In 2015, Chris Louie, a former McKinsey & Company Engagement Manager, found himself accepting a role as Nielsen’s new SVP of Talent Acquisition after five years of corporate experience in senior Strategy, Product, and Marketing & Sales roles. Yet his decision to lead the global Talent Acquisition team of a $6b+ company was met with confusion: why take an HR job? When Laszlo Bock, Google’s current SVP of People Operations left McKinsey in 2003 to accept a VP, Compensation & Benefits role at GE Capital, his transition was seen as similarly uncharacteristic of the traditional management consultant trajectory from consulting to a corporate strategy team:
“My colleagues in consulting thought I was committing professional suicide….At the time, there were more than five thousand people in McKinsey’s database of alumni, but only a hundred of them were in human resources, virtually all working as consultants for other firms or recruiters. I reasoned that my training and background would make me stand out in the HR talent pool and help me come up with novel solutions. And maybe, just maybe, that would help me have a faster career trajectory than waiting twenty or thirty years to creep up the corporate ladder. I might get into a place where I could impact more people, faster.”
– Laszlo Bock. Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead (2015)
As an executive search firm, we find that clients across various industries and functions are eager to hire current and former management consultants to join their organizations. Yet despite the importance of HR in creating a competitive organization, few consultants step into roles outside of a company’s strategy function or internal consulting group, let alone HR. “There’s undeniably still a stigma around Human Resources in the business world,” says Louie in Why I ‘Took a HR Job, published on the exec’s personal LinkedIn in August 2015. “One external recruiter I spoke with summarized this best when I ran the opportunity by him: ‘The pros are that you would be part of a new generation of HR leaders; the cons are the HR is still dramatically underpaid and disrespected as a function!’”
While only a small percentage of management consultants have thus far moved into corporate HR, careers like Louie’s, Bock’s, and other former consultants make one thing clear: Human Resources is evolving into a fertile ground where former consultants can leverage their expertise to execute high-impact initiatives that drive corporate growth and development. HR is undergoing a transformation, and as an increasing number of HR organizations look to recruit former consultants to fill their executive roles, it begs the question: Why shouldn’t you consider taking an HR role once you decide to leave consulting? Read on to hear Chris’ thoughts on misinformed HR stereotypes, how companies can get HR right, and why an HR role could be the right move for former consultants looking to make the highest impact in their future industry role.
As published on LinkedIn, August 19, 2015
By Chris Louie, SVP of Talent Acquisition at Nielsen
“…The stereotype of HR in many companies is that of the most corporate of corporate functions. They are the purveyors of empty corporate mantras destined to be affixed to corporate schlock, and the initiators of initiatives that will quickly be abandoned when the next management fad hits. They create arcane rules and regulations seemingly designed to mystify, delay, and torture. It’s figuratively and literally “back office” (windows optional). They are NOT George Clooney’s character in the movie “Up In The Air,” who endlessly travels from location to location to carry out “rightsizing” efforts… they’re the people that hire him.
So… why DID I take an HR job?
I think HR gets a bum rap
Detach any function from the business, and it will significantly diminish its effectiveness. Without understanding how you make money, you can’t tailor your priorities in a way that contributes to the overall business objectives of the company.
Instead, all you can do is focus on your own functional goals; and perversely the harder you push against them, the more you might inadvertently gum up the core business. New cash collection policies from Finance could tick off big clients. The glossy campaign from Marketing may be tone-deaf on a major commercial push. The best practice performance assessment system HR just rolled out might penalize your best salespeople.
Unfortunately, companies have probably fallen into this trap more with HR than any other function, likely due to the presumption that it’s inherently inward-facing.
I think that’s wrong-headed…I believe HR’s greatest responsibility is to maintain and continually strengthen the lifeblood of a company: its talent. If they’re not tapping the pulse of the market directly, HR won’t be able to help bring the right additional talent onto the team. And without a strong understanding of what people developing and selling our solutions are facing and how they’re serving clients on a daily basis, HR won’t be able to help the talent already on the team succeed in their current roles and continue to grow their careers.
