In the certification classes, one of the key competencies that are considered necessary for someone to be a successful human resources professional is business acumen, that knowledge of how the business really operates. This business acumen can be learned in two ways, through study or through experience.
Peter Drucker, management guru deluxe, advises that all staff workers spend time in operational positions. He says specifically:
“Don’t ever put anyone into a staff job unless he or she has successfully held a number of operating jobs, preferably in more than one functional area.” (The Daily Drucker, pg. 362, Rules for Staff People)
Yet few training programs for HR people ever suggest this. I have not heard of any HR hire that starts of intentionally in an operational position. I do recall a story from the SHRM HR magazine that told a story of a VP of HR who took over a hospital gift shop for six months. She said that it gave her a new appreciation for what operational managers had to go through. I know that some of the best HR managers I have met started out in operational positions before transitioning to HR. This gave them the business acumen so often missing in HR staff.
Look for someone in operations
If you are looking for future HR professionals look for your candidates in operational positions. Look for people who know how to handle the people aspects of those operational positions. They can be taught the rules and regulations. It is harder to teach emotional intelligence.
If you are thinking of HR as a career, think first about starting out in operations. If you are currently in HR and want to advance, think about a transfer to operations. The experience you gain will make you invaluable to your company.