When CEOs asked human resources leaders to step up in March 2020 and help navigate their organizations through the chaos, every person I know prioritized their organization over their individual needs.
No matter what was happening in their private lives, my friends and colleagues in HR stepped up and did it all — from collaborating with IT to create work-from-home programs to partnering with local health departments to deploy rapid testing.
Does that sound like you? Did you step up without question?
Whatever the company needed, no matter the time of day, HR professionals were always there to deliver above and beyond expectations. In fact, that spirit of camaraderie and sacrifice continues to this day.
But now that vaccinations are rolling out and companies are compelling their employees to return to the office, life is slowly going back to normal. Unfortunately, for many HR practitioners, "back to normal" is deeply unsatisfying.
- You're back to being responsible for delivering bad news.
- You've been told to manage newly identified cost-cutting initiatives that prioritize short-term metrics over investing in people.
- You've gone back to fighting the same old battles with workers and leaders alike.
Does any of that feel familiar? Am I hitting too close to home?
If you're an HR professional at a career crossroads, take heart: You can learn your way into a better job. And when you learn and grow, it has a positive effect on the entire business.
Want the antidote to fatigue and boredom? Want to emerge out of your post-COVID fog? Double down on learning and watch your career (and maybe your company) flourish. Here's how.
Learn something new whenever you can
In my new book, Betting On You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career, I tell the story of working as an HR manager at an insurance company in Chicago. Although the job looked great on paper, I was extremely bored and found excuses to take long breaks throughout the day. First, I'd spend time at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Then I'd feel guilty about having a job that allowed me to learn about Neo-Expressionist paintings but didn't require me to be useful.
The one bright spot in this dull landscape came when a coworker noticed that I was bored and told me about a certification called the SPHR, which is a senior-level designation in human resources offered by the Human Resources Certification Institute.
She asked, "Why don't you study for the exam? It's not like you have anything else to do."
To be fair, she was right. So I bought a binder full of preparation materials and enrolled in a three-day preparation course at a hotel near O'Hare Airport. The class was taught by Mike Losey, the former CEO of SHRM. Mike worked in human resources for over 40 years, which seemed insane because I didn't even know HR had been around for that long. There wasn't a single thing Mike didn't know about the world of work, and his passion for HR was contagious.
I took the SPHR exam and passed with flying colors on my first try. When my official test results arrived in the mail, I drove to Hobby Lobby and framed the SPHR certificate. The lady behind the counter talked me into a tacky gold frame with red velour matting because it made me look wealthy and successful.
I won't pretend that the SPHR certificate solved all my problems. I continued to wander the streets of Chicago and take architectural boat tours to kill time. But those eight weeks of studying for the SPHR changed my life and taught me that I could love the field of HR and human psychology without loving my specific job.
To this day, despite stepping back from the world of corporate HR, I'm still involved with SHRM and HRCI. And whenever an HR colleague is bored or disaffected, I encourage them to take the SPHR exam or teach the exam materials — challenging themselves to learn something new and mentor the next generation of HR leaders.
So, if you're suffering from post-COVID career fatigue, learn something new. Don't just take my word for it. Harvard Business Review found employees who are learning at work are happier, more engaged, and experience less anxiety and stress.
Here’s what I learned from that experience: I was born to work in human resources, but maybe not as an HR manager. Learning is what saved me from floundering in a career and moved me into consulting. And I know that learning more about HR can open up doors for you.
Learn more about coworkers and organization
Sometimes it takes more than individual learning to move the needle. There are moments when we need to do some deep thinking — combined with a bit of research — to change our lives for the better.
When I told Katie that I was writing an article about how learning can improve a career in human resources, and especially after a pandemic, she immediately highlighted that it’s tough to develop your skills when the world is on fire.
She said, "During the early days of the pandemic, it was hard to focus on anything outside of core needs. Most people I know in HR were asking themselves — How do I survive this? Will I have an income? How will I parent or care for my loved ones while working from home? So for the vast majority of folks, the pandemic was not a time of learning new skills (besides maybe learning about sourdough starters, whatever the heck that is) but, instead, accessing some very core skills of adapting to compounding pressures."
Katie added, "In the first few days of the pandemic, I had grand ambitions to write, to read, to utilize the time for introspection and learning. But the truth was (and is) that it was a time of grief, parenting in new ways, confusion, profound exhaustion, and re-lived trauma — particularly after George Floyd's murder. So, my plans for deep learning and writing went out the window. Unfortunately, I think that is true for many of us."
I asked Katie to reflect on the career dissatisfaction that so many HR professionals feel in their current roles and how this concept of "learning" might be a tool to enable career growth. She suggested that we focus on learning more about prospective employers rather than hyper-focusing on our own perceived skill deficiencies.
Katie said, "Companies are eager to get back to normal. However, it is crucial to pause and ask — What is the normal we seek to get back to? Because for many employees, pre-COVID workplaces were toxic, racist, ableist, and oppressive. Normal did not work for a lot of folks. So instead of wishing to go back to normal, I encourage HR professionals and all job seekers to learn about prospective employers. Evaluate what worked well and for whom. Ask what they have changed, what they are willing to change, and how they will support employees who felt unsafe in a pre-COVID work environment."
