This (relatively) regular feature is designed to expose the “Trench HR” community (HR people practicing in a corporate environment – private or public) to leaders who have found success in our profession. This interview with Stephanie Kempa, Senior HR Director with Hewlett-Packard (HP), was conducted, condensed, and in some cases paraphrased by Charlie Judy. Stephanie is responsible for the full-suite of HR products and services delivered to the employees of one of HP’s largest business units – a multi-billion dollar operation with tens of thousands of employees. She has done business in India, China, Singapore, Poland, Costa Rica, the U.K., Switzerland, and Mexico. She knows what’s up…
Q. How did you get into HR?
A. I had a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Michigan State and knew I really wanted to go to grad school. One of my fellow social work mentors told me that if she had to do it all over again, she would have pursued a program with Michigan State’s School of HR and Labor Relations. I looked into it and decided it was right for me. I jumped into Labor Relations with Philip Morris right out of school and have touched pretty much every aspect of HR since then.
Q. How did you get the chance to “touch pretty much every aspect of HR” in your career?
A. I worked for a couple of HR leaders who were really good at challenging me to try new things – and who were willing to give me the opportunity to do so. Labor Relations was a great foundation for other HR competencies; it taught me how to be agile, think on my feet, and frame solutions for complex issues. That experience gave me a confidence that I could transfer my skills to other areas.
Q. Having mentors who are willing to push you in new directions is a theme I’ve heard before. Is that all it really takes, or is there something else?
A. Having that mentor is certainly a crucial factor in the equation. But you also need to have demonstrated success and you need to have tremendous initiative. Leaders don’t typically tap employees on the shoulder for new opportunities unless those employees have proven themselves in some form or fashion. That means you have to focus on doing what you’re there to do really well before moving on to the next thing. Don’t get out ahead of yourself. Once you’ve grown comfortable in your current role, it’s unfortunately easy to stay there…and it’s even easier for others to want to keep you there. That’s where your initiative comes in. You should make it known that you’re not only willing, but also excited to go do something new. Don’t be shy about that.
Q. Do you think it’s better to be a mile wide or a mile deep in HR?
A. I hate to say it, but you have to be both. I’ve built my career by focusing not so much on the roles I wanted, but rather on the skills I wanted to acquire along the way. I looked for opportunities that would help me diversify my skills portfolio. I’ve been able to develop some “specialties” along the way, but those specialties were an outcome – an end, not a means.
Q. Is there any piece of advice you’d give the HR profession as a whole?
A. Listen. Listen. Then listen some more. We need to get better at not just hearing what our clients are saying, but also interpreting what they are really telling us. In order to do this, we not only need to understand their business, but we need to understand the things that influence their business – internally and externally. We’re getting better at this, but I would encourage my colleagues to consider this as important as anything else they do. It has broad implications to the value they bring the business and to their long-term career potential in the HR space.
Photo Credit: HP