Ask Grant Baker, HR Director – Pacific at Nike, what he likes about working in HR and he says “the people.” While he quickly admits this is perhaps not the most illuminating answer, it does reveal his passion for championing the workforce.
“What is really going to make or break an organization? It’s the people and how they perform. HR is such a huge influencer in ensuring that leaders give their people the best opportunity to perform,” says Grant. “You’re at the pointy end of influencing the most important part of any organization, its workforce.”
While Grant initially stumbled into HR after working in contact centre and operational roles, he quickly realized he’d found the right path. Over his career, he’s explored the full gamut of HR roles and beyond to build the skills necessary to land a role in his “sweet spot” at Nike.
Here, Grant shares his advice on crafting an HR career and his top three tips for those starting out.
Building your HR brand
A quick glance at Grant’s LinkedIn profile tells you a lot about how he’s put his career together. There are generalist roles, change roles, specialist roles in shared services and reward and even operational roles outside of HR that involved leading larger teams. It’s something that he’s thought carefully about over the years.
“I’ve tried to stretch myself across different facets of HR and I’ve made some deliberate moves out of HR as well,” he says. “I think it’s good to get yourself on the other side of the fence, and I think that’s really helped me as an HR practitioner.”
He credits these roles with helping to build his own understanding of the challenges of leadership, something that HR practitioners often don’t get the chance to do until they’re in much more senior roles.
Not only did these roles provide real leadership experience, they’ve also contributed to his personal HR brand. “From an HR point of view, these roles give you a bit of street cred because you haven’t worked in HR all your life, you’ve also been in the trenches, so to speak,” explains Grant.
“It’s really around honing your leadership brand, style and capability and really testing yourself in that space.”
Generalist to specialist and back again
On the advice of a respected HR director, Grant’s also made deliberate moves into HR specialist roles at times. For him, it hasn’t been about staying deep in a specialty area, rather he sees these moves as contributing to building a strong generalist career.
A couple of times, Grant has taken on shared services roles building on his early experience in contact centres. But it was a role with a previous employer that included total rewards that really threw him into the proverbial deep end.
“It was a real stretch for me to do that role, but it was a couple of years that I wouldn’t take back. I was probably as challenged and as out of my depth as I think I’ve ever been in my career in a lot of areas,” says Grant.
“I had zero desire to be the pure total rewards guy, but it was a great opportunity to go deep in that area, because it only advances you when you get back into more of a generalist-type role. I’ve got a really good understanding of rewards now and that’s predominantly due to the experience I had in leading total rewards globally for that period.”
Using discomfort to grow
Aside from building specialized knowledge, Grant also benefited from learning to deal with the challenges of being in a role where he couldn’t rely on his own expertise to guide him.
“I guess it was probably the first time, where I was able to get myself into a mindset where I could be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he says.
This doesn’t mean bluffing your way through though. “You’ve got to be honest with yourself as to what you know and what you don’t know. I surrounded myself with people that closed the gaps on what I was missing from a capability point of view.”
Grant was in the role for three years and still thinks of it as the most challenging time on his career. Now, years down the track, he sees how it has helped him in other roles.
“It’s enabled me to be more honest with myself around what I can control, what I can influence, what I can actually execute, versus when I need to put my hand up and make sure I’ve got the right people around me to ensure we do this right.”
Learning to sit in the chair
Grant has used this approach to shape his role at the executive table. “Clearly I have a seat at the table because I’m the HR director of the business, that’s the easy bit. You need to know how to sit in the seat,” he says.
For Grant, that means constantly learning about the business, from how they go to market, to managing inventory, through to how they determine what’s going to sell in the next season. He believes this is critical to adding value to the team outside of his HR expertise and to building the confidence of his peers.
“We always kick off our strategy with our people agenda, so I make sure I’m owning that piece of the strategy. But it’s also about being able to understand the other parts of the strategy that actually bring in the revenue, and being able to work with the sales director, the retail director and others to have an opinion on various approaches to what they’re looking at doing to deliver against that strategy.”
Three tips for HR practitioners
“I think you’ve got to be really thoughtful about your career and you do have to plan your career, it’s a pretty big part of your life,” says Grant.
In thoughtfully building his own career, Grant has relied on three key things:
1. Think about your next role, but nail your current role first
“You need to consider your next role, but first you really need to know and understand your current role and really excel because, to be honest, that’s what really gives you the right to think about that next role.”
2. Surround yourself with good people
“It doesn’t have to be a formal mentor-mentee type of relationship, but surround yourself with people that are going to be good for you, and you’re going to be good for them. They might be people in those roles you aspire to, it might be a peer, it might be someone within your team that you lead, that you can learn from. Just surround yourself with good people, with positive people that have good values and positive intent.”
3. Stoke the fire in your belly
“We all know this in HR: no one’s going to manage your career for you. It’s not my job to manage anyone’s career in this business, you manage your own career. I think there’s greater forces at play and sometimes as a result of having fire in the belly, you do find yourself in the right place at the right time. For me, it would have been very easy not to look at LinkedIn that week, and I probably would never have known about this role, but the rest is history.”
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