“I thought HR was a profession covered in unicorn dust, where I would spend all day making people happy. What I found instead was a rich career that challenged me.”
That’s how Tessa White, CEO of SHE Team, remembers her first year in HR. Like many, she fell into the profession by happenstance. “I knew I liked working with people and I desperately needed to find a way to make a living as a newly single mother of three,” White said. She spent the next 20 years leading HR at startups and Fortune 50 companies, learning more than she ever expected.
Hindsight may be 20/20 — but given the chance, what career advice would White give to her younger self? We asked HR professionals that same question about their careers — here’s what they said.
1. Speak up early.
We’ve all heard the cliche about earning that elusive “seat at the table.” HR leaders advised not waiting around for company executives to simply pull out a chair with your name on it.
“As a woman in HR, I learned to speak up. I didn't wait for an executive to ask my opinion. When I saw an opportunity to improve the business through a solid people-practice — whether it be training managers on strategy or hosting a change management workshop, I chimed in,” said Laura Handrick, an HR consultant with Choosing Therapy. In her view, the seat at the table was meant to be taken, not given. And with the year we’ve had, few would contest the value HR brings to the boardroom.
White agreed, adding that she didn’t just owe it to herself to speak up, but to her team and whoever took her place. “I wish I had spoken up sooner and more vocally to make my opinions heard. I was so afraid of making a mistake, or being viewed as difficult, that I missed the opportunity to affect change earlier in my career. When you speak up against something that is wrong or unjust, it paves the way for others that come behind you, and it is a way to give back to those who came before me,” she said.
2. Don’t specialize too early.
Most HR professionals start off as generalists and move on from there, slotting into recruiting, compensation, or another discipline. HR leaders recommended pumping the brakes, even if you have your heart set on specializing eventually.
“Looking back, I wish I had exposed myself to all of the areas of HR that I had access to. I would have told my younger self that, yes, specialized knowledge and skills are valuable and important, but a general understanding of all functions will make you a stronger candidate for future roles,” said Betty Rodriguez, a Senior Workplace Analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com. In other words, stop worrying about tomorrow’s big career move and instead focus on learning all you can today.
Naturally, that means you’ll have to operate outside of your comfort zone. But don’t fall into the trap of discovering you do a certain thing really well and then using that to decide your career trajectory. “I wish I would have known how important it is to get general skills and to be a true multi-disciplinary. There are so many facets you're asked to work on, it's important to not rely too much on your strengths,” said Jessica Hayes, Head of HR at Being People.
Brittany King, who now leads her own HR consultancy, had a similar message. “Dear younger, 20-year old Brittany: I know you love recruiting, but take the time to learn, study, and master at least two or three more HR-related fields.”
3. Speak ‘business’ without compromising on people.
People strategy is business strategy. While not everyone is sold on that principle, don’t let that discourage you. “Early in my HR career, I learned that some business executives care less about people than they do about finance and numbers. It's common for an organization to say people are their most important asset, with the focus on the word ‘asset,’” Handrick said.
But rather than compromise on her people-first attitude, she learned to adopt the boardroom’s cold vernacular — keeping her real motives under wraps. “I learned that a good HR professional has to speak in the language of business in order to do the right thing for their people. Employees aren't merely an asset. Smart, motivated, happy people drive the business. It's the HR professional's job to make the translation that good people practices equal better business results for the executive team,” she said.
“Revenue, go-to-market strategy, product engagement metrics, and time-to-value are all connected to planning for talent acquisition, training, and creating a healthy company culture,” said Natalie Morgan, HR Director at CareerPlug. Learning the jargon and understanding what drives business leaders’ decision-making isn’t “selling out,” it’s a competitive advantage.
“There is an enduring place for kindness even in the midst of performance and productivity. I got into HR because I am people-oriented and empathetic, and it was at first difficult for me to navigate tough conversations because I thought it meant I had to shut that part of me down,” Morgan said.
4. You’ll feel alone at first. Don’t get discouraged.
Though HR helps drive culture and improve morale for everyone else, it can be a lonely job. You handle hiring, firing, and everything in between, and are privy to information that most employees, including managers, never see. You’re sworn to secrecy and find out about layoffs or other big changes well in advance. As one HR leader put it, “you live by a code” — and that can breed distrust outside the department.
“If I could travel back in time, I'd tell myself that people in HR aren't ever considered regular employees in any organization. You have to be prepared that people will halt their conversations when you walk by or make a ‘shh’ sound when they register you on their radar,” said Jagoda Wieczorek, HR Manager at ResumeLab. Others shared similar stories, saying wary employees treated their team like the work-equivalent of the principal’s office.
“Will everyone always like you? No. Here's the thing: At some point, you’re going to have to let people go or provide constructive criticism. So my advice, right from the start, is to accept that you won’t always be able to please everyone,” said Pete Sosnowski, VP People and at Zety. But while there will always be a wall between HR and everyone else, Sosnowski says you can still win over employees’ trust through your actions and making your intentions clear.
“Despite what I said earlier, there are some amazing things about a career in HR...One of the core lessons I've learned is that we can make a massive difference in employees' lives,” Wieczorek said. By leveraging that power for good, HR teams can build lasting relationships with the individuals by coaching them through professional and personal challenges. Like others, he took satisfaction in seeing that employees’ distrust turn, in some cases, into lasting friendships.
5. Relax, you’re doing fine.
Veteran HR leaders often reflect on their early years like tours of duty. Bright-eyed recruits, eager to lead people-first initiatives, often end up mired in compliance paperwork, open enrollment planning, and payroll processing. Those early days can be scary, exhausting, and full of self-doubt. Take a deep breath.
“It's okay to feel alone or burnt out in HR. Just remember to take care of yourself. We all have days where everything is on fire and we're so busy that we forget to listen to our own advice that we give employees and managers. Just know that it's okay to feel that way and breathe. The work will be there tomorrow,” said Christine Doan, Training and Development Specialist at NASA Ames Research Center.
Others recommended taking mental health seriously early on. Consider meditation. Take the vacation days you’re owed. Remember that, as impactful as HR can be to individuals’ lives, it is, ultimately, just a nine-to-five.
“The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is...I am not my job,” said Dawn R Ellery, VP of Compensation and Benefits at a financial services firm. When mistakes are made — and they will be — don’t take it personally or dwell on them. Instead, embrace those as opportunities to grow.
“I'd say that any experience is important to you, and you definitely need it. Don't try to avoid making mistakes. Yes, you will make the wrong decisions. But it's still okay. Thanks to these, you’ll know exactly what to do next time. Be nice to you, and keep learning,” said Anna Popova, Head of HR at DDI Development.
While HR professionals had a lot to say about what they could have done differently, regrets were few and far between. Any career, HR or otherwise, comes with unexpected twists. The end result is almost always worth it.
“Honestly, there isn’t much I would have changed. The journey I traveled is what eventually brought me to the HR industry. All of the collective experiences have shaped me into who I am today. This wasn’t my ‘planned career,’ but the journey that has afforded me the many amazing growth opportunities I’ve had within this field,” said Karen Oakey, Director of HR at Fracture.
Still, that didn’t stop her from offering one bit of advice to her younger self.
“Be ready for the ride of your life.”