Learning about companies and how they align with your values before you jump ship and participate in the "Turnover Tsunami," that's an excellent perspective-building strategy that will aid your career development today, tomorrow and beyond.
Learn how to dig deep and reflect
Jeff Miller is a California-based chief learning officer and vice president of organizational effectiveness at Cornerstone. During the pandemic, Jeff focused on helping his organization get ready to return to work — physically and philosophically.
When I asked him what he learned about learning during the COVID-19 crisis, he said: "The past year provided the greatest opportunity for learning about human behavior that we will probably ever see in our lifetimes. People were learning and growing throughout the pandemic, but the focus was on immediate needs to survive and not necessarily long-term strategies to solve problems."
It turns out that people like you and me — HR practitioners, managers, recruiters, payroll administrators, compensation analysts, benefits specialists, HR business partners — were consuming content about vital topics like communicating virtually, wellbeing, diversity and inclusion.
But, regrettably, we weren't getting to the root of the problems, whether it's individual career dissatisfaction or the systemic bias built into the fabric of many of our policies and programs.
Jeff said, "When a goal is clear and is repeated, we can focus through noise."
So, it's time to get clear on what we want out of a career and an experience at work. How do you do that? Try adopting a learning mindset and ask yourself:
- What did you learn about yourself during the pandemic?
- What surprised you about the past year?
- What skills or behaviors did you learn during the past 12 months?
- What do you need to unlearn?
Jeff also warned against making assumptions or prescribing solutions too soon for anything, whether it's your career path or a professional challenge that you're facing at work. So, slow down. He said, "The risk is that we miss an opportunity to reflect."
Learn to trust yourself
I hope that you take any career dissatisfaction as an opportunity to reflect on the past year and get crystal clear on what you want. Need a place to start?
- Learn more about the field of human resources — and all the opportunities and challenges you could tackle — by seeking your certification with HRCI or SHRM.
- Go easy on yourself for not learning anything new during the pandemic.
- Before you consider a job change, ask a prospective employer about the true nature of their employees' experiences.
- Slow down, think about your experiences over the last year, and don't miss an opportunity to reflect. That’s how you grow.
I believe that the act of learning is the antidote to career fatigue, boredom, burnout and frustration. If done right, your learning strategy can positively impact your life and even change the trajectory of an entire organization — whether they're ready for it or not.
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Taking A Company-Wide Approach to Learning & Development
There’s a lot of coordination that goes into a company’s learning and development programming, from identifying skills gaps and creating engaging content to scaling initiatives company-wide. And because there’s so much complex planning involved, organizations can sometimes get caught up in the details, and overlook how L&D fits into broader organizational goals. A recent survey—titled "The Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change"—from Cornerstone People Research Lab (CPRL) and the Human Capital Institute (HCI) found that only 55% of organizations believe their L&D programs are well-aligned with their company’s overarching strategy. But CPRL and HCI’s survey reveals two logical ways to overcome this challenge. First, there’s a need for L&D executives to participate in strategic conversations around organizational goals to ensure that L&D planning aligns with broader business plans. And second, it’s important to share responsibility for learning effectiveness. If facilitating continuous learning is a part of everyone’s role, it becomes easier to integrate it organization-wide. Promote Cross-Departmental Collaboration and Responsibility To better align L&D efforts with overarching business goals, learning executives have to participate in strategic conversations about organizational direction. For instance, when business leaders gather to discuss goals and KPIs for the coming year or quarter, HR and L&D leaders should be involved in those conversations. And the opposite is also true: Business leaders need to help direct the learning outcomes framed against those goals. According to the "Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change" survey from CPRL and HCI, only about half (51%) of learning leaders report being involved in these discussions. During these business planning discussions, it’s important to establish accountability, especially among people managers. CPRL and HCI found 67% of people managers report being involved in the creation of content, but only 47% are involved in the accountability for the results. By holding more people accountable to the success of L&D programs, it can be easier for a company to spot pitfalls or opportunities for improvement. It creates shared goals for measuring effectiveness, and establishes a process for making changes. For example, by getting people managers involved in L&D initiatives, L&D leaders can work with them to get a better understanding of a specific team’s skill gaps or what reskilling or new skilling solutions will work best for them. All leaders in an organization, in fact, should be eager to participate and own their team’s newskilling, reskilling or upskilling efforts. Ask a people manager in the IT department to reiterate the importance of learning to their team, and track the amount of time their employees spend on learning content. This approach will not only create a shared commitment to continuous learning, but can also help leaders outside of L&D and HR get a better idea of what content or formats work best for their teams and recommend adjustments accordingly. Continuous Learning Is Everyone’s Responsibility Aligning overarching business plans and strategy with learning and development efforts can improve each’s efficacy. The more cross-departmental collaboration that exists, the more information that HR and L&D leaders have about their workforce and its needs, strengths and weaknesses. And with more accountability, all stakeholders in an organization can become more involved in ensuring the successful partnership between L&D and a company’s overall strategy. To learn more about the findings from Cornerstone’s "The Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change" survey and its recommendations for using cross-departmental collaboration and accountability to help with L&D efforts, click here to download and read the full report.
