The HR Career Mosaic—How to Manage Your Career

By Dave Ulrich | August 28, 2018

In each of the last five years, I have coached over 60 aspiring HR professionals who have remarkable competence and passion. While they each have individual challenges, the most common concerns relate to their careers: What does a career in HR look like? How do I move ahead? What should I do next to move forward in my career?

In each of the last five years, I have coached over 60 aspiring HR professionals who have remarkable competence and passion. While they each have individual challenges, the most common concerns relate to their careers: What does a career in HR look like? How do I move ahead? What should I do next to move forward in my career?

My coaching response has two parts: first, the emerging logic of what makes a career (in HR or elsewhere); second, the choices individuals make to define their career success.

What is the logic of a career?

Careers Phase 1: Career Stages

Early work on and the paradigm around careers focused on career stages and often identified four stages likely to shape a career. Important for moving through a career, one needed to master skills at each stage.

Career Stages
  1 Learner 2 Individual Contributor 3 Manager 4 Strategist
Role Helper and Learner Independent Contributor Coach and Develop Others Shape Organizational Direction
Primary Relationship Apprentice Colleague and Specialist Mentor Manager or Idea Leader Sponsor and Strategist
Role Responsibility Dependence Independence Responsibility for Others Exercise Power

Careers Phase 2: Career Transitions

Career stages research shifted to thinking about careers in terms of transitions where individuals start a career then make a managerial or technical choice as their career progresses. Managerial tracks enabled individuals to lead groups and organizations, while the technical track allowed individuals to stay engrained in their expertise but broaden their impact.

Career Transitions Model

Careers Phase 3: Career Mosaic

Today, in many cases, career logic has evolved to a mosaic where individuals have continual choice. The mosaic logic in HR says that you can work in four general areas: specialist (compensation, labor, training, OD), generalist (embedded HR within a business unit), geography (locked into one geography), or outside HR (either outside the company or in other areas in the company). And instead of simply following one stream upward as in career stages and transitions, mosaic careers can take multiple paths, as shown in the figure. Someone can still be a functional specialist (or geography bound or an embedded generalist) their entire career, moving into increasingly larger roles (circles) and ultimately shaping the specialty. But someone can also move around multiple roles and positions within a company. In a career mosaic model, careers are much more flexible. Also, Lynda Gratton has talked about the career implications of living longer. This life longevity changes the model of a career as well since someone might have multiple careers in her or his lifetime.

Career Mosaic

What are the personal implications of a career mosaic logic?

As I coach HR (and other) professionals through the career mosaic, I often prompt them with seemingly obvious career tips but which are good reminders and of questions they should be asking themselves to navigate this new “career mosaic” world.

  1. Take control of your career. Legacy organizations would often dictate career options and choices. Now, you “own” your career. You are ultimately responsible for your career choices: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” (“Invictus” by William Henley). When things work, be humble; when things don’t work, be resilient. In all cases, be curious and accountable. Where do I want to participate in the career mosaic?
  2. Fold the future into the present. Anticipate or envision where you see yourself in the future (five, ten, fifteen, or even twenty years), then fold that future image into today’s choices. Be ambitious but realistic. Ambitions come from interests, strengths, and passions. Realism comes from brutal self-candor and honest recognition of strengths and weaknesses. Realistic ambitions enable planned opportunism where you can set a future and take advantage of opportunities that arise (e.g., task forces, assignments, projects). Be flexible in your career journey, envisioning that today’s choices with the available opportunities ultimately add up to tomorrow’s desires. Manage the inevitable sequencing and flow of a career: sometimes being more aggressive and sometimes being more passive. What can I do in the near term to realize the long term?
  3. Create and evolve your personal brand. Develop your personal reputation and identity by being very good at something that serves others. Your personal brand should also capture who you are as seen by others. See yourself as others see you and compare that with how you want to be seen. Your personal brand can and should evolve as you are brutally honest with yourself and as you learn and grow. What do I want to be known for by others?
  4. Maintain positive relationships. Career events (jobs, assignments, roles, titles) come and go, but relationships (teammates, colleagues) remain over time. Improve relationship skills: make and receive bids, be curious about others, learn to forgive and apologize, share credit and take blame, seek new friends who are both like and not like you, stay in touch with those in your network, be available to others when they are in need, and graciously receive others’ help when you are in need. Create and nurture your personal network of relationships that will continually participate in your career journey. Who are the people I care about?
  5. Measure career success by your standards. Don’t let others define what career success looks like for you. Define your purpose, your sense of accomplishment, and your journey to achieve it. Success is an inherently personal preference. It varies by person, and it varies over time for any one person. Success is also multidimensional. It includes professional accomplishments but also being close and available to family and friends and taking care of yourself. Sometimes having a clearly measurable scorecard (e.g., net worth, job title, or followers on LinkedIn) as a criterion of success is seductive and easy. But most useful is to have a perceived value scorecard that is built around relationships and the value you give to and get from key relationships. Having your standard of success will help you manage trade-offs between good and good. Good versus bad choices are not generally difficult to make, but good versus good choices are more demanding. Good choices to make and things to do are innumerable. You cannot do them all, or all at once, so define what success looks like for you and hold to that standard. How will I know I have been successful in my career?

Career mosaics change how you think about your career and inform the choices you make to guide your success. So what advice would you give yourself?

Alongside my colleagues at The RBL Group, we help HR Leaders align their company's brand identity with leadership brand, employer brand, and a high performing culture. To learn about our Leadership Development programs and events worldwide, click here.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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