Human resource management is increasingly becoming a critical function inside most businesses and more and more b-schools in India are offering specialized courses in HR. As a matter of fact, MBA as a course of study is moving towards greater specialization and it is not unusual for an MBA aspirant today to find himself shortlisted for five different courses – an MBA in Finance from SP Jain, a PGDHRM from XLRI, a PGP in agri-business from IIM-A, an MBA in Rural Management from IIFM Bhopal and an Operations Management course from NITIE. A possible reason for such widespread specialization among MBA courses is that with the proliferation of b-schools all over India, the better ones are trying to strengthen their brand by offering tailor-made courses based on their core competences. This way, the institute stays away from the rat race of general MBAs and builds for itself an image of a market leader in its particular domain of MBA education. While it would be premature to signal the end of the general MBA course, it is undeniable that specialization is on the rise and MBA aspirants must, in addition to cracking the entrance exams, prepare themselves for the group discussions (GDs), personal interviews (PIs) and statements of purpose (SOPs) of the specific function that they have applied to.
Given this context, I have, from my experience as an interviewee for and now a student in an HR course, tried to put together seven points that an aspirant for an MBA in HR may do well to bear in mind. While the issues mentioned below have been specifically related to an HR interview, I believe they would apply in a similar vein to other specialized courses as well. However, my success in an HR interview and my experience in an HR course limit my observations to the HR domain only.
1. Be informed about HR as a profession. If asked about which domain in HR you find interesting, you should not stare blankly as if you thought specialization ended with selecting the MBA(HR) option on the application form. The HR function has many sub-functions within it, like Compensation, Recruitment and Selection, Training and Development, Performance Management and Industrial Relations. Read up broadly on the various domains and try to delve a bit into any one domain that seems interesting to you from the surface. This equips you with fodder for an informed discussion with the panel. For instance, if IR (industrial relations) interests you, you could read up on the latest industrial strikes in the country and a bit on the different trade unions that are there and their political affiliations, so that you can substantiate your interest in the subject by giving examples. Always remember that the best proof of interest is knowledge.
2. Communication is not a core HR skill. Never say that your communication skills (or any other so-called ‘soft’ skill for that matter) will make you an excellent HR manager. Communication is a basic skill that is required of any manager inside any organization. In fact, a marketing manager working with brands or a production manager on a shop floor needs to communicate more on a daily basis than an average HR manager working with payrolls or appraisals. He would never be expected to talk to clients or suppliers, and even within the organization, his interaction with employees is to a far lesser extent than the immediate supervisor’s. On the contrary, an HR manager designing a compensation system for 10,000 employees would need as much analytical and number crunching skills as would someone in finance or operations. The perception therefore that HR is all about soft skills is a completely wrong one and talking about soft skills as a core competence in an HR interview could be a recipe for disaster.
3. Sound realistic about the prospects in HR. Do not sound nave when talking about where you see yourself in the long run. It is good to say that you wish to be a CEO, but be prepared for a counter-attack from the panel giving you a dim statistical probability of an HR manager ever becoming the CEO of a company (though there are such examples). You should be aware of the career path of a typical HR professional, both in functional HR as well as in the consulting domain. You should also be aware that a shift to a general management role from an HR role is not possible at any or every stage in one’s career. Usually, such shifts are possible only at the senior and top management levels where one has gathered enough functional expertise to be able to take on a strategic role. Most of his career, an HR professional would gather expertise as a generalist or specialist in a line role (inside any organization) or as consultant in a consultancy firm (like the Hay Group or KPMG). Finally, you should also be aware of the fundamental difference between a line or functional HR role and a consulting role and the challenges associated with each. Very broadly, a functional HR manager works within an existing HR framework in an organization, while a consultant designs frameworks for various organizations of different size, age and culture and advises them on policy and implementation.
4. Be clear as to why HR. This question would haunt you in any interview in different forms, and it is better to be prepared with a specific answer instead of giving a general answer for ‘why MBA’. While there is no ‘model’ answer to this question, I would suggest giving a frank and simple response instead of something that involves your inborn ‘people skills’ or ‘communication skills’. Something as simple as ‘my cousin is a senior HR manager at P&G and I like the work he does‘ could be a perfectly acceptable answer, provided you know broadly what your cousin does. You have to come up with your own answer based on your past experience in or exposure to the corporate world and if it sounds genuine, there is no reason why a panel should doubt your reason for wanting to do an HR course.
5. Be clear as to why ‘XYZ’ to HR. You might be asked to justify why you want to shift from a career in the software coding to one in HR. Personally, I have faced this question at two of the top HR institutes in the country, viz., TISS and XLRI and more so because my background was something as unlikely as architecture. Most aspirants often make the mistake of trying to relate their past work or education with HR and justifying how skills acquired in one will come in handy in the other. (On a lighter note, most panellists believe you don’t acquire any skills in a software job!) Do that only if you can strongly relate the two, else steer clear of it. The best answer to this would again be a frank answer and one that is relevant to your own experience in life. In my case, I told them that architecture was exciting as a course of study, but as a career, it was overhyped in terms of creativity and stagnating in terms of progression. I wanted an MBA in HR because, firstly, MBA would give my career a fillip, and HR was something that I could grapple with, given my background and inclination (as compared to finance, operations or marketing).
6. Reflect on HR issues in your workplace. If you have worked before, then think about what problems you yourself faced in your workplace and how you would try to solve them if you were the HR manager in the company. A friend of mine who was a journalist before joining an HR course mentioned in her interview that she knew too well how a sub-editor is overworked and underpaid, and her entire interview turned in the direction of employee satisfaction in the journalism industry, something she could talk for hours on. Therefore, knowing about HR issues in your past job shows that you are aware of the challenges an HR manager would typically face in an organization.
7. Do not aggrandize HR. Finally, HR is not the ultimate profession in the world. It is only as good or as bad as any other corporate function. Try not to make statements that suggest HR as the reason behind all corporate successes or that HR can solve all corporate evils. Be aware of the limitations of human resource management both as a function in an organization and as a career for yourself. At the same time, emphasize the fact that HR is an emerging field and most of the unsolved or unattended problems in organizations today lie in the domain of HR, and even as a support function, well-designed HR policies and practices can help HR play a strategic role in the success or failure of a company.
Keeping the above points in mind will hopefully help any aspirant to an HR course to make a positive impact on the interviewer and convey an impression of genuine interest in pursuing a career in human resource management.