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HR Career Advice from... HR Director Karen Sanders

Experienced HR Director and CIPD mentor Karen Sanders gives her guidance on choosing the right company and standing out to senior leadership and colleagues.


Tell me, exactly what is it that you do?

I can remember being asked this question a long time ago when as a new HR Director, I walked purposefully into my first board meeting and proudly towards my seat at the top table, only to find that the board members hadn’t any idea what I was there ‘to do’ and, as I didn’t have any items on the agenda, what was I going to contribute to this very important and high-level meeting!

HR was a relatively new concept at this point. People understood ‘personnel’ and ‘touchy feelie issues and tissues’ but nothing around strategy, impact and dare I say it, financial acumen!

It came sharply back into my mind recently when I was asked if a colleague (one of our apprentices) could shadow me for a few days because what I ‘did’ (and I am not sure what he thought I did) looked like ‘fun’, but to him, importantly, it was clear that people in the organisation knew me, liked me and listened to me.  As he put it, ‘good stuff just happens when you are around’, and to help his career he wanted to be able to do that. Praise indeed! 

Believe me, I know the value of well-planned activities, whether that be an attraction campaign, a board meeting, an event or a courageous conversation with a member of staff, but I made the decision not to plan or engineer the time, just to let it flow and see where it went.

The few days turned into a week and, to be honest, for most of the time I forgot I had a shadow, and so what he observed during that time was me doing what I do in a natural state. 

At the end of the week, having remembered my shadow and also my professional manners, I asked for some ‘how was it for you’ feedback. What do you know now that you didn’t know before and what will you do with the new knowledge?

There was a blank stare and a few moments of uncomfortable silence before he said ‘I am exhausted!’  Not the actual word used but for blog-ability purposes I have changed it so as not to cause offence!

He continued, ‘I had absolutely no idea about the scale and complexity of the things we do here and the reach across it and through it that your role has. HR is nothing like I thought it was (policies, procedures, recruiting, smiling, sacking, a bit of training) - in fact HR is not HR at all!  HR is like a pump pushing the energy flow through the organisation; like a conductor in the orchestra.’

‘Well, that’s exactly right,’ I replied. ‘There are around 3,000 people here, so it’s important that there are no blockages in the machinery and our orchestra has the right instruments and the right score to play today. Tomorrow it may be very different.’

My apprentice has decided that HR is the direction of career travel he wants to take, and to help him and any other aspiring HR types at whatever stage of their career, my four key pieces of ‘learnt experience’ are:


Be the Custodian of the Culture

Chose the organisation or sector you want to work in carefully, don’t be drawn just by salary (although it is attractive!) or hype or even job title!

Look at what HR’s role is and see if that matches what you want to do in terms of improving work and working lives. If it’s only about developing policies, procedures and ensuring compliance with them and you are all about organisational design or employee engagement, it will not be a good fit.

Do the values or mission of the organisation match your values? Importantly, does it do what it says on the tin? HR will need to ensure that the values flow through the organisation to create energy, momentum and success.


Be Visible

Don’t assume that people know what you do or what HR is there for in your organisation. You and HR need to be visible, not remote or swooping in like the policy police when something is going wrong. The impact you have should be as visible as you are.  Don’t leap in and do ‘HR’ – that is a little like joining a protest and then announcing your intention not to take part! 

We are about business improvement and creating the conditions where success can happen and that should be obvious to all who see you. Be useful in the broadest sense, use your abilities to help, advise and solve organisational challenges.  

As our apprentice put it, ‘you are the conductor of the orchestra’, so choose your music wisely, pick your musicians with care and conduct well.


Be Valuable

Know, understand and respect your organisation. Watch the rhythm and see it through the eyes of your Chief Exec, Board and Senior Leaders – understand the challenges and opportunities and how the numbers add up – then apply it through the lens of the roles the workforce need to perform.

Use the traits that make you personally valuable: specialist knowledge, skills, the ability to influence, connect and open doors, the reliability factor that means you will keep to commitments and follow through. And perhaps most importantly, behave ethically and be trusted and own what you do.

And finally –


Be Likeable

Be the person that is key to projects, actions and fun. They all sit together in terms of ‘organisational fit’.

It doesn’t mean compromising your values (which should resonate with those of the organisation) or pandering to people who don’t agree with you or are assertive in their views.  Being likeable is about credibility, integrity and influence.

Once you have developed those, your ability to influence will grow and the organisation will feel the impact and know ‘exactly what it is that you do’!


About the Author 

Karen has worked in both the public and private sectors for over 20 years. Before joining her current organisation as HR Director, Karen held the roles of National Director, Employment Policy and Services; Group Director – HR & OD; and Executive Director – HR. She has successfully led her organisations through IIP, IiD and Best Companies Accreditation, and achieved a place in the top third of the Sunday Times Best Places to Work list. 

Karen is a regular contributor to HR publications and is in demand as a speaker on best practice and innovation in HRM and employee engagement. When she isn’t ‘doing what she does’, she’s also a Non-Executive Director for the St Thomas of Canterbury Academy Trust, an Enterprise Adviser for SEMLEP, and a mentor with the Northamptonshire CIPD Mentor programme.


Want more advice from HR leaders? Read our other blogs in the series from Natalie Ellis and Charles Goff-Deakins


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