HR Leads Business

Sep 22, 2017 | Dave Ulrich, HRCI Guest Blogger

5 Career Tips for HR Students

Human resource management studies have certainly changed since I first began in this field in the 80s. Today, HR students face new challenges that no other generation has had to face and they need to be more prepared than ever. The typical skills taught in even the best institutions worldwide won't be enough if students don't begin now to know themselves and stand out.

The following 5 lessons are my grandfatherly advice to students of HR everywhere as they begin what I hope will be exciting and fulfilling careers in this wonderful field:

Lesson 1: Recognize Your Passions. Ponder on your strengths, passions and value. Learn what work problems you want to solve. Work should not be a four-letter word and drudgery, but an opportunity to solve problems that matter to you. You might find out if HR is your passion by asking if you are interested in helping people grow and organizations succeed? In your quiet and private moments, do you think about building better organizations that will serve people? I have been told by my psychologist wife that I have a unique version of OCD — Organization Compulsive Disorder. I enjoy reengineering organizations I visit, from restaurants to hotels to churches to retail stores and so forth.  Ask yourself, what do you enjoy?

Lesson 2: Get Real. Aspirations should exceed resources but not too much. In my early days I aspired to be a professional basketball player, but I quickly learned that this was an unreal aspiration. I can enjoy basketball as a fan more than a player. In HR, you should ask if you have the skills for doing HR work: Are you able to master the insights of the HR profession? Are you able to work well with others? Are you able to lead from behind (versus leading from the front)?

Lesson 3: Match Your Skills to Your Company. As you select the organization where you will work, have you matched your personal identity to the company brand? A newly graduated student excitedly called me and said she had job offers at Google and Amazon and wanted my counsel. I quickly said, “Take one! Get a job and move on!" She laughed, then asked, "Which one?" My counsel was to look at her personal strengths and passions and to take the job that best fits her personal identity. Amazon’s success comes from rigorous discipline and getting products delivered on time. Google’s success is from innovation and tolerance of ambiguity. After a day of thinking, she took the Amazon job because she felt the structured environment would work better for her.

Lesson 4: Get Started With Small and Simple Successes. When you start in your new company, be a diligent observer. Look for what matters, what work needs to be done, who has influence and where you can add unique value. Find a simple (often smallish) project that you can focus on and deliver. Do it well. 

Lesson 5: Build Relationships. Ironically, those who give more to philanthropy make more after they give than before. Create an identity and spirit of helping others succeed. This means finding a network of mentors who can guide you and who you can support; it means being a good peer to your teammates; and it means quietly doing your work with excellence.

As I spend much of my time with you—our next generation of HR (and other) professionals—I'm extremely encouraged. Resources have never been more available and opportunity for growth has never been accessible. So get after it and find your path!

Dave Ulrich is a Rensis Likert Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He is also a Partner of the The RBL Group.