Tips for the aspiring HR Superstar

To become “HR superstars”, practitioners have to tap into their innate wisdom, grit, and wit.

About the author

Raymond Soh is the People Operations Lead, Southeast Asia and Japan, at Publicis.Sapient, where he manages the end-to-end employee life cycle and experience across four brands

In the last decade, we’ve all experienced a myriad of changes in our lives, and how we perceive the future. Throughout the 2010s, the word “disruption” has gained significant traction in Silicon Valley, particularly among the start-up community. Since then, it has evolved to become one of the most used business buzzwords across the globe.

In the late 1990s, the Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen defined “disruptive innovation” as a principle whereby entrenched, dominant product or service providers could be replaced by smaller rivals who offered solutions that were better or cheaper.

The famous quote from Heraclitus, “the only thing that is constant is change”, has become increasingly embraced by business leaders and innovation leaders across the globe. In a recent interview with CNBC, Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma, said: “When we see something is coming, we have to prepare now. My belief is that you have to repair the roof while it is still sunny.”


Developing depth and breadth of skills

As HR, what “repairs” are most urgent for the function right now? To answer that question, we’ll first have to examine what a specialist and a generalist are.

In the words of Jennifer Arnold in an article for the US Society for HR Management, “HR professionals must be ready for anything and skilled in many things”. As an HR generalist, you may be someone who has experience handling many aspects of HR, but you might not have specialist knowledge in one particular area, which results in having skillsets that end up looking like a straight line.

By investing time to develop the depth of a skill in a specific matter, your skillsets are shaped more like a “T”. The vertical bar represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar represents the general and broad knowledge that individuals possess.

‘T-shaping” of skills isn’t new in HR. Many organisations such as KPMG Singapore have embodied this concept in their learning and development blueprints so as to ensure their people are well-equipped across disciplines.

Since the introduction of the “T-shape” concept, a few other concepts have also emerged, including the “Pi-shape” and the “Comb-shape”.

A look into the career of Laszlo Bock, former Google Senior Vice President of People Operations and bestselling author of Work Rules!, tells us that he is a comb-shaped individual, with broad general knowledge and specialised skillsets. 


Bock did not study HR in university. Instead, he majored in International Relations during his Bachelor programme, before pursuing a Masters of Business Administration. He started his career with McKinsey and Co as a management consultant, which exposed him to many aspects of business. His two notable positions in HR prior to Google were first as a compensation consultant at Hewitt Associates; then as an engagement manager for McKinsey and Co, where he advised clients in the areas of organisational design, talent acquisition and development, and culture transformation. These roles also helped Bock to gain a huge spectrum of skills which he leveraged throughout his HR career.

Through this we learn that there are three things you need to become an HR superstar:

  •      Gain a broad range of knowledge
  •      Improve and become a specialist in each of these fields
  •      Leverage that knowledge to your advantage

It is also important to know that as individuals, we all possess the following attributes that will help us tap into our skills and knowledge:

  •      Wisdom – This is the harmonisation of experience, knowledge, and good judgement
  •      Grit – The power of passion and perseverance, and how it is used to accomplish goals
  •      Wit – The capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding


Star-shaped model

In order to effectively leverage knowledge at work, individuals have to utilise both wit and wisdom as subject matter experts. With this, I propose an adaptation to the comb-shaped model: The Star-shape model.

The Star-shaped model emphasises on leveraging skills attained across each specialisation to provide value. Each tip of the star represents a specialisation which may be interlinked to other specialisations in some way. The length of each prong represents the experience and knowledge attained in a specific field. The body of the star connects the different specialisations, which represents a free flow of information across knowledge areas.

So, what’s in it for you to move from a simple straight line to a comb-shape or star-shape?

This leads to the reflection of the three aspects I mentioned earlier: building capabilities and knowledge with both wit and wisdom. As an HR professional, what it means is the possibility to bring fresh ideas to business initiatives and processes.

Imagine the possibilities that lie ahead – it could even mean having a better understanding and alignment of brand guidelines within an organisation, which will ramp up your ability to provide seamless brand experiencse across HR tasks such as onboarding and internal communications.

With broad knowledge and specialist depth, it builds the capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding of situations. This is particularly critical for an HR professional who meets people from all walks of life across different stages of the employee life-cycle.

So now that we have established how an HR employee can add value through wit and wisdom, how does grit come into the picture?

Many thought leaders have spoken on grit, and till this day, I find that the presentation by Angela Duckworth best represents the concept: “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” she says.

Ultimately, grit is a mixture of passion, understanding of personal goals, and attitude towards situations. As HR professionals, the road we’ve chosen to take is not one paved with marble, but one with many potholes and roadblocks along the way. Not every initiative will be well-received, and we are constantly under threat to prove our worth to the business. The next order of business here is for you as a professional to find a goal that you feel passionate about and want to slog for against all odds.

By working on these three aspects (wit, wisdom, and grit), the possibilities you can bring to your HR career are endless. Congratulations, you are now on your way to becoming an HR Superstar.  

Click here for more HRM News