Career pathways through HR
HR is an incredibly varied profession, containing everything from technical policy to case management to learning and development, and requiring equally diverse knowledge, skills, and experience. It should come as little surprise then, that the career paths taken in HR are as varied as the profession itself.
This article explores the very different career paths of three HR professionals – EL1 Mel Weepers, EL2 Simonne Hillman, and SES B1 Andrew Mann – and what helped them in their journey.
Mel Weepers: HR Knowledge Manager, Administrative Appeals Tribunal
Mel had what could be described as a ‘traditional’ start to her HR career in the public service. After graduating university, she was accepted into a graduate job skills program as an HR Trainee for the (then named) South Australian Department for Environment and Natural Resources. Since then, Mel has worked up through levels across different HR functions, and in numerous government and government-related organisations. Everything from a local city council and state-based agencies, to tertiary learning organisations and federal departments.
Yet she describes getting into HR as ‘a happy accident’. ‘Before I went into the trainee role, I didn’t even know HR was a profession!’ she recalled. ‘But I love HR. It helps so many people.’
Interestingly, at different points in her career Mel has transitioned from managerial roles to HR specialist roles. The first time was because Mel had started a family and was returning from maternity leave. ‘Even though I’d been a manager previously, I wanted to build up my skills again. I’d been out of the work force for a few years and moved interstate, and I wasn’t as familiar with the relevant legislation as I wanted to be.’
Mel made the choice again after she had worked her way up to be Executive Manager at Box Hill Institute of TAFE. After working 70+ hours every week, dragging her young son to work with her on the weekends, and managing a redundancy program, Mel knew it was time to change to something more suited to her needs at the time.
‘It’s about balance and flexibility. For me, the real thing was doing work that I valued, regardless of what level it was. Most of the time, because I have breadth and depth of experience across most areas of HR, I’ve found that I’ve been able to move to jobs I wanted instead of muddling around with jobs that I didn’t really want.’
When asked what qualities or skills have helped most throughout her career, Mel focused on just one: data. ‘The one constant in every job has been reporting and improving reporting. I still get contacted quite frequently about data jobs,’ she said.
‘Most HR people don’t have data skills, and most data people don’t have HR skills. But that kind of work will only get more important, as there is more emphasis on big data and evidence-based thinking. That’s certainly the way I think the profession is moving.’
Although many HR professionals don’t consider themselves data-literate, Mel was adamant anyone can learn. Mel suggested online learning courses, Googling questions, finding online de-identified workforce training data sets, and asking HR analysts if they have de-identified data sets available to practice on. That way, you can play with it and look for trends or changes that are interesting.
‘As an example, one organisation I went to hadn’t done much analysis of their data. While playing around with the data, I noticed there was quite a big leave problem. The manager said, “No there isn’t!” and overall, it looked fine. But there were about 30 staff who were taking about 75% of the unplanned leave. When you can provide insights that others don’t know about, it’s really valuable.’
For those looking to make the step from HR specialist to HR manager, Mel had this advice: ‘It’s really about continually learning, putting your hand up for things, and being keen to find out how things work and why they work in the way they do. But it’s also about strategic thinking and being able to manage people. I try not to hold people to the standard that I hold myself to – it’s about coaching them to be the best they can be.’
Simonne Hillman: Senior Director of Organisational Development, Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC)
Simonne describes her career as ‘taking lots of steppingstones – quite often sideways’. She began her career by studying psychology and serving in the Australian Army. It was only after working in this environment that Simonne realised how much she preferred organisational psychology over clinical psychology, and how closely it relates to strategic HR.
‘People are integral to an organisation. I enjoy that side of the business – making sure our people have the required capability and are placed in roles that ensure the business is operating at its full potential,’ she said.
So Simonne transitioned into HR, first looking after employment contracts and establishments in NSW Health, then moving on to recruitment, L&D, workforce planning, and more in various Commonwealth agencies. Nowadays, Simonne is exactly where she wants to be – in the strategic HR space, leading organisational development across L&D, workforce planning, and workforce analytics for AUSTRAC.
Simonne counts herself extremely lucky to have had multiple opportunities come her way. ‘Don’t knock back opportunities because of self-doubt. Have confidence and belief in yourself; you’ll be amazed what you can achieve. If you were already operating at 100% proficiency, you’d have already moved into the next role.’
But if you find yourself in a role that you’re not enjoying, Simonne says not to stay just because you feel you must. ‘Unless you feel you have an opportunity for impact and to change things, move on.’
An Assistant Director for 10 years, Simonne waited until her family was a bit older before she committed to taking the next step to Director. Two aspects that helped her take that step was her drive and the support of her networks. ‘I’d always be looking for opportunities that provided real engagement where the business stretched me and allowed me to shadow and learn from a variety of different leaders and peers – whether you have an active seat at the table or just an opportunity to observe, make the most of the opportunity, actively listen, learn and ask questions.’
