How to Grow as an HR Leader: 5 Tips From Real Professionals

Want to advance your HR career? Discover five tips for enhancing your leadership skills in HR, from real professors and industry professionals.
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Updated on September 27, 2023
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  • A master's in human resources can provide practical knowledge for burgeoning HR leaders.
  • Developing soft skills like empathy and strategic thinking are essential to effective leadership.
  • HR leaders should stay familiar with current issues facing the HR industry.
  • Seek mentors and connect with the community to grow your HR expertise and network.

Advertising Disclosure: This content was created by BestColleges and sponsored by USC Bovard College.

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Human resources managers earned a median salary of $126,230 per year in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Advancing your career to HR leadership positions takes proactive planning and often creative solutions.

So what exactly do you need to become an effective HR leader? We asked three professionals and professors from USC Bovard College's online MS in human resource management program to share their top tips for growing your career as an HR leader.

1. Get a Graduate Degree in Human Resource Management

Many HR professionals earn an advanced degree in human resource management to further their careers and increase their industry expertise.

While an advanced degree in HR or strategic leadership aren't necessary to progress in the field, they are helpful in setting you up for success, said Deborah Glynn, Ed.D., senior vice president of talent acquisition and development at Material.

Change management, leadership development, organizational effectiveness, and data analytics are all tools that HR leaders need in this ever-changing work environment, she continued.

Glynn is one of USC Bovard College's industry experts, with over 20 years of experience in the human resources and operational leadership fields.

An MS in human resource management benefits HR professionals by giving them a solid foundation and the tools they need to tackle the challenges of today and those of tomorrow, said Glynn.

Sample MS in Human Resource Management Courses at USC Bovard College

  • HR Strategy
  • Organizational Design
  • Talent Management
  • Total Rewards
  • Learning and Development
  • Employee Relations
  • Leadership
  • Future of HR
  • Data Analytics

Graduate school offers a forum to practice and refine critical thinking skills in a safe environment, echoed Kyle Chavez, Ed.D., a discipline practice leader for organizational effectiveness at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It also provides a baseline of theory bridged to practical application that one can leverage in their career.

A graduate program in human resources can simulate real-life scenarios you'll encounter as an HR lead while providing you with the skills to tackle those challenges. Students who start a graduate degree after working for several years can apply that experience to the classroom.

I have observed graduate students who have had a few years of experience in HR do very well in applying their on-the-job career examples to their formal learning, and this approach makes their learning journey a practical one, said Chavez.

HR professionals looking for flexibility should prioritize online programs, like USC Bovard College's MS in human resource management, so they can continue working while earning their advanced degrees.

Students that do not have as much experience might also benefit from returning to school as they gain introductions to the many facets of HR, which they may not have access to since they are just starting out in their HR careers, said Chavez.

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2. Build Essential Soft Skills

Developing a suite of soft skills is essential to a successful career in human resources.

The most complex and important are soft skills such as communication, listening, strategic thinking, business acumen, ethical decision-making, problem-solving, courage, [and] integrity, said Glynn.

You can acquire the necessary technical skills through a combination of education and work experience.

In addition to a strong command of hard skills such as data analytics and technology, HR leaders need vast knowledge of complex topics around compensation, immigration, compliance, and benefits, explained Glynn.

Soft skills are the bread and butter of the HR industry — and mastering them is more likely to guide you toward leadership positions.

Some important traits and skills an HR leader should have include having empathy, having a consultative approach to clients, being able to navigate ambiguity and complexity, having an ability to manage conflict, facilitating problem-solving, understanding and applying analytics, and having an understanding for the business and industry that an HR leader supports, said Chavez.

Soft skills can help you better understand the people who work for your company and empower HR leaders to build their systems based specifically on their employees.

3. Understand the Challenges of the HR Industry

Familiarizing yourself with the challenges and obstacles within the HR industry is critical for burgeoning leaders. Being able to solve the problems HR professionals currently face can bring undeniable value to a company.

Some of the biggest challenges that face all HR professionals today are the competition for talent, finding and retaining employees, keeping candidates and employees engaged and productive, and aligning company culture with candidates' values, said Glynn.

According to Glynn, those challenges can be either barriers to your success or opportunities to shine.

Taking the time to understand the challenges along with the strategic business goals of the organization will enable young professionals to be strategic and contribute to the overall success of their team and their organization, said Glynn.

Staying up to date with the industry outside your company can also help you develop creative solutions and anticipate potential challenges.

The field of human resources crosses all industries, and it can benefit HR professionals to look beyond their current organization or industry to understand the considerations and applications of HR best practices in different environments and industries, said Jamie Jacobs, a professor at USC Bovard College and co-founder of Gig Talent.

Understanding human resources in other industries can allow you to expand your opportunities and learn from other professionals.

