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The One Thing You Should Know About a Career in HR

I’m doing really well at the saddest goal I’ve ever set. This year, after an honest assessment of where my time was going and a realization that I was consistently overcommiting myself, I faced facts and stopped doing some things. Chief among them was that I stopped going for coffee with people just because they asked me to.

This was a lot harder than it sounds. I’ve been heavily involved in professional mentorship for several years, and often accepted random coffee invites from people who connected on LinkedIn and other professionally-geared platforms wanting to talk HR. Typically, these were new grads, job seekers, or people just starting out in HR, and their questions about how to navigate their careers and make the best choices had a particular urgency and enthusiasm. I wanted, and want, to help.

And yet, I never felt comfortable offering prescriptions or definitive advice. I don’t believe that there is a magic formula to build a successful career in this or any profession. Survivorship bias means that we concentrate on emulating those we see as having achieved something we want, ignoring (perhaps more valuable) lessons from the many others who haven’t. So encouraging others to take the same steps I did, make the same choices I made, is almost certainly a terrible way to guide others. Layer on top of that the matter of personal preference and strengths, and the giant role that simple luck plays and…well, you can tell I am terrible at advice, right?

Essentially, I left almost every one of these coffee meetings feeling as though I’d failed to provide my fellow coffee drinker with any guidance of practical value, and in some cases had convinced them that I was a drunk nihilist. Since I was already trying to live with twice as many hours as were actually available to me, the coffees had to go (for now).

This week, as I gritted my teeth and (politely) declined a couple more coffee invites, I wondered if there was one idea or insight that would be useful to most people seeking a career in HR. The internet is not suffering from a shortage of advice from self-styled experts, so instead of instruction or direction, consider this one small idea that I learned slowly (and somewhat painfully), and would have liked to know sooner. It is by no means a recipe for any sort of success (however you define that), but I humbly suggest that it may offer a slightly different perspective on a career working with people in organizations.

Organizations Are Imperfect Solutions to a Human Problem

Organization are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that they’re a human-made solution to a human-made problem: how to systematically harness the power of many to complete a task that has become too big or complex to be handled by one person. And like a lot of human-made solutions to complex problems, organizations are not a perfect answer for every question. “The Org” (a book I am quite fond of) describes organizations as an imperfect solution, rather than a problem to be solved, a solution involving a series of trade-offs that results in some messy realities.

Something that often comes through in conversations with professionals who are new to the workforce is their frustration and disbelief with the dysfunction they see in the companies they work for. Much of the writing and academic instruction I was exposed to in HR seemed based on an underlying assumption that organizations and the people in them made decisions rationally, and that having efficient and fair work and people practices in place was a sort of “default position” for companies. The reality is far more complex and interesting.

It can be confusing and demoralizing to find ourselves in an organization in which bureaucracy, poor communication, misaligned incentives, and org politics run rampant. The problem lies in thinking that this is wildly abnormal, and that the next organization we join will more closely resemble our image of what a ‘typical’ workplace should look like. Then, finally, our real careers in HR can begin… This sets us up for a slide into disillusionment and burn-out.

I certainly believe that truly dysfunctional and toxic organizations do exist, and sometimes the best course of action is self-preservation via escape. However, in most cases if we remember that all organizations are an imperfect solution to a complex problem, then we can see that our role is in negotiating and navigating the trade-offs inherent in that solution, and the messy realities they create. Accepting this allowed me to reframe my understanding of my role in relation to organizations as systems, and brought a lot more peace to my day-to-day work.

Deal With What Is

This absolutely doesn’t mean settling for the status quo in our organizations, but it does mean that in order to work effectively in a system and on a system, we first have to understand it. And in order to understand it, we have to deal with what is, not dismiss a company as irretrievably broken and unworthy of our efforts at the outset.

Rather than taking signs of inefficiency, competing goals, and self-interest as indications that an organization is a waste of our time and attention, we can see it for the incredible opportunity it is: to study ‘the organization’ in the wild. When we recognize seemingly intractable problems as the result of (deliberate or unconscious) trade-offs the organization has made at some point in time, we can begin to dissect and analyze the source of these challenges. We may find that, despite the frustration an organizational ‘problem’ causes us and others, it is the least worst trade-off an organization can make given the circumstances.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, or reacting to the most insistent voices in our organizations, we can take on the role of anthropologist, and explore how these seemingly intractable problems came to be, how they are connected, what org myths exist about their origin and cause, and how our own assumptions are influencing how we see these issues.

In my experience, this completely changes the conversations we have with colleagues in HR, the people we support, and with ourselves. Instead of lamenting the misguided fools who created the conditions we now have to contend with (a mindset which only serves to make us victims), we can begin to use obstacles, issues, and complaints as inputs to asses the trade-offs our organization is making, and respond accordingly. That might mean identifying a pattern of employee relations issues as evidence that conditions have changed and a trade-off (like increased team size or span of control) is worth revisiting to determine if it remains the best possible approach given the circumstances.

The outcome of that assessment could produce wildly different responses from HR, ranging from an org-wide restructure into smaller teams, to the creation of a new team-lead role, to a change to collaboration practices and processes (see The Ready’s article on cross-functional teams linked below), just to name a few. Or, it may be that an assessment determines that the existing trade-off remains the most viable approach for now, and those employee relations issues are addressed as individual situations until more information is available.