There’s an apparent trend of companies starting to “get it,” particularly the startups and stalwarts competing in the hyper-competitive job market of Silicon Valley. The abandonment of the “Human Resources” moniker in favor of “People Operations” (e.g., Google), “Global Talent Organization” (e.g., LinkedIn), and “Human Capital” (e.g., Goldman) speaks to this. While potentially superficial, it signals an important mindset change away from HR as a cost center managing people as supplies, and toward HR being an integral part of what it takes to make your company run and drive profit and growth.
….Helping get our talent right is probably the highest impact thing I can do today
….We can spend all the time we want developing the most compelling product plans and investing in a cutting-edge tech stack. Absent the talent to take us from concept to creation to execution for the end-client, all we’ll be left with is good intentions. In fact, talent may actually trump strategy and tech bona fides, as talent has the capability to close gaps in these areas; it doesn’t work the other way around. HR can be the driving force behind a winning team. We can help field the team- not just with the “best athletes,” but ones who bring out the best in each other and help the team, our clients, and our partners become better and stronger.
….We have a lot of the right talent at Nielsen. I’ve seen this with my own eyes, in the product dev and client delivery trenches. But we need more of it. And the type of talent we need to recruit- technical, entrepreneurial, diverse, millennial- is the same type that everyone else needs as well, because they’re facing the same macro-level changes.
That’s the challenge.
But it’s also what makes the prospect of being at the forefront of this talent drive compelling for me. I’ve always been motivated by the ability to have meaningful, lasting impact. And the criticality of getting our talent right coupled with the degree of difficulty associated with the effort have convinced me that this is the highest impact thing I can take on right now.
I’m passionate enough about talent management to make it my day job
Throughout my time at Nielsen, I’ve found myself creating ways to advance our talent management efforts. Admittedly, most of these constituted benign plagiarism- borrowing from things I’d seen at other places and adapting them for what would work best at Nielsen. These included the creation of an alumni network, the launch of a “TechTalk” external speaker series, and a small trial run at applying a rigorous scoring system for undergrad resume screening.
Despite my lack of originality, I reveled in seeing the impact from these efforts, especially as some of them started to scale. It was rewarding… and a lot of fun.
When the Talent Acquisition opportunity arose, it made me reflect on the experiences I’d had with talent management which shaped my own career… And it made me think, with the combination of a compulsion toward talent management, a somewhat unique set of experiences in the area, and now a great opportunity, “Maybe there’s something here…”
Despite coming to the points above fairly quickly, I still struggled for a while with this decision. The more linear next move for me would have been to take on a big product or commercial role. I worried about getting typecast as an “HR guy” and limiting my prospects.
What ultimately got me over the hump?
I stopped thinking about the career risks of taking on the role and started thinking about the upsides:
- An outsize impact on our company’s prospects, by shaping something that touches every part of what we do: our talent;
- The chance to stretch myself in a number of ways: a completely new function, a new org and team, global scope;
- The opportunity to focus on something for which I have a lot of passion;
- Our CEO, CHRO and other senior leaders’ willingness to spend time with me to share their view of what this role means to Nielsen, what opportunity this presented to me, and how they would invest time to prioritize our talent effort.
Any of these four things in isolation would make the role interesting. Together, they made it one that I couldn’t pass up. I’ll worry about the future and how some faceless LinkedIn voyeurs end up perceiving my career arc later.
I don’t know whether I’ll end up in HR long-term. Maybe I’ll love it and stay; maybe I won’t, in which case I’m reasonably confident that I’ll be able to find something great outside of the function. I won’t be sure until I’ve spent significant time on the team, in the thick of the effort. Regardless of which way I go, hopefully by then my work on talent will have made a mark.
However, one thing I am certain of is that I’m excited and honored to be taking on this “HR job” right now.”