This post is about a question that has been in my mind for the last few years. The issue is something like this: After your MBA in HR (especially if you have graduated from a reputed management institute) you can expect to be the Head of HR of a somewhat large firm in about 15-20 years, assuming a reasonably successful career. Of course, not everyone becomes (or even wants to become) a Head of HR. But in general, this kind of a time frame seems reasonable. Now, the question is 'what would you do after that'. Many people would look forward to working for at least 15 years more. So what are your 'career options' at that stage ? If we define career as 'pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement where one takes up positions of increasing responsibility/complexity/contribution', the challenge is to find such positions/work that would enable the senior HR professional to continue to grow and contribute.
It is interesting to look at this issue from the organization's perspective also. Do organizations have many HR jobs that would require a level of expertise which would take more than 20 years to develop (Quick question : In the last 2 years, how many HR jobs have you come across for which the person specification indicated more than 20 years of experience?)? May be, not too many positions exist within most organizations that require such a level of expertise/such a senior profile.
Now, let us come back to our senior HR professional. We have seen 'solutions' found by particular individuals. They include, inter alia, moving into larger firms, moving into regional/global roles, starting one's own firm, HR consulting, becoming an OD/Leadership Development specialist, teaching and branching into a totally different fields. Some people also become CEOs/Heads of other functions, though they constitute only a very small percentage of the population that we are talking about. Of course, there is always the possibility of 'retirement on the job' where one stagnates, disengages and still continues on the job. If we look at solutions 'within the organizations' (like moving into larger firms, moving into regional/global roles etc.), it would be interesting to examine if they really solve the problem (by providing positions of increasing responsibility/complexity/contribution) as compared to merely changing the context (by providing a different sort of mandate/experience).
Some combinations of the above solutions/options might lead to something very similar to 'portfolio living' that Charles Handy talks about. We also need to differentiate between the solution(s) found by a particular individual (or individuals) and the career options available to bulk of the population that we are talking about. So where does this leave our senior HR professional. In some cases this could lead to some sort of a 'career crisis'. It is interesting to note that this career crisis might also coincide with a larger midlife crisis which brings in additional dimensions.
1. The title of this post does not in any way imply that a long stint/career HR would necessarily mean 'hanging around in HR'. There are many possibilities for 'progressive achievement/ contribution' including those hinted at by the 'solutions' mentioned in the post. I have used the term 'hanging around' (though it has a negative connotation) for rhetorical purpose - to highlight the risk of stagnation and to stimulate discussion. It would be interesting to read this post along with the next post on 'Thought leadership in HR in India'. It can be readily inferred that the thought leaders does not hang around in the field as they redefine the boundaries and bring in new perspectives which would in turn mean that they rise above the constraints imposed by the current definition/understanding of the field.
2. It would be interesting to look at the senior HR positions in organizations and examine if the essential requirement for the position is that of a leader or that of a manager. To keep matters simple, let us go by the distinction that 'leaders focus on 'doing the right things' while managers focus on 'doing things right' (i.e. leaders focus mainly on effectiveness while managers focus mainly on efficiency).
If we look the senior HR jobs in MNCs in India (that are headquartered outside India), we might find that in many cases the 'right things' (the deliverable/tasks for the senior HR positions at a country level) gets decided at the global level and the key expectation from the HR position at the country level is to get those 'right things' done right/efficiently. The logic here is that an aggregate of local optima might not lead to a global optimum. So the key expectation from such senior HR positions is to carry out a predefined set of tasks efficiently and to keep customizations to a minimum. Thus the ideal profile would be someone who would 'completely merge into the system' and get things done without asking too many questions.
So the requirement is essentially that of a manager. If a 'leader profile' gets hired into the position, she/he might get frustrated and leave (or she/he might get forced to operate just like a manager). If the senior position is supposed to manage 'deep-specialists' (see an earlier post on 'deep-specialist' positions here) it could result in additional difficulties as 'deep-specialists' tend to respond more favorably to leading as opposed to managing. Mercifully not too many deep-specialist positions seem to exist in those contexts (see here).
3. See a related post here