What Does It Take to Be a Successful HR Professional?

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author
The Essential HR Handbook

It would certainly be easier if I could tell you there is one path to take to becoming a successful HR professional—but that just isn’t the case.

Yes, there are undergraduate and master’s degree programs in human resources management and human resources development.

You can obtain certifications from great organizations such as the HR Certification Institute (HRCI) that involve specific years of HR experience, a great deal of studying, and passing a very difficult exam. And then there is the job of retaining your certification by attending classes and reading books selected by HRCI for continuing education credits (and I am very proud to say that “The Big Book of HR” has been accepted as one of those books).

However, many successful HR professionals (and I count myself among them) have taken a different path into the field.

I have a degree in History and Political Science and started my business career working in finance for a very large corporation.

With that same company, I also worked in marketing, market research, and operations.

My next job was with a very large health care company where I worked in operations. My boss at that company told me he thought I would do well in HR, and I told him I really didn’t see that as being what I wanted to do. He convinced me to give it a try and it was like coming home! I loved it.

That company invested a lot in my development and sent me to an amazing number of courses and seminars to hone my skills, and for that I am forever grateful.

I am also very grateful that I had the experience of learning how business operates while in my first professional job.

Understanding how to read a balance sheet and financial language, as well as the incredibly significant role marketing plays in business success, gave me a tremendous advantage as I went into the HR profession. I wish more HR professionals could say the same.

Here are some tips to consider for entering the HR field:

  • I do not recommend getting an undergraduate and graduate degree in Human Resources. I think it makes people too narrow in their approach. If I could design the perfect HR professional’s career path, it would look like this:
  • Start with a Liberal Arts undergraduate degree — I am a bit biased, but I think the foundation you get in a Liberal Arts degree is fantastic. Find an organization where you can get a HR assistant position or perhaps a recruiting coordinator position to begin to learn the field.
  • Volunteer for rotational assignments in other parts of the business so that you learn how the business operates. Work in operations if you can. Then, get an MBA where you can have a concentration in HR. Of course, what I am describing is the ideal and may not be feasible for everyone interested in working in HR, but at least parts of it are possible!
  • Know that HR is a complicated field—you can learn it all and be a generalist, or you can pick a specialty such as benefits, compensation, talent acquisition, employee relations, training and development, HR Information System (HRIS), leadership development, organization development, or other specialties.
  • And remember, there is no one right path. The best way to grow to a senior level of HR management is to get experience in as many areas of the professional as possible while building your managerial expertise.

I know successful HR professionals who started in other parts of the business like I did, while others have worked only in HR but have studied how business operates in order to maximize their effectiveness as HR professionals.

The key to success as a HR professional is to think of yourself as a business person first—learn how your business operates, and then with your HR skills, you will really add value to your organization.

About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors and has consulted for a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human-resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Her books include The Essential HR Handbook, and The Big Book of HR. Click here to buy the book.