Managing the HR Career of the 90’s

By Charlene Solomon

Jun. 1, 1994

Ron Mason knows a good job when he sees one. Throughout his 15-year career in human resources, Mason, 45, has taken on one career challenge after another. He started in academia serving as a dean at Syracuse University in New York, moved into industry—first in banking and then in manufacturing—and then went into communications, beginning at NBC and later going to Reader’s Digest.

Two years ago, Mason was recruited to BBDO advertising agency in New York City, landing the enviable position of senior vice president, director of human resources for the $744 million firm. Today, he’s also one of only a handful of senior HR executives who sit on a company’s board of directors.

What has made it possible for Mason to sit at the boardroom table with the CEO and CFO when others haven’t? What career choices did he make to propel him to the top?

Indeed, what does it take for any human resources practitioner to achieve a successful career today? What are company heads looking for in people who will lead HR departments tomorrow? What skills are necessary now and in the future for the smart HR pro? Is financial expertise imperative? Is line management crucial? What about international assignments?

These questions don’t have easy answers. In fact, the answers could differ by industry and even company. If you’re to successfully manage your HR career in context with today’s overall business climate, however, you must give the questions careful consideration.

Evolving business trends forge changes in the HR field.
No one has to tell you, a human resources practitioner, that the HR profession is fundamentally different from just a few years ago, and is still changing. Led by the dramatic pace of change in business, caused in part by downsizings, increased global competition and technological advances, human resources professionals, numbering more than 450,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, face more complex concerns than ever before. In response to societal and workplace changes, the profession itself is in great flux.

“It’s the most frightening time, but also the most exciting time in the field of human resources,” says Jay Jamrog, director of research at the Human Resources Institute at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Certainly there’s lots of good news for the HR practitioner. The number of HR careers are projected to grow 22% by the year 2000, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) based in Alexandria, Virginia. What’s more, salaries continue to advance. According to a 1993 compensation survey by Crete, Illinois-based Abbott, Langer & Associates, the highest ranking HR executives in large companies earn $250,000 annually. And an SHRM study of 226 HR executives indicates that that figure is up 15% from 1992. According to the study, the top 226 HR executives’ average total cash compensation was $174,000 in 1993—a 14% increase—and their base salary grew 8% from $126,000 to $136,000.

What’s interesting is that more than ever, the people filling the HR profession have come into the field from other functions. According to the Personnel Journal 100 (December 1993), fully 28% of senior human resources executives in the top 100 U.S. companies have been in HR only five years or less. They previously worked in finance, information technology or other line functions.

What makes these transplants qualified to head human resources departments? All signs point to the changing nature of the profession. “It isn’t because these areas have anything better to offer than traditional human resources, but because the vision of the human resources responsibility is blurring,” says Beverly King, director of human resources at Los Angeles Water and Power. “For example, we’re bringing technology to bear on day-to-day HR delivery systems, such as training and self-paced learning. We also need people who understand finance because we’re handling compensation and benefits—and that’s big money. If you can’t master technology and finance, color you gone.”

This type of knowledge indeed is necessary for today’s HR professional. But what about tomorrow? What will the changing shape of business require?

Although no one knows entirely what individual HR practitioners are going to need to know as the profession changes, there’s a consensus that human resources practitioners who want upward mobility have a better chance as generalists. Such workplace issues as flexible work arrangements, virtual offices, contingency workers, business collaborations and partnershipping in new ways, such as “lending” and “renting” employees, make work life much more complicated. Consequently, people must be steeped in experiences from a variety of HR specialty areas.

There are other factors as well that point toward the generalist as the key HR player. First-line supervisors are taking greater responsibility for many tasks performed previously by HR, and outsourcing has eliminated almost completely certain jobs within companies. In fact, according to a 1994 study by Helen Axel at The Conference Board, based in New York City, 80% of executives interviewed already have outsourced services, such as 401(k) plan administration and management development programs—or will do so in the near future. In addition, companies such as Workforce Solutions, which was developed by Armonk, New York-based IBM to administer HR functions and operate as a profit center, are transforming the very way HR services are delivered and viewed.

