Article: Learn - Earn - Return

Life @ Work

Learn - Earn - Return

A template for building a career in HR without constantly looking over the shoulder to compare with others.
Learn - Earn - Return

This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend.
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let's neither faint nor fear.
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.1

This quotation (and indeed all others that are italicized in this column) are from 'The Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan. This allegory, which provides a symbolic vision of the good man’s pilgrimage through life, was, at one time, second only to the Bible in popularity. Perhaps some words from it can provide guidance for a good HR person’s progress through a career in the profession. 

I took up this topic at the prompting of some of my HR friends who are bywords for excellence and wisdom in the field. They were responding to my query about what the greatest concerns troubling young HR professionals were nowadays. Their uniform response was that most budding HR managers were concerned about the trajectories their careers were taking and what their most career-enriching steps could be. They were particularly troubled by the number of jobs their batch-mates from campus had already changed and were worried that those CVs (and take-home salaries, bonuses, and long-term incentives) were far weightier than their own. Should they listen to head hunter blandishments more attentively or stick with their current employer who was, many said, providing them with great exposure and learning? This column attempts to give one way to resolve these doubts and a way to evaluate HR careers both at the time of starting out and later.

Lemmings have limited careers

If you continue in this direction you are likely to experience wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils, nakedness, sword, lions, dragons, darkness, and, in a word, death, and who knows what else.1

Wrongly directioned modern careers don’t quite bring all the perils described by Bunyan (though I have come across more than a few dragons in my time) but they can cause needless heartburn, disorientation, inability to contribute adequately, and ultimate flameout. One of the largest contributors to early career missteps is the penchant youngsters have for making themselves miserable by observing how well batchmates (and other reference peers) are progressing. The real damage, of course, occurs when the discontented youngster seeks to imitate the job-hopping, butterfly-jumps the others have been making. 

All envy is not unhealthy and, in any case, it is an unavoidable legacy from our pre-historic past. "Given the importance of social competition in survival and reproductive success, evolution by selection likely would have favored adaptations designed to generate subjective distress in response to being outperformed by rivals. … [E]nvy is one such adaptation. Over the course of evolutionary time, individuals experiencing envy in response to advantages possessed by others would have been more likely to invest effort in acquiring the same advantages for themselves than those not experiencing envy. In turn, these individuals would have heightened their own probability of resource acquisition success, likely out-reproducing their rivals. It is reasoned that the emotion of envy owes itself to the wisdom of our ancestors: it is the result of millions of years of selection for traits facilitating successful social competition."

Not all inheritances from evolution work well in modern life and this is very much true of envy as well. Envy of the malicious kind displayed by Iago is directed at bringing down the object of envy rather than bettering one’s own condition. Especially if the envied person is within the same organization as the envier, the result can be havoc. But this is not our present concern. Even when envy is of the benign type, directed at improving one’s own lot, it can cause considerable damage and misdirected effort if there are significant mistakes in the attributes that are chosen to be envied. While comparing careers with one’s batchmates and cohorts, envy gives rise to serious career choice errors. The most egregious error is the same as the one the US made in the Vietnam war: counting what could be counted (bodies) even though that’s not what really counted. Career starters can easily count the number of jobs their peer group has changed and, in recent days at least, 3 know down to the last Rupee how much they cost their latest employer. Dazzling as these seem, they are probably far less important than what the envious observer could be gaining in her / his organization (see next section). This blindness may not just be because unique training and exposure, for instance, are difficult to quantify (or boast about on social media). People may not even put them on the 'Get' side of the Give-Get equation which notionally compares what an employee gives to the organization relative to what s/he gets from it. In an attempt to outclass the reference group on the ''boastable'' measures, people land up moving over-frequently in pursuit of marginally higher compensation, interrupting their learning and having to rebuild from scratch the relationships and trust which are essential for making any meaningful HR contributions.

Learn – earn – return 

Enough about missteps. Let’s look at a template for building a sound and meaningful HR career. Such a career should have essentially three components that are easily captured by the three words titling this section. Making them happen is a lot more complicated. For one thing, we cannot neatly divide them into phases because none of them is totally missing at any stage in an HR professional’s career. All the same, the test of professional success doubtless has to be how well learning, earning, and returning have taken place in the first, second, and third stages, respectively, of an HR career (occupying, very roughly, ten, twenty-five, and twenty years each). Of the next importance in each of the three stages we have listed are, respectively, earning, returning, and learning. The remaining component is naturally the last (but by no means inconsequential) priority for judging success in each stage. 

It is important to understand what each of these three components stands for in an HR career.

Learning through self-development, role models and immersive exposure

Though the hill is high, I still desire to walk up it. I don’t care how difficult it is, because I understand that it leads to the way of life. Cheer up the heart and don’t grow faint or fear, because even if it is difficult, it is better to go this way because it is the right way, for while the wrong way is easier, it ends in anguish. 1

It is not sufficient to mouth glibly that you are learning when all you are doing is going through the same motions year after year. Repeating them in a new geography (or possibly a different corporation) doesn’t make things much better. Learning has to be structured. In an earlier column 4 I had listed the following eight key sub-domains of HR (which form part of the HR competency model some of us assisted the National HRD Network to craft):

  • Strategic HRM
  • Organization Design
  • Workforce Planning & Staffing
  • Talent Management
  • Learning & Development
  • Total Rewards
  • Performance Management
  • Employee Relations

I had suggested an HR MBA should have basic skills in all of these and in-depth knowledge of one or two. No academic institution can provide the practical grounding that is available on the job and the learning component of careers cannot be complete unless there is significant exposure if not full-time experience in each of these. In-depth expertise must also expand to at least three or four, whether the plan is to become an HR generalist or specialist. In the latter case, of course, job rotations as well as additional education must particularize the chosen area. 