‘I’d also say it’s important to have those people around you who will challenge you. They’re the people who have your best interests at heart, will always back you, and make great mentors later. Learn from those people – and make sure you keep in contact!’
What surprised her most about the EL2 role, Simonne said, is being the middle-man. ‘You’re managing the expectations of multiple groups, interpreting the messaging and needs of the executive to your team and then engaging your team to develop and deliver what’s needed. As the middle-man, you’ve got to understand the detail but also the broader perspective.’
‘You don’t have time to micromanage. Give your staff a high-level overview, then let them work. I used to strive for perfection, but now it doesn’t need to be perfect; I just need to demonstrate there’s been progress.’
For those looking to advance their careers, Simonne had this advice: ‘Understand the business. Make sure you really understand the priorities of the next 12 months – read corporate plans, business plans and speak with people right across the business – you’ll get a lot of great insights. Get your time management skills down-pat. It’s easy to underestimate the time spent managing staff and situations. You’ll find yourself in a lot of meetings. Don’t underestimate the amount of time that takes, and finally be a present and accessible leader.’
Looking ahead for her career, Simonne has big plans. ‘I’m not looking to progress up the ladder just now,’ she revealed. ‘I’d like to move sideways and gain a better understanding of how other areas work within the business, their drivers and how they achieve their objectives. Then when I come back to HR, I’ll have a greater understanding of the broader impacts on the business and its people. The insights you gain from working in the operational areas of the business and with people without an HR background can’t be underestimated.’
Andrew Mann: Program Manager, People Services Branch, Australian Bureau of Statistics
Although Andrew’s career began in hospitality and veered to teaching, it seems like he was always destined for HR. ‘Hospitality is really about people. It has a hard-edged business side to it, but you have to understand people to be successful in that sphere,’ he explained. ‘So I got a good understanding of people, industrial relations, and customer service. I really enjoyed those elements and understanding people’s motivations.’
After some time in hospitality he took a break, working as an instructor for an outdoor adventure learning organisation. Helping people become more confident and live in a more deliberate way is what turned Andrew on to teaching – and from there, he said, it was an easy step to HR. ‘It was that notion of helping others into better versions of themselves that got me into it. I like to be useful and have purpose to the work that I do. That’s where I get my motivation, my energy, my sense of achievement. That’s what draws me to HR.’
After working at the Queensland Department of Education, Training and Employment for 12 years, where he was able to experience many aspects of HR, Andrew decided to go to London. ‘I had itchy feet. I knew that if I stayed where I was, doing what I was doing, I wouldn’t really live. I always want to do the hardest things, not the easy things.’ In London he volunteered in a homeless shelter and set up his own consulting business, before spending 4 years working at a not-for-profit consulting firm. There he specialised in organisational development, helping government and voluntary sector organisations deliver enhanced public value. While in the UK, he also spent 3 years as a stay-at-home dad and his landscape photographs were featured in a number of art exhibitions. Coming back to Australia, it was a natural fit to work in HR in the Australian government.
These days Andrew is Program Manager of the People Services Branch at the Australian Bureau of Statistics. He has 8 direct reports, and about 110 HR staff in 7 locations around the country working to support over 2,500 ABS employees. Before that, he was a Director for about 2 years and an EL1 for 5. One thing Andrew said that certainly helped to step from EL2 to SES was being in an organisation he knew, in subject matter he knew. But as a Band 1, he thinks it’s important to stay inquisitive and listen to others. ‘You’re not infallible. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I’m the SES. I have to make all the decisions,” – it’s a recipe for disaster. If you go in with a bit of humility, people will (more often than not) contribute their best. And the collective “best” is always better than the efforts of one individual.’
Andrew has three key focus points for anyone looking to step up to the executive level.
First: seek a depth and breadth of experience. ‘The more experience you’ve got, the more you get ahead of what’s happening and can shape the environment. As you become more senior, shaping the environment and things outside your control is really crucial. So breadth and depth of experience helps you anticipate what happens next and mitigate or ameliorate impacts.’
Second: understand the business. ‘Understanding the business is absolutely vital if you’re going to be an executive. If you want to have influence in an HR role, you have to understand what your organisation is trying to do. You have to have that line of sight to the organisation’s “customers” – those who benefit from the work delivered. Maintain that internal line of focus and consider what they’re trying to deliver for clients outside.’
Finally: build a strong network. ‘Really put some dedicated time into building as broad a network as you can, and building trust among the people in that network. I listen, and where appropriate, offer to help.’
It’s clear the career paths taken in HR are as varied as the people within it. But one thing they all share is a passion for HR. As Andrew put it: ‘I’m really passionate about people. But that’s such a naff thing to say! What I mean by that is, organisations achieve nothing without the people in them. If you can tweak the systems to make it easy for people to succeed, support them and help them develop, then there’s nothing they and the organisation can’t do.’