“Given how many changes are coming about, having generalist skills are more important right now than being a specialist,” says Barbara Jack, manager of information services at Saratoga Institute Inc., a Silicon Valley research firm in California. “You might be hired for one area and that function might be outsourced or phased out. People with generalist skills who can move with changes in restructuring and reengineering are likely to achieve greater success.”

There’s no question, says Jack, that it’s no longer good enough to be steeped in one technical area; you have to be knowledgeable about many of them. And, you have to have an understanding of the bigger picture. Companies increasingly want HR departments to demonstrate directly the value they add to the organization. If a business is in high-growth mode, for example, and needs to deliver product to market quickly, HR needs to have hiring practices and training courses in place to get new employees up to speed immediately. This way, it contributes directly to the business solution.

Fred Foulkes, director of the Human Resources Policy Institute in the School of Management at Boston University, confirms that CEOs today are looking for different qualities in the people who will head up their HR function than they have previously. “It depends on their companies’ particular strategies, but clearly, they want people who are strategic thinkers, business partners, counselors who are willing to give the CEO bad news, if necessary, and tell it like it is,” he says. “They want people who can lead an effective function and be key members of the top team.”

Ron Mason embodies this “New HR” executive. He understands his company’s business. He understands the business of HR. And he understands the business of managing his own career development in a volatile marketplace. He synthesizes the qualities CEOs are looking for: business savvy and an appreciation of how to use human resources skills to bring out the best in employees.

Today’s HR professional must be a business partner.
Without question, a human resources practitioner first must be well grounded in the disciplines of the profession: recruitment, employee relations, training and development, benefits, compensation and managing change. But nearly as important is a good business sense.

“The traditional human resources person was a forms processor and a naysayer,” says Mason. “But today a human resources executive needs to be more of a business manager, a successful executive who understands the business complexities of the company and operates with that mindset. Successful HR individuals are able to articulate the HR technologies in the context of business realities.”

Indeed, experts agree: HR practitioners must have a business background. You’re expected to be up to speed on business terminology, understand the way general business functions, comprehend profit and loss, and be able to show a return on investments for programs and policies.

Even more, you need to understand how your individual company works. You have to know the climate in which your business is operating. What are the hot buttons? The key issues? What’s happening with your competitors? What are the potential change points in the business—and what are the non-negotiable items? If you don’t know, says Mason, it’s difficult to be credible and really understand the practicalities of what you can and can’t get done.

For example, at BBDO New York, Mason’s understanding of his company’s business needs is clearly illustrated in the compensation structure that he helped to establish. The company has two competing needs: to pay outside creative talent whatever the market dictates, and to create a compensation structure for regular day-to-day employees. “Most compensation structures try to put people in a specific band,” he says. “They homogenize everyone and dictate that they should be treated the same. That doesn’t recognize the uniqueness of our business.”

To accommodate the unusual nature of the advertising business, Mason had to do several things. First, he sat down with the people in the creative department to determine who the competition really was. Because Mason understands the advertising industry, he helped the creative department determine that it isn’t only large agencies that hire competing talent, but that small boutique agencies nurture new talent as well. Together they then did a market survey to focus on what competitors were paying their talent. After benchmarking the compensation at these agencies, Mason did a market survey against the industry in general to see what creative talent was being paid. Because BBDO wants to be an industry leader, it determined to pay its creative talent sufficiently to attract the brightest and the best. If Mason hadn’t understood his company’s business and goals, he might not have been able to come up with a structure that fit all the parameters.

“Aside from problem solving, HR executives need to challenge the status quo and bring new perspectives to the thinking of people in the organization.”
Alfred Little Jr.,
Sun Company Inc.

