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  • Writer's pictureKatie Lopes

A Year in HR Leadership

The start of 2023 marks a full year leading an HR department. There have been various lessons learned along the journey in such a short period of time. For now, I want to document how the transition happened and best practices I would share for anyone transitioning into a leadership role.


In photo (left to right): Katie, Jean, and Claudia



Succession (not the TV Show)

In late 2021, my HR director, Jean, shared her plans to retire by the end of that year. This led us to an open discussion about what my career aspirations were for the future and how she could support me along with her timed departure. After working together for three years, I still had doubts about whether I was on the right path for my aspirations to become a high-level HR leader. There were various skills I naturally gravitated towards as an HR Generalist, but I knew there would be a shift in responsibilities if I asked for a manager promotion. The shift would pull me away from the daily administration support of the department and require me to hone in on business collaborations to support the functions of company.

Would I be perceived as a business partner? Could I be diplomatic in the face of conflict? Who could be my allies and coaches as I navigated my style of leadership? Here was a rare opportunity to ask for my boss to sponsor my interest in a leadership role, an accelerated progression plan, if I was willingly to take a leap of faith that this was the right move.


With Jean's support, she made the recommendation to the executive team to consider me for her eventual succession starting with a promotion of an HR manager. I went through an internal interview to assess the skills and knowledge I could bring into the role, and ask for the support I would need for a successful transition. Since I prepared for my interview, I was honest about the areas of minimal experience (compensation strategies and industry knowledge). I also highlighted what I did well, such as employee relations and adaptation to technologies. I envisioned an opportunity modernize the HR function, with an HR Generalist alongside me, and to continue the existing partnership between senior management with HR.


In November 2021, I was internally promoted to an HR Manager. One of the first tasks was to begin the search for an HR Generalist, preferably to start by the end of the year. After weeks of interviews, I had the wonderful opportunity to extend an offer of employment to Claudia as our new HR Generalist. For her first 30 days, Claudia cross-trained with Jean, which would permit me the opportunity to transfer leadership responsibilities simultaneously. By the end of January 2022, Jean retired after three decades of working in the HR field. The department she built was now under guidance of a new HR manager (me) and a new HR Generalist, Claudia.


Transition

Despite being promoted and having worked with the internal staff for over three years, it felt like I was starting over at a new place. The first couple of weeks was filled with much anxiety as I considered what to focus on: compliance deadlines, a new HRIS system, training a new direct report, all of the above. The panic frequently made me question if I made the right decision.


It took a couple of months to find a rhythm that worked for me. The only thing that helped break a cycle of anxiousness was to take a vacation and get out of the elements that contributed to the stressful feelings. That break helped my mind and body relax, enjoy time with people that make me laugh, and catch up on many readings. I returned to work rejuvenated, clear-minded, and prepared with ideas to make the best of this opportunity.


As an HR professional, we are involved in private and confidential discussions, which often cannot be discussed with other employees. At times, it can be quite a lonely profession, especially if you don't have internal support (talking to you HR departments-of-one). I've come to learn it is best to remain flexible with plans and to ask for specific support when things may start feeling out of control. I believe emotional transparency with my teams can help break down the stigma of mental health, allow others to share what they're struggling with, fostering an opportunity to connect with a more empathetic approach. Perhaps talking about the emotional impact this transition had on me is not common in other companies, and that's okay. It's why I have my blog :)


Lessons

Before I accepted a leadership role, I tapped into my network for insights. I want to share the best recommendations/tips that helped me during this process:

  1. Read "The First 90 Days" by Michael D. Watkins. This book will forever live on my bookshelf. It gave me an outline of how to set measurements of success as I transitioned into leadership based on the business industry.

  2. Get comfortable with negotiating. This is a required-skill for any HR leader. You're often negotiating total rewards for employees, service agreements for the business, etc. Don't forget to negotiate for yourself while you're at it.

  3. Adapt your communications to the target audience. This took some practice as I learned the preferred style of communication for each leader. Some prefer facts and data only, others need time to talk through options. Learn the styles of your leaders. And while you're at it, see if you need to understand the language they communicate in. By that, I mean do they speak in IT lingo? Accounting lingo? Take time to learn their language so you can understand how and what they're communicating to you about.

  4. Be confident. There will come a time when you question if a decision you make is the right call. Stand by your decision, hopefully it's the right call. And if it's a mistake, well, then call that a learning opportunity. All leaders make mistakes. If you're in the right setting, you can learn to fail safely.

  5. Create your personal board of directors (PBD). I borrowed this tip from a friend. There will be times where certain conversations or interactions cannot be disclosed internally. Identify what kind of support you need to encourage you in the path of leadership, besides your boss and/or partner. For me, I have a gym community, Netflix & wine friend, my therapist, and an executive coach. My PBD changes from time to time, but the theory is just the same. When the days get challenging, my PBD will be a text away to help me along the way.


If you're a new leader or aspiring for a leadership path in HR, I'd love to hear from you. Do these experiences and lessons help? What questions do you have about a transition? Speak up, reach out.... that's what community is about.


In solidarity,


Katie Ryan

The HR Anthropologist


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