Yes, It’s Time to Finally Bid the HR Generalist Goodbye

I do not have time for LinkedIn or any of that, but I DO make time for my pedicures. Super serious HR lady at #gbrshrm.”

This was one that I saw posted last when someone was asking what HR could do that would create more employee engagement. The big answer: “company picnic.”

Robin Schooling’s posted the comment the other day concerning an HR person who told her that she does not have time for LinkedIn and other stuff, but she makes time for pedicures. Both these Facebook comments give insight into the mess that HR finds itself in today.

Trying to step out of this simplistic, gut feel solution to be taken seriously in today’s climate of constant change will require a lot more than this type of approach.

Why HR is in a funk

Every time I think about that comment, I get flashbacks to HR managers from my past. This person may have said that in jest, but there is some truth to that jest.

My comment to her Facebook post was, “This is why the state of this profession is in such a funk.”

For every off-handed statement of that type, it just further sinks HR into oblivion. I’m here to tell you that this is not an isolated case.

It is kind of like the person who calls themselves a “Social Media expert” but click on a few links and, as former Coach Bill Parcells of the New York Giants once said, “You are what your record says you are.” You are trying to practice your craft as if you are in a time warp from 10-20 years prior.

Our profession is being transformed by technology and to sit aside blindly and continue to process things the way they were done years ago is just mind-boggling. And then to pretend that you are a professional is just sad.

Imagine going to your doctor and you find that his equipment is old, his magazines are old, his office is old. He never attends conferences, never reads to try to stay abreast of the new findings in his specialty. If there was some way for you to find this out, you would probably be looking for a new doctor.

Business is being transformed, not only HR

Every profession is being transformed. HR is not the only one.

Public relations is running into social media and the impact on its profession. IT is grappling with the cloud and trying to keep their organization ahead of the curb. Marketing is facing headwinds as it grapples with new strategy to synch with social media and its impact. Supply chain professionals are struggling with the just-in-time inventory model.

Within every profession there is change going on, and it is like you’re on a treadmill and simply trying to stay abreast of change. I was told by a boss from my past that I should “focus on being a good generalist and not get caught up in the “fancy stuff.” I never forgot that snide remark.

These are the same HR leaders that post questions looking for best practices or ideas for a new initiative.

I got a request just yesterday asking for initiatives on how to motivate your internal customers as an HR Department. My advice was to become a partner in their business. Make yourself indispensable to your customers so that they would never have a strategic meeting without you or someone in your department in the room.

Folks, best practices are NOT transferable and attending a conference will not provide you with a silver bullet for you to take back home and become the HR guru.

Invest in the night

I wrote an article a while back concerning the tagline “Invest in the night” which is CNBC’s marketing tagline. We have to read, read and read some more to be able to practice our craft. We have to stay abreast of the new thoughts, ideas, and approaches, and then interpret what you can and apply it to your practice.

I had a call a few Fridays back with a major HR research organization and we were talking about trying to stay abreast of all the new information. When I told him about my obsession with white papers and my reading list, he laughed as said he does the same.

If what you do every day does not motivate you to stay abreast of your profession, you really should rethink your career. Why waste the rest of your life doing something you have no interest in?

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New day, different environment

There is more to HR than handling salaries, promotions and other paperwork. If that is your comfort zone and you do not want to venture out, it is only a matter of time before someone ushers you out. In the midst of this transformation, a new skill set is needed and it is not the transactional piece.

We have to critically think through issues and be prepared to defend those during Q&A. That gut feeling is just that — a gut feeling. However, you can’t defend that and give assurance based on what worked in your last job because it’s a new day, different environment.

As a senior faculty member of the Human Capital Institute, I have traveled the world teaching strategic level certified classes. When I first started years ago, all the participants were strictly HR people. They had grown up in the profession or were relatively new entrants.

However, I have noticed some changes over the past few years. In conducting some workshops in Abujah, Nigeria, I had attorneys and even economists  who were now working in HR.

I conducted a session in Pittsburgh, PA a few years back and part of the department from a major bank had marketing backgrounds working in HR. In another session in New York, I had a few statistician in my Strategic Workforce planning classes.

All these were new hires brought in by the new heads of HR who was looking for a specific skill set to handle the new era of HR.

You can be replaced

This business is getting more specialized as the days go by. I have seen numerous job posting for a Data Analyst to be the interpreter of metrics. The days of being the good generalist, in my opinion, is on a slow march to oblivion.

The Wall Street Investment Banker staffing model was one that has always intrigued me. They have the data collectors, they have the interpreters of that data, and they have the narrative builders that will present to the client their finding. They have experts in their domain.

We can no longer expect the HR generalist to be the jack of all trades, because when under intense Q&A, a generalist would probably be lost by the second or third question. If the value is not there, it is like a beacon emitting a signal. Before you know it, everyone is aware.

Over the past few years, I have encountered numerous heads of HR being replaced because a new skill set is needed for the position.

The C-Level changes, and they want more of a partnership with HR. Their background could be that they worked for company where HR played a key role, and that is the level of interaction they are now looking for. They do not want a passive leader, but a proactive one that is involved in the business and has a capable department that is staffed by specialists.

I’m so glad I never followed my old boss’s advice and stuck to my guns in developing my career, because I would not be here today and if was still just the “good generalist.”

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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8 Comments on “Yes, It’s Time to Finally Bid the HR Generalist Goodbye

  1. If all you’re doing as HR is payroll and benefits administration and maybe some interviewing (as at my company), you’re not an HR dept. IMHO, HR has to move beyond functions that can be done by a paid service or a computer somewhere. And passing the PHR exam is not a guarantee of success or even of competence.

  2. Ron, I could not agree more with your post. I say to my colleagues in HR, get out of the HR echo chamber and stop talking (with each other) about best practices. Start adapting to our VUCA world = volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the new normal. Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud are happening now and changing the world. Data is the new natural resource and HR owns a lot of it. HR should be leading social transformation in the enterprise, driving people to collaborate and share knowledge. Buyers, consumers and employees want mobile apps that are ubiquitous, intuitive, secure and work.

  3. The bulk of hiring in the United States has been by firms of 20 or less and this will only continue. Many of these businesses do not have a designated HR person at all. Duties are performed by others or are contracted out. Software is also replacing functions. Times are changing and the industry must change with it.

  4. Ron, I like what you’re saying about the need for us HR folks to continually improve our craft, but with the bulk of HR pros working at small to mid-sized companies, I’m not sure I can agree that the generalist needs to hightail it. Instead, I think businesses need BETTER generalists who are supported by their companies.

  5. Ron, you know I’m a big fan of your thinking. I wish that more HR (generalist) professionals saw this (or took time to read material like this), especially in Australia. I’m not sure if they are a) deliberately not listening b) too busy in the operational stuff to appreciate that change that is coming. Or both. I guess when they are standing in the benefits queue in the not too distant future, and are confounded by a seemingly “overnight change” things might start to make sense. But I’m not entirely sure.

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