HR: The underdog you shouldn’t count out!

It’s September, and for this American expat, this means the beginning of the American Football season, and more specifically: pep rallies! You may have seen one of these before in a cheesy teen film. Picture an American High School gymnasium packed with students, teachers, banners and streamers, the marching band, the cheerleaders, and the football team all in their kit the night before the big opening game… It’s electric!

The highlight of the event is the head coach delivering a rousing speech at the end of the pep rally to pump up his team and the entire student body.

Well for today, allow me to channel that coach and to make this post our pep rally, in an effort to pump you up and encourage you with a bit of unabashed Yankee enthusiasm about winning in HR.

I don’t know about you, but I have heard about, read about, and personally experienced quite a bit of nay-saying when it comes to HR…
 “HR does not add value.” “They are a cost center and therefore must have a minimum headcount” “They are administrative and do not speak the language of business.” “They are neither numbers driven nor necessarily tech savvy.” “They only add value by keeping the business out of a tribunal hearing.” “They are good with people and are a shoulder to cry on.” “They are there to get warm and fuzzy.” “Why even have HR in the first place?”

… to name but a few!

With perceptions and attitudes about HR such as these, the odds of thriving and winning in our field may admittedly seem quite bleak. We know we’re responsible for delivering quality processes and helping make our companies better, happier and more productive places to work; but all this negativity can make even the most passionate of HR professionals feel like the underdog.

To help not only change this perception but also create high quality practitioners, the CIPD offers some basic and practical guidance and admonishes HR professionals to:

  • Get a CIPD certification
  • Be numbers driven
  • Speak the language of business
  • Find HR best practises and follow them
  • Learn how to use an HRIS and reporting to bring value to the business
  • Devolve administrative HR duties to line managers
  • Learn how to be strategic


Many of us are already striving to apply this quality advice to great effect in our professional lives, but if you need a little more motivation here it comes!

Here are 8 more practical tips from several leading HR professionals who have been coaching me and getting me fired up about winning:


  1. Know your sector.
    Read your sector’s press. Know your business and know who your competitors are. Know marketing trends and seek to innovate. Read widely on business and about successful business leaders. Two books that I can highly recommend are The Good Jobs Strategy for its research based approach on how investing in staff really does yield higher profits and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which is so packed full of practical business and personal improvement wisdom that you must read and study it.
  2. Stop being protective and thinking HR is “special and precious”
    Be mindful of not becoming so tactical that you become a hurdle to the business. Strive to run quality HR processes that are simple so that your line managers can “just get on with it.”
  3. Build relationships with line managers and seek to understand them
    Their stressors, their issues with policies, their suggestions and ideas for improvement. Line managers are your greatest asset! Remain curious and ask questions widely. In the same vein, seek to converse with senior leadership about the business and seek to understand it, then talk about how people can fit into that specific business strategy.
  4. Acquire new knowledge: don’t be the Dead Sea!
    Read, go to networking events, go to HR continuing education events, participate on LinkedIn discussions… Challenge the underdog perception in your own mind first, then take on that perception by setting goals, being diligent, and committed to excellence.
  5. Make it your mission to deliver for your customers
    See yourself as an “internal customer service centre of excellence” and make it your mission to deliver for your customers. Be organised, prepared, run the best meetings and actually follow up with action items. Take yourself seriously so that others might. Under promise and over-deliver!
  6. Work cross-sectionally with other service functions – don’t just wear an HR hat. Collaborate with marketing and finance to produce reports and relevant business information that senior leaders will take notice of.
  7. Utilize, know, and understand analytics.
    Get interested in stats, business research methods, and learn Excel well. Don’t wait to have an HRIS to start capturing data, you may be waiting forever! Start capturing data any way you can TODAY! Quantify everything you can quantify so that when the time comes to run a report, or to look at trends, or to have historical data you will have data to use. Don’t be so conscious of being a “cost centre”. Flip that script by demonstrating your value with data and evidence.
  8. Network. Network. Network.
    Networking allows you to share ideas and grow within a supportive community of professionals. Meeting new people and learning new things is energising and may even challenge your status quo and the perceptions in which you might be inadvertently stuck. This in turn could lead to momentum, innovation and maybe even a turn in your career! And remember, when you are networking: seek to be interested, not just interesting!
    (myHRcareers events are of course a great place to start!)


Ultimately, we may be seen as professional underdogs for a while yet; but so what?

It excites me to be an underdog as business professionals go, because at the end of the day, the most inspirational stories are of those that triumphed despite the long odds.

So… strike up the band! Wave a banner! Shout a cheer! Let’s get out there, pumped about what our group of people-smart and business-smart practitioners can accomplish for our organisations.


Ryan Jensen blogs about being a HR Underdog for myHRcareers HR blog community.

Blog by Ryan Jensen, Consultant at Veran Performance