The 5 Skills I Honed From Other Jobs That Have Served Me Well in my HR Career

Believe it or not, I didn’t go to college thinking, “Oh boy! I can’t wait to work in HR!” And there’s a pretty decent chance you didn’t either.

Eventually, if you’re like me, you got some official HR education under your belt. But a lot of the skills you use every day are skills you probably didn’t learn for the first time in an HR class. You learned them before all that—at home, or at some earlier job, right?

Here’s how it went for me:

My undergrad degree was in elementary education. Back then, my goal in life was to teach your kids how to finger paint and blow up stuff in science class. At the time it seemed like the best gig on the planet. Kids are easy to make laugh and I got my summers off. That all seemed pretty awesome. Plus, being a dude in elementary education, meant it was usually me and like 30 female teachers in the school. I wasn’t the best looking guy, so I liked those odds!

After doing a little teaching, I moved into sales and recruiting for a while. I’m a mile wide and inch deep, as they say, so I was able to carry on a conversation about just about anything. So, those two careers worked really well, because it’s pretty much just getting people to trust you and then talk them into something where they’ll never trust you again!

Then, to my good fortune, I sort of fell into HR. When I was in recruiting, one of my clients was an HR leader for General Motors. He took a liking to me and I thought he had the best job on the planet, so he encouraged me to get my master’s in HR and he would help me get a real HR gig.

When I got my first job in HR, what I found was that all of the skills I learned being a teacher, a sales pro, and a recruiter were all skills I that really helped me in HR. Here’s five in particular that have come in handy.

Being Confident: Turns out elementary age school kids can smell fear like a pack of wild dogs! When you step into a classroom and you lack confidence these little monsters will attack! So I had to learn very quickly as a teacher that even if I didn’t really need to know anything about what I was trying to teach, everything would be okay as long as I controlled the room with confidence.

Similarly, in HR, people will question you constantly, unless you can portray similar confidence in your abilities. And compared to a pack of eight-year-olds, they’re pretty tame by comparison!

A Good Attitude:  When I got into HR people kept telling me, “Hey, you’re not like every other HR person I know!” What they were saying was, you’re always positive, most HR pros come across negative. (Which I don’t think is fair.) My first job out of college was as an agency recruiter. You better have a great attitude in that job, or you’ll fail for sure!

Being Proactive: A lot of HR folks see their jobs as being firefighters. In other words, they wait for problems, and then try to solve them. When I got into HR, I decided I didn’t want to think that way. I wanted to be proactive. Nothing was ever good enough, we needed to make it better. Everything was broken because I just broke it, so we could make it better. I found as a recruiter early in my career the engineering hiring managers I worked with had thoughts like this and responded well when I came at them with ideas in the same mindset.

Being Humble: How can you be confident and humble? It’s hard, but you can do it. As a teacher, you have to do what you say, or your kids will never let you forget. Their memory is a like an elephant’s! The best sales pros are also very humble in a way you feel connected with them, that makes them relatable. The best HR pros are reliably humble. You can count on them and admire their willingness to put the organization’s needs in front of their own.

Being Persuasive: As a teacher, I had to ‘sell’ ideas to kids thousands of times per week. As a recruiter, I had to sell jobs to candidates all day, every day. And having the ability to sell ideas and projects sets great HR pros apart from average HR pros.

Why were these skills important for me to learn? They all help get the tools and technology I needed to be a great HR Pro!  These skills help make me build a story around how we are going to get better and eventually become world-class. I want those that I support and those who support me to truly believe the only choice we have to get better is to take Tim’s advice and go get that technology solution!

(P.S. If you want more ideas on how to convince your boss to give you the budget for cool new stuff, download this eBook I wrote.) —

Anyway, that’s how it went for me. How about you? What skills did you never learn in HR-school have been the most important to you? Please share in the comments below.

(Oh, and if you’d like to read more interesting posts on how to bring more of the soft skills you learned outside HR to your job, check out this awesome blog post right now:

6 Tips on Creating a More Empathetic Leave of Absence Process,  by my friend, the excellent Dawn Burke, VP of People for Daxko!

3 thoughts on “The 5 Skills I Honed From Other Jobs That Have Served Me Well in my HR Career

  1. Hi Tim, I agree 100%! We are the sum total of our experiences. Unlike you, I was not sure out of the gate what I wanted to be when I grew up. And having worked since I was 14, there were a lot of, let’s say, experiments. But every single one added to the skill set I need as a female CEO of an HR Tech company. Here’s the short list for your entertainment – and the skills I still use today.
    Retail Manager – Dealing with the public and staff, sales skills and bookkeeping.
    Radio and mobile DJ – Confidence, public speaking and the importance of switching gears when needed.
    Mortgage Broker – Self-employment:Working long hours doesn’t kill you! Everyone has a story. How to have the tough conversations.
    And most importantly….25 years in HR!
    Respect is a two way street.
    Consistency matters.
    A smile goes a long way.
    The more you practice standing firm, the easier it gets.
    My favorite – Know the reasons why you are doing something before you do it. If you truly believe in what you are doing, then it must be right!

  2. Hey Tim,
    Great post and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Like you, I didn’t set out looking for a career in HR. As a matter of fact I spent 14 years as an operational leader with a large financial service firm. What I found out was the most rewarding aspect of my career was managing people. In addition to the 5 skills you listed, I am absolutely fascinated with human behavior. What makes people do and say the things they do and say. I believe there is always a pathology/reason for our actions. The second skill I learned somewhere, but not in graduate school was a calming strategy. For as long as I can remember, people have always shared with me that I have a calming affect and that I change the atmosphere in a room when I enter.

    So much to your point, I learned none of those in graduate school. As a matter of fact, I believe those skills in addition to the skills you listed, helped with all of the team projects in school.

    Again great post and thank you for sharing and sparking a thought!

  3. I think any position a person has that deals directly with the general public will prepare anyone for a career in HR. My high school positions, my military time, and serving in a restaurant all put me in front of different types of people. Some you need to try to calm down, some you try to sell, or some you talk with briefly. If dealing with people 8 – 10 hours a day directly doesn’t excite you, stay out of HR.

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