Alfred Little Jr., vice president of human resources at Philadelphia-based Sun Company Inc., confirms the importance of knowing your business. It’s no longer good enough to be skilled in either one or several HR disciplines, he says: “You’ve got to be able to align that capability to the business interest of the enterprise for which you work.”

One way to do that, he says, is to get out of the corporate office and into the field. Spend time in the business units. Take every opportunity to talk with line people—marketing and operations people—and pick their brains. Ask them how they make the product, how the company makes its money.

Other HR people who have followed this route praise its effectiveness. They will tell you that you have to know the inner workings of your company’s operations if you’re to be respected.

Mason actually goes beyond just knowing the industry in which he works to learn about specific job functions and to gain cross-functional experience. He’s done these things for years.

While he was director of human resources at NBC, he worked as an assignment desk editor for WNBC for 18 weekends during a strike period. Although executives had the option of working or not, he viewed the strike as an important opportunity to go behind the scenes and learn about the work life of his clients. Likewise, when he was at Reader’s Digest, he spent time “living and breathing” sales. He went out on sales calls with the regular staff, trying to understand their daily operations and problems.

“The smartest thing I’ve done relative to my career has been to be continually interested in what my peers are doing outside my functional area,” he says. “I spend a great deal of time without an agenda, going in and asking people, ‘Will you teach me what you’re doing here and why you’re doing it?’ They treat me like a student and I get intimately involved in how these functional areas within the company operate.”

This type of training has additional benefits besides providing a means of gathering information. “The more I learned, the more people trusted me when I told them I might have a solution for one of their problems,” says Mason. Although some managers say that gaining expertise in this way is too complicated to arrange, Mason believes otherwise. You may not be able to work a steady shift at the broadcasting station or on the assembly line, he says, but you can engage in activities such as shadowing executives.

Marie Gambon agrees. As vice president for people at Boulder, Colorado-based Celestial Seasonings Inc., she knows that she has had greater credibility and is more effective by understanding the day-to-day workings of her business’s operations. Like Mason, Gambon has performed alongside her clients. She worked in communications, marketing support and HR during her 17 years at IBM. She later learned about doing business in a regulated company during her two and a half years in HR at USWest. “Cross-functional expertise is important because it makes you sensitive to the customer’s perspective,” she says. “It gives you credibility so you can give counsel.”

Expand your business knowledge to gain a world view.
Along with cross-functional training, HR professionals in today’s global market must get cross-cultural training. “A global mindset and international experience is becoming more and more important to people who want to progress in their careers,” says Foulkes. As a professor of management policy and a noted observer of the HR community, he says that attaining global skills is one of the hottest areas in human resources. “A number of people moving to top HR jobs have had international experience,” he says. They have spent extensive time in Europe or Asia.

It only makes sense. People in global companies need to have an appreciation and respect for different cultures. They must have cross-cultural communication capability and work well with individuals from multinational backgrounds. As many leading companies today view the enormous overseas markets longingly, they’re targeting their high-potential managers and offering them international experience.

Ramona Frazier, corporate manager of human resources for a leading retailer, tells people who ask her for career advice: “For mid-level managers looking to move up, international experience is more important than almost any other experience. Between NAFTA, the European Economic Community and trading with the Pacific Rim, we are in a borderless world.”

Getting that international experience is no small undertaking, she says. It begins with understanding global markets, international compensation and expatriate issues. “You need to understand where the company is going and how global business is going to impact it. The HR person needs to be able to provide input for strategic decisions the company is going to make; to be able to speak intelligently with colleagues.”

Says Jamrog: “Today it’s considered imperative to become aware of cross-cultural differences in the international marketplace. But, in the future it may become less important to go on international assignments if we couple two trends: the growing diversity of the U.S. work force and the interest of managers to become more aware of and value cultural differences.” There may come a time when the entire organization is trained cross-culturally—or at least values multicultural diversity. But it will take years before we see this kind of change.

