Do Top HR Pros Need To Be Cross-Trained?


July 31, 2013

Steve Boese, yes, THAT Steve Boese from “the Year of Steve”, is a good friend of mine.  He is also a HR Technology professor at RIT.  Steve recently reached out to several bloggers and asked if we would be willing to have some of his students guest post on our blog.  I immediately volunteered because I know that blogs are a great way not only to share your thoughts as a writer, but an excellent way to learn from other professionals and improve your own approach.

Today I am hosting a guest post by Tina DeVey.   Tina shares a very personal story with us, so please take a moment at the end and leave her a comment.  I’m sure any suggestions would be very helpful as she embarks on a new situation at work.  I know the readers here are the BEST at sharing their thoughts and opinions, so let’s help her out.


Are we misleading HR students & professionals on what it really takes to be a top HR Leader?

Recently I have been asked to remove myself from my HR role and be the first to participate in a leadership cross-training program within my company.  I have “grown up” in the HR function with the same company, from HR clerk to HR Director, over a span of 15 years.  The request made me emotional.

The company is growing, two acquisitions in as many years, and my first thoughts were that I was somehow failing in my role.  Why else would you remove the HR person?  Then, after a deep breath, I remembered to put back on my HR hat and remove the emotion of not having the seat at the table and thoughts of failing in my job.  I asked the question, why should my position be different from any other in the organization as we look to develop future leaders of the company?

I recalled an article from Workforce Management from June 2008.  The article was a report about the HR professionals from America’s most admired companies.  HR Executives from companies such as Google, UPS, and GE were touted for their cross- functional backgrounds, most rising to the post from positions in other functions.  UPS encourages lifelong careers in multiple functions.  Allen Hill, the senior vice president of human resources, is a perfect example.  Mr. Hill started out loading trucks. He then moved to truck driver, delivery supervisor, several HR functions, and general counsel before taking the top spot.  Lazlo Bock, the Sr. HR guy at Google, hires two thirds of his staff from outside the field.

Fortune recently published an article, ‘How to Build Great Leaders’, which cites that cross-functional developmental assignments are among the most important tools that great companies use to build leaders, and average companies rarely use them.  The article goes on to express that truly great leaders are pushed outside their comfort zone and given stretch assignments. This nets big paybacks to the companies they work for.

So, as I end this post, the move is still causing me a great deal of anxiety, and will absolutely stretch me and take me out of my comfort zone.  But, I am up for the challenge and believe the payback will be big.  I hope to emerge a stronger HR leader and understand the business dynamics in an entire new light.

Do you believe companies are better served with HR leaders with multi-functional backgrounds?  Should we do away with HR development programs and hire from outside the HR realms?  Are we misleading students who seek to major in HR?  We tell them how important it is to “know” the business with Business Acumen classes, but is that enough?   Would HR be stronger and gain greater respect?

What do you think?


  • I wouldn’t mind betting that you will find more people from outside of HR making moves into it than people from within HR making moves out of it. Why?

    Perhaps because other professions attract better quality people capable of moving.
    Perhaps because organisations view their HR people as specialists incapable of lateral moves.
    Perhaps because HR people have no desire to move.

    I certainly believe that cross functional moves develop a breadth and level of commercial awareness that it is hard to develop from within only one function. I also believe you are fortunate to have this opportunity and should grab it with both hands.

  • Throughout my career, while I have been the HR practitioner in all of my companies, I have also worked hard to learn about the nature of the business, get involved with P & L conversations and jumped in to assist when a particular operator was unavailable.

    This has given me the ability to have a strong business perspective, as well as my HR expertise.

    Cross functional training is what gives us the ability to say “we know this business” – that’s what those external hires are able to bring to the table, and as HR Pros we must embrace the same mindset.

    Enjoy the time away from the HR desk, you might find that you love the cross-functional perspective.

  • I think that cross-training is essential, but I think that what constitutes training is generally overlooked, particularly if the training is non-traditional.