The difference is that we’re not just layering more reaction on top of the (often unrecognized) trade-offs that already exist, which can result in other, unintended problems down the road. We’re getting closer to root causes, questioning invisible priorities and assumptions, and hopefully realigining practices to the organization’s principles and objectives.

This example may suggest that the perspective I’m advocating is one that best serves senior HR decision makers, but I disagree. At every level in HR, we are exposed to significant evidence of these organizational trade-offs in action. Adopting the perspective that these are valuable inputs to understanding the organization in which we find ourselves, rather than evidence that we’re wasting our lives in a corporate quagmire, will be one of the most valuable sources of learning in your career, and it also makes challenging work environments matters of curiosity, not situations to be endured.

What Else?

Each of us take different lessons from careers that may look quite similar on the outside. I’m curious about whether this resonates for my peers and others who work in HR and org/people related professions. Are there other insights that might help those pursuing a career in your field?

Read This Week:

A Practical Guide to Cross-Functional Work – Alison Randel, The Ready

Terrific post packed with practical ideas to improve cross-functional work in our organizations. I particularly appreciate Randel’s suggestion to use a team charter, and love the example she shares.

“… the organizations who have found the most success in working this way know cross-functional collaboration is a discipline. Breaking down organizational silos is about using specific practices and internalizing helpful organizational principles as much as it is about using, or not using, particular organizational structures.

Since structure is often difficult and invasive to change, it makes sense to try using some of these behaviors and tools before you take a hammer to your organizational chart.”

View at

Five reasons why new forms of organizing and digitalization go hand in hand – Olaf Bach, Management Kits

Yes, I know ‘digitalization’ makes this sound a little click-baity, but do yourself a favour and go read this post from Olaf Bach for his thought-provoking and well written take on the larger issues impacting org design and management/leadership structures.

“New organization models also gain traction in the course of disruptive change as the leadership discourse does not provide sufficient answers. ‘If only there was great leadership all the traditional structures would work just fine’ is wishful thinking.

We put superhuman expectations on organizational leaders so they can lead us through a highly uncertain environment: leaders are supposed to be entrepreneurial, self-controlled, role models, coaches, situational, mindful, authentic, networked – among other things.

Such profiles would be able to cope with any organizational structure and make up for toxic politics, rigid silos, complicated decision making, complex stakeholder constellations, etc. I argue that the renaissance of organization design in part is a response to the exhaustion of the leadership discourse.”

The Case or Investing in People – Eric Garton, Harvard Business Review


A cogent argument about the need and value of investing not just money, but time, in the people in our organizations. In many ways the point I was trying to make in last week’s post.

“For too long, business objectives and management philosophies have focused on efficiency over productivity. This has not only resulted in less investment in human capital but has also delivered lower total shareholder returns despite a period in which the cost of capital (and thus the cost of investing for growth) has been extraordinarily low. It’s not money that’s in short supply; it’s good growth ideas.

Our careless treatment of time represents a shocking level of underinvestment in human capital. For knowledge workers, time is incredibly scarce. Our research suggests that, on average, managers have fewer than seven hours per week of uninterrupted time to do deep versus shallow work. They spend the rest of their time attending meetings, sending e-communications or working in time increments of less than 20 minutes, a practice that makes it difficult to accomplish a specific task and in the worst cases can lead to employee burnout. We know that great ideas that drive breakthroughs in productivity come from human beings with the time, talent and energy to innovate.”

Men who want to fight sexism at work: Read Sheryl Sandberg’s blunt advice – Leah Fessler, Quartz

If, like me, you suck at making time to listen to any of the amazing podcasts your friends and colleagues keep recommending, you can check out this article which discusses some highlights from the recent Masters of Scale episode with Sheryl Sandberg. In it, Sandberg discussed what men can do to fight workplace sexism. Expanding on this topic Fessler writes:

“The problem, as feminist writer Lindy West points out in her New York Times column “Real Men Get Made Fun Of,” is that while men may want to help, they often hesitate to stick up for women and minorities when push comes to shove. They’re aware that calling out sexism when they see it may mean facing mockery, condescension, or rebuke. But as West writes:

“Getting yelled at and made fun of is where many of us live all the time. Speaking up costs us friends, jobs, credibility and invisible opportunities we’ll never even know enough about to regret.

I know there’s pressure not to be a dorky, try-hard male feminist stereotype; there’s always a looming implication that you could lose your spot in the club; if you seem opportunistic or performative in your support, if you suck up too much oxygen and demand praise, women will yell at you for that too. But I need you to absorb that risk. I need you to get yelled at and made fun of, a lot, and if you get kicked out of the club, I need you to be relieved, and I need you to help build a new one.”

Image credit: Dardan Mu via

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Rather than taking signs of inefficiency, competing goals, and self-interest as indications that an organization is a waste of our time and attention, we can see it for the incredible opportunity it is: to study ‘the organization’ in the wild.”

    Just loved this sentence and will keep in mind!

    September 6, 2017
  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Sonya! I’m glad that this made sense for you.

    September 6, 2017

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