Preparing for change must be an ongoing process.
HR pros need to adopt an attitude of a continual learner if they’re to succeed within the changing marketplace. Celestial Seasoning’s Gambon insists that continual learning is one crucial component that propels people to the top. For one, she says, “HR professionals must know state-of-the-art human resources issues. You must stay current with legislative issues and general business trends to be seen as a business expert.” She cites health care as an example. She says that HR professionals must know how different plans will affect the business community and your specific organization.

How do you stay current? According to Gambon, continual learning need not be very complicated. Take classes. Look at competitive analysis reports of your industry. Read The Wall Street Journal daily and other business publications regularly. Talk with individuals outside of HR to gain a greater breadth of exposure. It’s a matter of reading and understanding what’s going on in the world at large and the business community specifically. It’s a matter of taking responsibility for your own career development and looking at your own employability.

Gambon practices what she preaches. She takes classes on creativity, statistics, quality—all with an eye toward increasing her own understanding as well as sharing the new knowledge with people around her. “Very few human resources people stay current with business affairs,” she says. “Therefore, they lack business sensibility and very often aren’t taken seriously.”

King agrees that it’s critical to stay on the leading edge. She believes that you have to stay in touch with such issues as futurism and strategic planning if you’re going to pioneer new initiatives for your company.

Networking with people who are cutting-edge thinkers—both inside and outside of her organization—is one of the ways King remains a leader. The perspectives of others help her understand how—and when—new concepts can be made to fit her company.

That’s why she’s also a staunch advocate of mentors. “Have lots of them,” she says. “Have them in different places, not in one center of power because power shifts within an organization. Have them inside and outside of the organization so you have a perspective and have quick access. Have people who are multicultural. For women, have male mentors; for men, have female mentors. Have mentors who are specialists, generalists, rebels.”

King honed many of her interpersonal skills—her ability to relate well to others—through her mentors. An important mentor for King was Muriel Morse, the head of personnel in another department in the city of Los Angeles. Morse was five or six levels above King when she entered the business. “She’s a strong, dynamic, brilliant woman who has a powerful sense of volunteerism,” says King of Morse. The senior HR professional mentored King throughout her career climb, consistently answering questions for her and helping her develop such skills as how to motivate people, work with people who have diverse backgrounds and point people in the right career direction. When Morse retired and became a professor at the University of Southern California, the mentoring and friendship continued.

“It isn’t good enough to be technically competent or to be a good manager over an existing situation. You have to offer something for the future.”
Beverly King,
Los Angeles Water and Power

One of the advantages of having many mentors, especially in a profession that’s in such flux, is the different perspectives they offer. In a field that’s so diverse, in which you need to know so much, access to the opinions and knowledge of other individuals you trust is crucial. For instance, the current CEO of the Department of Water and Power has been another mentor for King. He’s Japanese American, an engineer and is one level above the personnel executive. She picked him as a mentor because he has an excellent sense of timing—knowing when the time is right for exploring particular issues or learning certain skills.

“Timing is everything at the executive level,” says King. “Early in your career, technical application is important. As you move into supervisory levels, interpersonal skills become more important because you’re helping people move toward goals.”

For example, King says that at this level you need to have the ability to form teams, to motivate people to achieve work goals and to work with people who have diverse backgrounds to find common goals within the organization to work toward.

Then, as you progress to managerial levels, King says that “vision is important.” What does she mean by vision? “It’s part timing, part knowledge, part judgment and part luck.”

Successful HR professionals guide their own careers.
King’s vision for her career doesn’t leave much to luck. During her 30 years in HR, she’s taken a thoughtful, deliberate approach to her own development.

For example, in 1976, when she was director of employee development at the utility, she was the highest-ranking woman and the youngest person ever at a section-head level. She already had experience in training, recruitment, wage and salary administration and employee relations. She had experience supervising large numbers of people. She also had a nursing degree.

