Becoming a Talent Specialist: You Just Need to Find Your HR Sweet Spot

We have had approximately 22 speakers over the past few day. Our focus was on Employee Engagement. We have sliced/diced it every way possible.

We have heard theory, metrics, branding, and plain old common sense — all in the guise of getting our employees more engaged. But in order for each of us as HR professionals to get our organizations back on track, we must be engaged with what we do.

Those were my closing words at the recent Employee Engagement Forum held in Dubai Dec. 7-8. I speak at a lot of conferences in the Middle East, and in close to two years working in this region, I have participated either as conference chair or keynote speaker at approximately 18 various conferences from Istanbul to Nigeria and throughout the Middle East.

Finding your HR “sweet spot”

But I think sometimes, as I look into the eyes of these HR professionals, that I get a sense of them being overwhelmed. They sometimes have said as much. As a matter of fact, someone mentioned to me the other day that now they are more confused than ever.

I empathized this person because I have been in that same situation and in same state of bewilderment. I sometimes find I’m asking myself, “where do I begin?” But one thing we should not forget as we analyze our career is that we have to find the “sweet spot,” or that special area of expertise.

That sweet spot should never, ever be based on someone else’s choice. I started my HR career working in Learning & Development, but I knew long-term that it would not be the best area for me. I also did a stint in Compensation and Benefits, and another as an HR generalist, but I also knew that these areas would not define me either.

However, at each of those turns, I read as much as I could to get a sense of the challenges and opportunities I would be facing.

My assumption was that in order to be heard, you must define yourself. To me, defining myself was not doing it as a person that knew a little of everything, but, a person that knew a lot about their specific area of expertise.

It’s 10,000 hours to a specialist

So, I chose organizational development. I went back to school, I read, and I read some more. Even to this day, I use my commute to bury my head into a white paper or a few articles that I find interesting. The question that flows through my mind each day is, “How can I get organizations to perform better?

Malcolm Gladwell stated in his controversial book, Outliers: The Story of Success, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any endeavor. He was not the only one, there are others, including Geoff Colvin‘s Talent is Overrated and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. These authors all had this idea of 10,000 hours as being the threshold for mastering an area.

However, this 10,000-hours concept can be traced back to a 1993 paper written by K. Anders Ericsson, currently a professor at Florida State University, called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.

It highlighted the work of a group of psychologists in Berlin who had studied the practice habits of violin students in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the “hours” you need to master a topic, my assumption is that it will take a fair amount of time to become a knowledge person or expert in your field of choice. If you want to be known as a specialist, it will probably take even more time.

Bringing in a specialist

For me, I knew that I never wanted to be known as a generalist. I had a boss one time that sarcastically said that “all you want to do is the fancy stuff.” When she was relieved of her duties later, I told her the organization and its leaders were looking for more of the “fancy stuff.”

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In the back of my mind, I always thought of my mother’s favorite saying about some people, that they were “jack of all trades and master of none.” When we go to the doctor, we for the most part, will go to a specialist. This holds true in other professions as well.

Organizations today are looking for specialists with fact-based solutions. Every time someone comes to us with a dilemma, we are presented with a case study.

Each time we evaluate, research and come up with a solution if at all possible.

Think of it this way: If we have a leak, we call a plumber. If the light switch doesn’t work, we summon an electrician. If our A/C does not work, we bring in an air conditioning specialist.

We encounter this concept every day in our personal lives, and our organization is looking for the same type of specialists, too.

Becoming your organization’s talent expert

As companies try to compete in this volatile environment, with all its challenges, they must be assured that they have specialists in-house that can handle the talent challenges. Yes, talent and culture will be the differentiator of success in your organization’s future. That is why it is imperative that HR Department’s be staffed by what I call “Human Capital Strategists.”

These strategists will have a consultant mindset and will also be equipped with the knowledge to thoroughly understand their area of expertise and bring that to bear for their companies with solutions, and not assumptions.

Regardless of how many conferences you attend, eventually you will have to carve out your area of “expertise” and dig deep. Those people on the stage at the HR conferences may come across as confident, but at one time, they were as unsure as you are.

They did not become an expert overnight  — and you will not either.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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2 Comments on “Becoming a Talent Specialist: You Just Need to Find Your HR Sweet Spot

  1. Ron I agree and had similar comments re fancy stuff, that said it seems organisations and or industry prefers to promote generalist to CHRO’s

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