    I consider myself highly cross-trained because I have a very diverse work background. Negotiation skills? I learned these on the streets as a uniformed police officer, handling family trouble calls. Most of my fellow officers will tell you that no one on the force was better at handling domestic calls than me, and my negotiation skills are great because of it. But, unfortunately, it’s difficult to convince a potential employer of these skills.

    I would absolutely encourage you to get out of that comfort zone and find other areas of business to learn. You may be surprised and delighted to find that there is another path for you to pursue.

  • Cross-train? Yes. Absolutely.

    For a lot of reasons… especially including getting to know that gut-wrenching feeling that accompanies change and ambiguity.

    HR puts others through that all the time, by saying things like:

    -“Just hang tight, we’ll make an announcement soon.” (What should I do in the meantime?!)
    -“You’re not ready for a promotion yet; you don’t have enough executive presence.” (So how do I fix that?!)
    -“The reorganization is being done for strategic reasons.” (So how will this affect ME?!)

    I think it’s OK that HR does this—it’s part and parcel with being in a staff role as opposed to a job with direct P&L impact. (The P&L is where the ambiguity is!) I also think it’s great to rotate and get a taste of how other people experience the organization, its decisions, and its policies.

    Best wishes as you jump into your next assignment—dare to live the experience to the fullest!

  • No doubt, HR should be cross-trained. Perhaps undergoing a company bootcamp so they can be in a better position to understand the business as a whole, not just from the corner office.

    Having the capability to read resumes, pass out checks and issue assessments just isn’t enough anymore, not that it really ever was.

    I spoke with a retiree from IBM, and she shared the fact that all members of management had to serve in all departments if they wanted to continue on the managerial / leadership track.

    And so the same for HR. We are leaders, initiators, participators, managers, etc. Therefore, we must be a part of the organization by emerging ourselves into the companies we serve. If not, then we are just glorified paper pushers.

    Great post!

  • First – Thanks Trish for participating in the project with the class, you rock!

    Tina -Excellent and thought provoking piece. I think you raised some great questions and have received some outstanding feedback. I agree with Jason, this experience will only serve to help give you a great understanding of the other areas of the organization. Best of luck on this assignment.

  • Trish – thanks for hosting Tina’s post.

    Tina – I agree with Steve – your piece is great and very thought provoking. I’ve been asked several times in my career to “leave HR” and pursue an operations position. I’ve always viewed it as very flattering. But I never made the move.

    I did, however, make sure I continued to learn and support the operation by being involved in projects outside of the traditional scope of HR. And I was fortunate that my employer supported it. So whether someone stays in HR or spends time in another department, cross-training is essential.

  • I think your should count yourself as one of the lucky few. Most HR people get pigeonholed as “only HR” and have no opportunity to move even if they want to. You should embrace this, you should rejoice in this. You will learn so much and be a much better HR professional, assuming you opt to return to HR after this experience. I hope you do and bring your new perspective to the profession. Best wishes!

  • If HR wants to recruit top talent from different disciplines than HR, here’s a starting point:

    Start paying more.

    Low compensation + low organizational power = bad deal

    • @The HRD- I agree with much of what you say, but I don’t think that HR as a profession attracts lower quality people than other professions. I also don’t think that HR pros are not willing to move. I think it is critical that moving around within an organization is communicated in such a way so that the professional understands the purpose or the long-term goal aligned with the move. My personal take is that HR pros SHOULD be versed in finance, internal and external communications, marketing, operations, etc. Thanks for taking time to comment.

      @Tammy- Definitely important to be able to speak the same business language and it sounds like you have had lots of experience doing that. Thanks for commenting for Tina.

      @Joan- You bring a whole new level to the “cross-training” perspective. Not only cross training in business skills, but using other professions to bolster your ability to respond in a HR situation. I can see that having strong negotiation skills gained in the law enforcement field would be a huge benefit to just about any career you would pursue. Also, knowing you personally, I can see that your overall strong communication skills would certainly have helped make you an experienced and successful negotiator.

      @Jason- I like how you pose it as being able to see how others experience the organization. I haven’t necessarily thought of cross-training in that way, but it is so true. Thanks for commenting for Tina.

      @Yonica- Thank you for taking time to comment! I think some of the larger organizations are doing the bootcamp type training and it is paying off for them. I especially love the example from IBM you shared. Thanks.