4. Develop Expertise in a Variety of Disciplines

Over the course of your HR career, try to develop expertise across specializations. HR professionals work in various fields and forms, and the more varied your experience is, the more opportunities you'll likely have.

It is common for those that have an aspiration to become a senior executive in the HR field to also have a broad level of knowledge and experience that is required to lead large HR organizations, explained Chavez.

HR leaders are typically expected to understand every role that works under them. This means spending time in roles such as an HR generalist, benefits, compensation, talent acquisition, employee relations, and learning and development, said Chavez.

Moving and advancing through different departments is one easy way to learn those skills.

Start early through internships, and keep applying for entry-level roles, advised Chavez. If possible, take on additional assignments that will gain some level of HR knowledge or experience.

Smaller organizations and startups may have more opportunities for you to wear multiple hats and quickly master an array of HR disciplines. You can also learn about other HR disciplines with organizations beyond your workplace.

Get involved by becoming a member in related associations relevant to the HR disciplines, said Chavez. There are associations and groups that network and share knowledge on a regular basis and offer support, networking, and access to HR career opportunities.

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5. Find Mentors and Connect With Your Community

Seeking out mentors throughout your HR career can help you grow as a leader and make connections resulting in advancement. You can find mentors through formal mentorship programs, within your organization, and even through your alumni network.

Developing in HR relies heavily on learning from others, said Chavez. Finding a few mentors in a desired HR career track can really accelerate and ease transitions along the personal development path.

Mentors can help you tackle problems in your current role and prepare you for future roles.

I would also recommend requesting opportunities to take on stretch assignments that may not fall within the scope of responsibilities for the HR professional, explained Chavez. Your HR manager or mentor can help you flex new skills and task you with responsibilities to take you to the next level.

And don't forget to connect with your peers and the HR community as a whole.

Take advantage of learning opportunities within organizations and within professional development communities, said Jacobs. Get involved in your local HR community and build strong relationships with other HR professionals.

Connecting with peers can lead to new job opportunities. It's also helpful for growing your skillset. If you come across a unique challenge in your role, you can reach out to peers from other organizations to learn how they've tackled a similar problem.

At the end of the day, human resources is a people business — and connecting with the right people will prove essential to your success as an HR leader.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Deborah Glynn, Ed.D.

Deborah Glynn, Ed.D.

Deborah Glynn is the senior vice president of talent acquisition and development at Material, a marketing services company that integrates analytics and design thinking to ignite growth in diverse companies around the world. She has over 20 years of proven success across advertising, big data, and technology industries, with corporate experience ranging from Vail Resorts to Oracle.

Leveraging her expertise in operational leadership for large-scale organizations, Deborah has also consulted with startups and established midsized companies in developing growth, talent acquisition, executive leadership, search, and coaching strategies. Her broad areas of expertise include diversity and inclusion, organizational change, team leadership, infrastructure development, and best practice implementation.

Deborah obtained her BA in communication from the University of Iowa and her MS in organizational leadership from Regis University. She earned her Ed.D. in organizational change and leadership from the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.

Portrait of Kyle Chavez, Ed.D.

Kyle Chavez, Ed.D.

Dr. Kyle Chavez is the discipline practice leader for organizational effectiveness at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He supports institutional functions for both flight and non-flight missions, enterprise business operations, manufacturing, and line management. Dr. Chavez has over 20 years of experience in developing teams, leaders, and strategic support for organizational change. Additionally, he has experience and expertise in the human resource disciplines of culture, learning and development, talent planning, and strategy.

He has held several senior-level roles at various organizations, working in nonprofit, government, aerospace, and Fortune 50 financial institutions. He is also the founder and managing director of a consulting firm that delivers coaching and expert knowledge in the areas of organizational behavior and development for professionals, leaders, teams, and the larger enterprise. Dr. Chavez has a passion for higher education and learning, and he is an associate adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.

Dr. Chavez serves on a board for a nonprofit organization that provides support and empowerment for at-risk populations and victims of assault. He previously served in the United States Marine Corps. He earned his BA from California State University, Fullerton; his MS from the University of La Verne; and his doctorate from the University of Southern California. He also has numerous certifications in leadership and professional psychometric assessments.

Portrait of Jamie Jacobs

Jamie Jacobs

Jamie Latiano Jacobs is an award-winning leader and entrepreneur who has led diverse organizations through growth, change, and transformation for more than 20 years. As an HR leader, she was known for transforming and building excellence in HR teams and company cultures. Her experience ranges from independent startups to global Fortune 50s in an even broader range of industries with companies like Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Ingersoll-Rand, Ingram Micro, Thales, and Renovate America. Jamie is the co-founder of the modern talent collective, Gig Talent.

Jamie is a former president of the National Human Resources Association, a professor in USC Bovard College's MS in human resource management program, and an ICF professional certified coach. She has been recognized with accolades like the 2016 HR Superstar by HRO Today and the Women Who Mean Business Award by the San Diego Business Journal.