Whose Moccasins Are You Wearing?

Like too few of my colleagues in Human Resources, I actually fell into an HR “Business Partner” role after years in other positions. Ten years of sales, overlapped with management, operations, and training, then recruiting, then somehow I found myself in the HR suite in my early 30’s.

What I found, to my benefit, was that my past job experience offered me an advantage in credibility, perspective, and ability to relate to the leaders with whom I was assigned to support. It really shouldn’t be too hard to realize why, but the fact was somehow lost on my peers, most of who had been in an HR function for their entire professional careers.

Sales and Marketing, above all, is a difficult department to infiltrate. I was given Global Sales as my first business unit to support, almost by default. Salespeople, and especially sales managers, are reluctant to seek counsel from someone who has never carried the bag. It’s a brotherhood (and sisterhood) based on the experience of being subjected to quotas,

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rejection, and achievements (or lack thereof) that are visible to the entire corporate world. Rankings, standings, “President’s Club” winners, performance improvement plans (PIP’s), plaques – there’s no hiding in Sales, you either make your number, or you leave the game.

So, throw that dynamic into a Sales/Human Resources working relationship. The names Felix & Oscar come to mind; or, worse is the perception of “Company Cop” – I always hated that term, and was determined to not be the conversation killer when entering a room. My path to a partnership to sales was littered with the empty shells of HR Managers before me – bullied, beaten, and then discarded.

My secret weapon? Easy – dumb luck. Having fought in the trenches myself, I could speak the language, share war stories, and have a general understanding of the challenges faced by salespeople and their managers. Any advantages you have in the ways of communicating with your client are critical.

The moral of the story? If you do have a desire to work in Human Resources, you’re much better served by working in a functional role outside of HR before making the leap. Policies and procedures can be read by anyone, what you need to do is live it first.

So hit me, whose moccasins are you wearing?

FOT Background Check

John Whitaker
“Whit” is an HR Business Strategist and Staffing Professional: he primarily works in the healthcare industry, because... healthcare. A Texan, he tends to amuse us (okay, he amuses himself) with colloquialisms and a cowboy’s view on our industry. John honed his HR chops at Alcon Laboratories and CVS Caremark before starting HR Hardball™ in 2010. He currently hangs his sombrero at DentalOne Partners where he has been fortunate enough to lead a world-class team of recruiting professionals. You can email Whit, find him on LinkedIn, or read more of his brain-droppings at www.HRhardball.com


  1. Tarik Taman says:

    John, you’re right that speaking the language of business is essential and I’ve worked in sales myself. But what about those who haven’t? Any tips on how to learn the language without having gone through total immersion?

  2. Tarik, there’s no substitute for experience, but….if someone wanted to live the life, they need to go on field rides with various reps. Granted, the first few are rough – YOU try telling a rep that “HR is coming to see you” without them freaking out, so ask for rides with high-performers or soon-to-be promoted reps.
    At some point in the day, tell them you want to do the pitch, ask them to critique you as they would a rep working for them…they freaking love that.

    • Tarik Taman says:

      John, I had to laugh when I read your suggestion about HR making the pitch while the sales guys critique them. I was imagining how I would have responded to that in my days as road warrior. But yes, I one hundred percent agree, getting out of the office and into the field/onto the factory floor/onto the sales counter, is a great way for HR (or anyone) to get a reality check on how people really do their jobs.

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