This is the time, also, to hone the influencing skills particularly needed in HR:

  • Persuading individuals and small groups
  • Communicating to large groups face-to-face
  • Remote influence (primarily through electronic media)

Sectoral diversity is not so easily acquired (without job-hopping, which this column has been warning against). However, any large corporation can provide opportunities to acquire very different perspectives to view an HR problem and the available tools for its solution, starting from an operating unit, progressing to a regional hub or business vertical center, right up to the corporate headquarters, with an overseas perspective thrown in somewhere along the way. 

What every organization can and must provide is for all promising staff executives (obviously including those in HR) to have a stint in a line role where they are responsible for clear targets of sales or production and (if possible) profits. Movements between staff functions are rarer but no less the valuable for that.

Earning respect, reputation and returns

You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. 1

There are two things this sub-title and the foregoing quotation are intended to emphasize. Firstly, that earnings made during peak career are not to be measured only in terms of financial returns. Monetary advantages may follow with a lag of a decade or more after the work itself brought excitement, respect, and repute. Secondly, the final touchstone of success in this component (which focuses inside the organization) has to be the growth of aggregate and lasting happiness for people 5 ("who can never repay you") apart from whatever organizational goals bring recognition and rewards.

What makes an HR career outstanding during this most demanding and scrutinized part of it? Three things. Most importantly, to what extent are strategies, plans, and systems that are implemented, pioneering breakthroughs? Granted only a few of us have more than one or two genuinely pioneering initiatives to our credit in long careers – aspiring to that grail and the proximity to attaining it must be the first evaluation criterion. A brilliant career must also be judged by the number of brilliant careers it spawns. Our best HR leaders can be recognized from a mile off by the number of leaders coming into their own who acknowledge a debt of gratitude to them. Finally, the best career reputations are earned not by those who just take brilliant decisions but the ones who leave behind a legacy of properly positioned people, suitably tailored systems, and cultures vibrant with belongingness and commitment that far outlast them. 

It is this career stage that brings the greatest temptation to cross value boundaries. A useful mantra for reminding oneself how to avoid blotting the copybook is contained in an earlier column that would bear with a second reading. 6

Returning debt by teaching, preaching and institutionalizing

A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away the more he had. 1

The time finally comes when the flow of receiving has to be exceeded by the return to the reservoir of professional expertise and character models from which all of us gained when starting our careers. If the learning and earning components are shallow or hollow there will not be much of substance to place on the returning tray and this will, therefore, not be a meaningful component for those who have measured their progress solely by job title, take-home cash, or asset accumulation. For the rest, there are at least three (not necessarily exclusive) paths available for replenishing the intellectual capital of the profession. In many ways, these paths resemble the Trimurti in carrying out the vital tasks of creation, destruction, and preservation.

Those who have been pioneers during their active careers are likely to continue being creative thought leaders when they replace working-boots with teaching-trainers. Freed from the constraint of practicing everything they preach, their imaginations can paint truly aspirational scenarios for which the profession can aim. For radical improvements to take place in the profession, of course, much of the charlatanry 7 and ritual that has been unquestioningly added over the years as well as the fluff of current fashion have to be jettisoned. This requires, again, some of those at the tertiary career stage, with thick skins and few stakes in garnering organizational rewards, to play the destructive role of Socratic gadflies. Naturally, those who take this role to extremes are well-advised to develop a taste for hemlock beforehand. Finally comes the more prosaic (but no less vital) preserving and transmitting function that various institutions play, whether they be professional bodies, chambers of commerce, or universities. Starting from the second stage of their careers but with very much more time and maturity at their disposal in stage three, HR professionals can (and in fact do) make a valuable contribution to making these institutions guardians and transmitters of the stock of expertise and values the HR profession has garnered.

Be proud of your scars

[T]hough with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought ….

And so we come to the end of a hypothetical HR pilgrim’s progress. Not as exalted as the one concluded by Christian in Bunyan’s allegory but, earth-bound as we are, it will have to suffice for our purposes. Hopefully, it will provide enough check-boxes for young, ambitious HR people to tick through the next few decades. 

For those who found much of the description of even our more prosaic career pilgrimage too fanciful, I can only use Bunyan’s bounty one last time.

What of my dross thou findest there, be bold
To throw away, but yet preserve the Gold;
What if my Gold be wrapped up in Ore?
None throws away the Apple for the Core. 
But if thou shalt cast away all as vain,
I know not but ’twill make me Dream again.1


  1. John Bunyan, (Edited by Pooley Roger), The Pilgrim's Progress, Penguin Classics, 2008.
  2. S E Hill and D M Buss, The evolutionary psychology of envy, In: R H Smith (Editor), Envy: Theory and research, (pp. 60-70), Oxford University Press.
  3. Visty Banaji, Imitation is the sincerest flattery - but the worst strategy, People Matters, 5th September 2019.
  4. Visty Banaji, Myopic HR education: Preparing present & future-ready people practitioners, People Matters, 26th June 2019.
  5. Visty Banaji, HR’s business should be happiness raising, People Matters, 24th September 2019.
  6. Visty Banaji, A hippocratic oath for HR, People Matters, 31st October 2019, ().
  7. Visty Banaji, Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR, People Matters, 23rd March 2017.
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Topics: Life @ Work, #Career

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