Evolution for Generalists

By Kris Dunn

Jun. 1, 2007

So John Sullivan wants to terminate all the hand-holding, silo-building, no-change-creating HR generalists? What am I supposed to do for a living? Self-help videos? Crisis counseling?

    Lucky for me, a career in HR has left me with thick skin and a tolerance for criticism. Rather than fade to the background in the face of Sullivan’s harsh assessment, I’ll learn what I can from his perspective and keep moving forward.

    I’m a VP of HR at a software company with a background as a field HR generalist for multiple Fortune 500 companies. Along the way I’ve had my shins kicked the requisite number of times by employee relations/legal issues, multiple unfilled positions, union drives, etc. In short, I am one of you. My definition of the HR generalist includes anyone in an exempt HR role (at all levels, corporate or field, at any size company) who handles any combination of HR disciplines—recruiting, employee relations, compensation, benefits, organizational development and more. My rule: If you deal with humanity across multiple areas related to human capital, you are a generalist.

    Sullivan’s column, which criticized termed generalists as “HR’s dinosaurs,” sounded like extreme talk radio to me—a shock jock taking an extreme position when the truth (as it always does) lies somewhere in the middle. Mirroring all other functional areas, we HR generalists are a diverse bunch. The Generalist Nation has within it change agents pushing the envelope on a daily basis (call us the velociraptors of the HR world), and we also have dinosaurs embedded in organizations, trying to hide from the meteor streaking across their sky. More important, we have a large segment in the middle capable and willing to add value but struggling to gain traction for a variety of reasons.

    I thought most of the comments submitted in response to Sullivan’s column were on the money. Being compared to an extinct animal with a brain the size of a walnut apparently doesn’t sit well with us—that’s a shocker! Rather than rant at Sullivan or generalize that we simply need to be more strategic, here’s my list of “smart plays” that are key to HR generalists creating results for the organizations they serve. Follow this roadmap, adding a couple of points to give it your unique style, and watch the critics fade into the background:

  • Become a talent agent: Want job security in the face of the baby boomers retiring? Prove to the groups you support that you understand how to source, attract and land the talent they need to succeed. And make it at least 30 percent of your job. I’m not talking about posting jobs or handling the approval process—that may be necessary, but that’s Dinosaurville. I’m talking about picking up the phone, talking to candidates and identifying players, then selling them on your company. Once that round is complete, provide qualified candidates to the hiring manager with a strong recommendation. Once they concur, help them close the deal. Be a headhunter.

  • Institutionalize coaching skills: Sullivan says that people issues should be handled by managers. He’s right, but guess what? Most managers aren’t capable or willing. You have to help them. Go ahead and keep handling the employee relations issues that look like they could set your building on fire, but in between those issues, start teaching and coaching your managers on how to engage employees on areas of concern before interviews involving a witness are necessary. A funny thing happens when you do this. Managers start coming to you for role-playing purposes, positioning you as the consultant you long to be, rather than the henchperson.

  • Be a performance/productivity consultant: To Sullivan’s point, of course you report when performance reviews are due. That’s part of your gig. But is that where you stop? Don’t reinforce the stereotype by stopping there. Being an “upstream” HR generalist—someone focused on minimizing the time spent on transactions and administration in order to focus on activity with higher potential value—means you understand the metrics that drive the departments you serve. Set up a performance management system that enables the organization to establish customized goals and objectives for each unique role. Once that’s complete, you have to be the expert in differentiating “meets vs. exceeds” performance, since these designations by managers drive rewards and results across your organization. Keep learning about the business in which you are embedded.

  • Get on stage and perform: This just in—your managers need training in how to be managers. Regardless of what your budget is or what your company provides, are you comfortable developing on-the-fly, no-budget training in areas like behavioral interviewing, coaching skills and performance management? Can you develop and lead the training? Can you provide ongoing feedback as an observer or coach in these areas? If you haven’t done this recently, stop waiting on others and give it a shot. You’ll be amazed at how much expertise you have soaked up while getting hammered by the issues of the day.

  • Hang out with finance and share your scoreboard: Spending time with the finance folks is good for us HR types. They live off numbers, and we need to be more metric-driven. If you don’t already have HR metrics in place, check out resources elsewhere at the Workforce Management site, along with a dozen selected tools related to this article. (insert hotlink here to toolkit carroll created)And here’s a selection to get an idea of what’s available and get a scoreboard started. Start with the obvious targets—time to fill, cost per fill, turnover by department, etc.—then grow it over time. Bootstrap the scoreboard (use the tools you have; don’t wait on the perfect solution that costs money) and start sending it out to all managers in your company or division. You’ll be surprised by the dialogue you get in return. Publish when times are good, publish when times are bad, and offer cause-and-effect explanations.

  • Automate your processes and openly share procedures: Whether you are in a Fortune 500 company or a startup, you likely have some opportunities to automate or at least distribute information or educate more efficiently. Get an intranet going, automate your forms and do whatever else you need to get out of the business of handling paper. Don’t wait on corporate. Don’t be the chokepoint for getting things done related to your HR practice. You’ll need the time to do other things.

  • Rinse and repeat: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is your HR practice. We have to work on it every day to ensure we evolve.

    Of course, you have to get to these value areas while balancing the thousand other items expected out of an HR generalist (benefits, compensation, policy, etc., etc.), but you wouldn’t love it if it were easy, right? There will be good days, bad days and boring days, but the message is clear: Find time to get upstream and develop your skills. Don’t be sidetracked by the critics.
How much do I believe in the role of the HR generalist? So much so that I’ve committed to writing about HR issues periodically for Workforce Management and daily in my spare time. Keep using the smart resources available at to stay sharp and don’t quit. It doesn’t matter if some people think you’re extinct, as long as you know you’re evolving, and your company’s success is proof of that. Stay strong!

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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