HR Career Path

HR Career Path


March 10, 2008

Climbing the HR ladder takes a combination of education, experience, and skill. The good news: HR spans so many disciplines that it is not uncommon for successful HR professionals to have widely varied backgrounds, either their first time in or if they depart and return to the field. Similarly, HR pros can follow a variety of career paths, depending on corporate culture and size of the organization. A typical climb up the ladder, however, could include the following steps.

HR Intern

Companies will hire undergraduate and graduate interns to perform a variety of tasks, from data analysis and research to project management. Internships are a great way for employers to assess job fit and students to learn the company culture. For graduate students, an internship will be a critical part of your curriculum. Internships usually last three to six months, but may extend to a year depending on your arrangement. If you are an intern, make an effort to get to know people around you – both to learn more about the organization as well as to start building your own list of contacts.

HR Associate/HR Analyst/HR Project Manager

Entry level HR positions offer your best opportunity to acquire a diverse repertoire of skills, since your next step will include some specialization. At these levels, you will be responsible for portions of a larger project and will work closely with a manager or a senior manager who will review your accomplishments on a regular basis, provide strategic context, and manage your performance. As you establish your credibility, you may even have the chance to lead a few meetings or deliver a presentation to your own or another team. Most people spend three to four years at this level.

HR Program Manager/HR People Manager

As an HR Program Manager and/or People Manager, your scope of discretion and responsibility expands considerably. You typically have complete ownership of a program (say, performance management or the employee stock purchase plan), and manage the people working on its specific portions. At this level, you are also expected to interface and coordinate between different departments and provide regular updates to executive management. If you are a people manager, you will be expected to perform duties such as annual performance reviews, employee development, and regular staff meetings. It is worthwhile for employees at this level to begin thinking strategically, as a stepping stone to the next level in the career position. People typically spend eight to ten years at this level, with at least one transition to another HR organization.

HR Director

HR Directors own the strategic direction and related execution for some portion of the company’s HR deliverables. HR directors are expected to have a thorough understanding of the business and to collaborate with line managers and HR peers to build systems and processes that will accomplish the business objectives. HR directors manage staffs of managers and sign off on strategy and resources. A major part of the HR director’s job involves managing the organization, ensuring that it is optimized to serve the business needs as well as the interests of the employees. Most people spend five years in HR director positions.

HR Vice President

Vice Presidents are responsible for an entire area of Human Resources, such as Total Rewards or Talent Management. Vice Presidents typically are aligned with leaders of the business, working with them to identify and execute on the people strategy for that particular division. HR VPs often present to the CEO and Board of Directors on their specific areas of expertise, and are widely recognized as executives of the company, not just of the HR function. Many HR VPs spend 10 years in their jobs.

Chief HR Officer

The top HR spot goes by many names: Chief HR Officer, Chief Talent Officer, People and Places Head, Chief Culture Officer, and so on. The function, though, is the same. The CHRO owns the people strategy of the company and collaborates with the CEO and the VPs of HR to positively impact all aspects of the employee experience, from the physical environment to their developmental needs. Heads of HR in most companies are at the top of the pyramid, and enjoy the privilege and the responsibility of molding the company’s business strategy alongside the other C-level execs. .

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