Manager, Director or VP of HR: Generalists Rule the World…

Kris Dunn HR, Kris Dunn, Organizational Development, Working With Recruiters

I’m an HR Generalist by trade, and I’ve always been proud of that fact.  A good generalist can do it all, with style, grace and a street-smart attitude that’s almost impossible to replace.

Of course, some people have periodically said that the generalist role is dead or in the process of dying, with Jack Kevorkian in the next room.  I’ve always said that’s not true, since there are literally hundreds of thousands of businesses, both large and small, that run on the back of generalists from an HR support perspective.

Here’s the bigger problem – world-class generalists hear the buzz, look inward and wonder if they’re involved in something sexy enough to invest the rest of their careers in.  I’ve got a couple of examples, like this one with my friend Jessica Lee writing on topic at the HR Examiner.

But wait? Could a bad economy be the key to making the Generalist, in HR and elsewhere, sexy again?  More from Workforce Recruiting:

“as companies slashed their workforces during the recession, employee specialists became an endangered species. Firms needed generalists who could adapt quickly, think on their feet and competently perform duties often beyond their job description.  Those jack-of-all-trade workers remain crucial to companies for their ability to handle multiple assignments. And versatility has emerged as a key quality that recruiters say they consider when filling vacancies these days.

“Who are the people who can work under pressure, work harder and earn less, who can take on new tasks, who can be OK out of their comfort zones?” says David Lewis, founder and president of OperationsInc., an HR outsourcing and consulting firm in Stamford, Connecticut. “Companies need people like this now.”

Cynthia Good, founder and CEO of Pink, a publication targeting young female executives, retained the people who could handle multiple assignments when the magazine cut staff and went online-only in late 2009.

“I used to have one copy editor, one rewrite editor, two event managers, a designer and several writers and salespeople,” Good says, adding that publishing online only (although she says Pink still provides some custom publishing) was based on reaching readers who are more tech-savvy and like to receive the publication’s content on mobile devices.

 “Now I have a half-dozen people working for me. My designer is also my media and video person, my line/copy editor also writes, my events person is now doing sales and is good at it. One person can wear a lot of hats in this economy where you must do more with less.”

Even with this economy-driven trend, I don’t think the best people in the talent space are generally longing to be generalists.   I think they’re wrong.  But the problem isn’t them, it’s us.

Another example – I got a call from a strong HR Director who had lost faith a bit in the HR Generalist model.  She felt it wasn’t working for her, and she didn’t have the talent she needed to move to the strategic space.  As a result, she was actively looking at Talent Management models from people like Josh Bersin and contrasting them to things included in the traditional Ulrich models as she understood them.

As you would expect, the Talent Management model was sexier than the traditional models that are built around the path of the generalist.

What I told the HR Director who called me is the same thing I would tell anyone who thinks the HR Generalist model is dead.  The problem isn’t the role of the HR Generalist at the manager, director and VP level, the problem is the feeder groups that we use to populate the Generalist role.

Use feeder groups from roles that are more transactional in nature (HR Coordinator, etc.), and you’re going to end up with Generalists that like to do transactions and migrate to that.  It’s not going to appear strategic, because we’ve pre-ordained that the DNA of the HR Generalist will be strongest in transactions due to the primary feeder group.

The answer is pretty simple in my eyes – mandate that your HR Generalists always have recruiting as part of their role – even if it’s a couple of open reqs.  Then, if you’re big enough, mandate that the recruiters in your organization take a rotation as a HR generalist.  Some will hate it, but more importantly, some will love the action on the employee relations front and the light OD exposure they get.  They’ll also love being the head talent pro in charge of a client group.

At that point, your feeder group/reputation issue for the HR Generalist role will be solved.  The HR Generalist role (with 100s of different titles) will be attractive,

Kids out of B-School don’t want to do transactions.  Fix the feeder groups, and you fix the problem.