Why supporting neurodiversity is essential for any successful workforce today
When we think of diversity in the workforce, we typically think of it along the lines of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender. But focusing only on those four is its own sort of constraint. To truly create a successful and diverse workplace, you need to ensure you're also embracing neurodiversity too. Understanding neurodiversity In the late 1990s, a single mother in Australia named Judy Singer began studying Disability Studies at University of Technology Sydney. Her daughter had recently been diagnosed with what was then known as “Asperger’s Syndrome,” a form of autism spectrum disorder. As she read more and more about autism as part of her studies, Singer also suspected that her mother, and she herself, may have had some form of autism spectrum disorder. Singer describes crying as she realized that her mother, with whom she'd had a tumultuous relationship throughout her childhood, wasn’t purposefully cold or neurotic as she had thought. She just had a different kind of mind. In her honors thesis, Singer coined the term “neurodiversity.” For Singer, people with neurological differences like autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or dyslexia were a social class of their own and should be treated as such. If we are going to embrace diversity of race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc., then we must embrace a diversity of the mind. The following video is an excerpt from the "Neurodiversity" Grovo program, which is available in the Cornerstone Content Anytime Professional Skills subscription. Neurodiversity in today's workplace Recently, neurodiversity has become a trendy term in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging spaces. And many organizations are working to hire more neurodivergent people, as well as give them opportunities to thrive at work. That’s why, at Cornerstone, we recently produced a series of lessons on neurodiversity. If your organization hasn’t prioritized neurodiverse inclusion yet, here are some reasons why it both supports your people and organization. 1) Neurodivergent people are underemployed Neurodivergent people, especially people with autism, are widely under-employed, regardless of their competence. In the United States, 85% of college graduates with autism are unemployed. According to a 2006 study, individuals with ADHD have higher rates of unemployment than individuals without. However, there is no evidence that neurodivergent people are less competent or less intelligent than neurotypical people. Organizations are missing out on talented people. 2) Neurodivergent people are more common than you may think Neurodiversity manifests in many different ways. It can encompass autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome, and many other conditions. And as scientists have learned more about what makes someone neurodivergent, they're identifying more and more people. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 160 children have some form of autism spectrum disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in every 162 children have Tourette Syndrome, and roughly 8 percent of children under 18 have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. And that's just children. How many adults, like Judy Singer's mother, have struggled their whole lives without a diagnosis? People who are neurodivergent are everywhere. Diverse organizations are stronger Diverse organizations and teams not only have better financial returns than less-diverse ones, but they also perform better. Having the different perspectives presented by people who are neurodivergent can help your team solve more difficult problems. Different perspectives and different ways of thinking lead to creativity and innovation.
Why Selecting a Leadership Development Program Is Way Too Complicated
Many organizations face a leadership gap and cannot find the talent needed to grow. We could blame the retiring baby boomer phenomenon, the free agent nation, or the lack of investment made in developing leaders. But since blame is a lazy man’s wage, I will not entertain that debate because there are too many options out there for developing leaders. There are many leadership development programs in the market. In minutes, with a simple Internet search or over coffee with your head of human resources, you can discover myriad high-quality leadership development programs that you could use in your organization to develop leaders. The problem is not finding a good program, but in choosing one. Answer the Right Questions So how does one choose? The problem we face in evaluating leadership development programs is that we get caught up in evaluating the content rather than asking a simple question, "What do we want our leaders to be able to do?" Each organization is unique in how it answers this question. And that is where the secret lies. If an organization can select a program that matches the answer to the question above, the selected program will likely be the right one. After all, each leadership development program is very good in some way. It is not so important which one you select. It is important that you use the one you select. In other words, the key is to not let it become another un-opened binder on the bookshelves of your management team. Be An Effective Leader Let me give you an example: If an organization’s answer to the question above is, "We want our leaders to be proactive and focused on the things that drive results," your choices are narrowed down to only a few programs that would deliver on that answer. And if I had to pick one program that would deliver on that answer, without hesitation, I would choose, "The Effective Executive" by Peter F. Drucker. It is a classic, and all five of the behaviors of effective executives taught in the book remain vital skills that any leader should practice if he or she wants to be effective in his or her organization. In the book, Drucker teaches that effective executives: Know where their time goes Focus on contribution and results Build on strengths Concentrate on first things first Make effective decisions This is not a book review or a plug for "The Effective Executive," though I do believe if you had to choose one set of skills to teach your leadership, it would be the five from Drucker’s book. This is a challenge for every organization to simplify the selection of leadership development programs, and ask, "What do we want our leaders to be able to do?" Answering this question clearly will help you choose the right program. After all, many programs are excellent. The secret to success is not in which program you choose, but that you get people to apply the program you choose. Photo: Can Stock