      @Steve- So glad you encouraged your students not only to read blogs, but to also write. I think this post is a great example of being able to show a student that a blog is not just pushing information one direction. It’s really about engaging readers and starting a conversation about a topic. Thanks so much! Tina did a great job. I see extra credit in her future…

      @Sharlyn- Thanks for commenting for Tina. I’m curious. You say that making a move has come up in your career, but you ultimately didn’t move and just bolstered those skills using other methods. Are there any concerns we need to address in making a move out of HR, even temporarily? What’s the downside? I think it would be interesting for us to explore that as well. As always, thank you for helping further the thought leadership Ms. Bartender. : )

      @Michael- Embrace and rejoice! I love that and it really sums it up nicely. Thank you for taking time to comment.

  • Thank you to everyone for your thoughts, they are most insightful. Jason I do agree with your comments regarding seeing the organization from the other side. That in itself will provide a whole new perspective of how we view HR, the good, the bad and the ugly. I plan to embrace this journey and hopefully share my experiences with other HR professionals on the value of cross training.

  • Tina, great post. I don’t really have anything super intelligent to add, but you’ve done Trish proud with your work. Thank you for “playing,” and maybe we can pull you back soon for an update. Good luck!

  • It’s a good question Trish. I think the obvious downside is not getting back to HR. But then maybe when a person makes the transition…they don’t want to go back. The other downside is having to leave the company in order to re-enter HR.

    I’ve seen several people leave HR and make the transition back just fine. The key is communication. Making sure expectations are put on the table (on the front end.)

    Thanks for the great conversation!

  • Yes – To all the above!
    I can only speak for myself – I have been within the realm of HR for the last 11 years and my first 2 years working was in Sales & Marketing. I still did all the HR functions, lightly mind you but I started in S&M (don’t you dare have a sick mind lol).

    Most of my career has been in Talent Management and Learning but I do not have a degree or certification within HR. My degrees are in Business Management, IT and a newly minted MBA. The reason I took my educational and functional path was because I was already working within my field. Attending mtgs, conferences and sharing best practices. I wanted to get the other certifications and education in areas that were not typical. I needed to continually understand what I wasn’t facing on a regular day to day basis.

    I think it is great to open the borders and understand everything we can about what connects to HR and disconnects us from the business. I support cross training regardless of the position (not to replace a job but to understand how your job connects to another person and how their task and functions connect to you). I feel strongly that this is one piece that can help us do better in what we do and what we represent!!!

    Thanks for the thoughts once again!


    • @Ben- Thank you for commenting and sharing a personal example of how cross training came into play for you. I love where you say “it is great to open the borders and understand everything we can about what connects us to HR and disconnects us from the business.” Wish I had wrote that. Also, my mind didn’t “go there” until yours did and boy, did it make me laugh! Thanks.

  • Trish and Tina, great thoughts! Definitely cross training for HR professionals as any other pro of the organization would be very valuable. Getting to know our company as a responsible of HR will give us a better way to lead and take decisions to improve the quality of life of employees, to improve productivity, to develop better skills, to contribute to the profitability of the company and very important to create employer brand.

    Keep writing!!! Best of success Tina!!!

  • Definitely! But it’s more than training that’s needed, it’s education.

    For instance, there are recruiters who discriminate against candidates, which can have an impact on the hiring process. Training won’t help much with this because what they need is to understand why it’s wrong to discriminate, which can only be achieved through education.

    That being said, the question is: why would companies invest in education for their HR personnel, when they know that those people may leave the company sooner or later? Also, is it too late to educate some people?

  • In a changing business environment in which complexity has become the new normal, the HR function and its people need more specialized skills to face challenges ahead. In areas such as finance and economy, laws and regulations, globalization and international exchanges, and others, businesses need professionals who understand the intricacies and dynamics that affect them within and without; HR should be the partner of choice for CFO, COO,and CTO to make thinhs work.
    I strongly believe that cross-functional training is the solution because the exposure to different functions, teams, and specializations will provide them with the needed business acumen.

Comments are closed.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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