However, she wasn’t content to rest on these laurels. Instead, King accepted a lateral career opportunity with no pay increase and formed a new section in human resources called occupational health and benefits. The move allowed her to build on her medical interests and nursing degree. A big believer in the benefits of being a generalist, King knew it would enhance her ability to be competitive for higher-level jobs. She was correct. In 1985, when the human resources director retired, King was promoted to the position.

“It isn’t good enough to be technically competent or to be a good manager over an existing situation,” she says. “You have to offer something for the future if you want to move to higher levels. For me, it was a willingness and a past track record of taking leading-edge issues and turning them into programs that served the company.”

For example, she’s been a leading proponent of innovative work/family programs in a male-dominated work environment (78% of the workers at Los Angeles Water and Power are males). Her organization has a reputation of being very progressive. She also helped establish an extensive in-house EAP program that does trauma response, and more recently is investigating the possibility of partnering with health-care providers to achieve better control of health-care dollars.

Mason is another person who has directed his own career. From the time he left academia, he had in mind to move into the number-one HR position at a major company. Each job that he took between leaving the college and joining BBDO New York was one he strategically sought out as a step to reach that goal.

He started out his human resources career as head of corporate EEO at NBC. When he took this position, it was with the understanding that he would eventually move into an HR generalist position. He did within a few years. While there, he learned to work within a highly creative environment. His move to Reader’s Digest, which was going through some cultural change with which he became involved, gave him additional experience that prepared him for his eventual position with BBDO.

Certainly, HR professionals such as Mason face daunting challenges today. These complexities make building a career quite a task. “Individuals have to take responsibility for managing their own careers these days, particularly after they’ve been on an assignment for two or three years,” says Foulkes. “It’s recognizing what the company’s core competencies are and what’s really important in the business.”

Then, says Foulkes, you must find ways to get what you need, whether it’s through formalized training, general guidance or mentors. For example, because of globalization, you ought to be thinking about how to get international experience that will help you in the future. This doesn’t necessarily mean becoming an expatriate. You can travel, be involved in professional organizations with large international components or lead task forces that deal with global issues.

Furthermore, networking is crucial. Not only within the company, but outside as well. It keeps you abreast of trends and maintains crucial contacts. Of course, it becomes more difficult to sustain outside, non-core activities as the daily work situation becomes busier because of restructuring and increasing responsibilities.

Jack believes that today’s environment of constant change requires negotiating through an interesting maze to continue to propel your career forward. “No matter how many changes and restructuring organizations undergo, human assets always will be the most valuable,” she says. “Without them, the company can’t run.

“This really is the time to show how HR can impact the bottom line,” she says. “Every time a business issue surfaces, ask what is the human component of that change. Then ask what human resources can do to affect that component. For example, do we need different training to provide new skills? Do we need to incent people differently via the compensation package to reinforce the business objectives?”

Today, HR pros are expected to learn the business of business as well as the broad spectrum of HR technologies. Moreover, you need to develop an attitude that continues to build confidence in the people whom you support.

Even more, though, the profession is in the process of redefinition. “Aside from problem solving, HR executives need to effectively challenge the status quo and bring new perspectives to the thinking of people in the organization,” explains Sun Company’s Little. Because of this redefinition, he’s very optimistic about the future of human resources. “I believe HR will become substantially more important in the context of all the disciplines that support the business enterprise. Today, capital is relatively easy to obtain; technology generally is readily available; and barriers to entering your market segment aren’t nearly as impenetrable as they once were because of all the different ways in which a company can enter the market.

“So what’s left that distinguishes your company from others?” It’s people. “Today, we know that it’s our people who will propel us forward,” says Little. “We want to create bigger, more complex jobs to release the energy and creativity of individuals. People are the number-one and most sustainable source of competitive advantage, and will continue to be so through the rest of the ’90s and into the 21st century. And, that’s why human resources becomes even more crucial.”

Personnel Journal, June 1994, Vol.73, No. 6, pp. 62-76.


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