Why great HR professionals are like Master Carpenters

Posted on April 16th, 2015. Filed Under: Human Resources |
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Woman CarpenterOne of the most interesting and challenging issues for organizations around the world is “how to build a world-class HR team?” Of course the subtext is “how to build world-class HR skills?”

This problem can be particularly daunting because HR professionals are asked to do many things (from compliance to strategic planning), they are expected to understand many topics (people, business, technology, data), and they are often asked to take on many roles (leaders, consultants, service providers, and often compliance agents).

Is it any wonder the HR profession is so hard to do well?

Over the years, as I have led our research in more than 40 different disciplines of HR, I’ve come to a conclusion.  Human Resources it not really a “profession” – it is a “craft.”  That is, you can’t really get a professional degree in HR and become a “certified professional” (despite the fact that many companies sell such certificates) – you have to learn it by doing it.

The best analogy I can think of is the profession of carpentry (or any skilled trade). Carpenters may go to school to learn drafting, or engineering, or even wood working. But they never really learn how to do their work until they start to build things.

In the early days of carpentry you learn to cut square corners, build strong joints, and sketch objects so you can plan what materials and steps you need to build.  As you grow in your experience, you likely make lots of mistakes. Many of your doors don’t close correctly, your boxes aren’t square, and some of your creations may fall apart under stress.  But over time, with the help of a mentor or coach, you can get good – and you learn from your mistakes.

The book “Why We Make Things and Why it Matters” by Peter Korn, describes how and why we like to “build things.”  He calls the book “the education of a craftsman” and the following line stuck with me:

“What lures people into carpentry is the hope of finding deeper meaning by building things with your own hands.” Korn writes.

I believe this is the essence of a great HR professional.  We, like craftsmen, are builders of things.  Typically, we observe and identify people challenges in an organization, we diagnose and learn about tools in the market, and we build or “craft” the precise program or tailored approach.  In our early days mistakes are often made, but over time we grow more effective.

Consider the first time you build an “onboarding program.” You cannot really follow a recipe (you can try to copy others), so you may make it up based on the best examples you can find. And you probably find out that some parts of it are boring, and maybe you left out some time for people to meet their peers and forgot to get the CEO involved up front. The program could be somewhat successful, but over time you probably see ways to make it better. In time you consider yourself a “master” at building and running a corporate onboarding program.  In fact if you may do it so well that you may be asked to develop the program for your entire company.

This concept – that HR is a “craft,” and we learn it by doing it, is fundamental to what drives most HR professionals and what enables effective HR today. Today’s powerful HR solutions are typically not “out of the box” any more – they’re bold, innovative, and often based on years of experience – peppered with lots of new ideas and new technologies.

My challenge to you, as an HR leader or professional, is to think about your career as a craft. Do you have the right tools?  Do you have mentors and apprentices to teach?  Are you constantly observing other work to understand its elegance and design?  And are you pushing your own personal envelope to do things better, simpler, and more impactful every day?

If you wake up and think this way, my guess is that you are on your way to becoming a “master carpenter” in your own area of HR.  HR professionals sit at one of the most important intersections in the economy – the connection between people, leadership, and business.  Let’s honor our craft and make sure we always strive to build the most useful, elegant, and impactful creations in our companies.

Lessons Learned:

  1. HR is a craft. You learn it by doing it, and mentors, peers, coaches, and apprentices can help you be most effective.
  2. HR programs should be innovative. Copying someone else’s design is not only boring, but it probably won’t work correctly in your company.
  3. Continuously developing yourself is important. Like a master carpenter, your job should be to always get better – take time each week to learn, observe, and sharpen your tools so you can build leading programs in your company.


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Josh Bersin is Principal and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, a leading research and advisory services firm in enterprise learning and talent management.

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