’re out of work, it’s probably for a very good reason. And they’ll activate the job-search grapevine to help get you landed pronto.
I hope it never happens to you. But if it does, remember you’ll be graduating into some excellent company. And be glad you prepared for this situation ahead of time.