The “A” Factor: The ONE Secret To Getting Promoted in HR Consistently…

by Alan Collins

Before I tell you what the “A” factor is, let me share the true story of two HR leaders.

To prevent embarrassing anyone, let’s call them: Colleen and Karen.

They are very much alike.

Both currently work for the same company, but in different divisions.

Both are brilliant.

Both have graduate degrees in HR.  Both have SPHR certifications.  And both have roughly equivalent HR, leadership and business skills (at least in my view).

However, Colleen has struggled for seven years just to stay employed in HR. Even though she is extremely bright, she has progressed very little, if any, financially and career-wise during those years.

She constantly looks over her shoulder fearing that the ax could fall on her job at any moment.

Karen started in HR six years ago. She’s been promoted three times during this time and her career has grown by leaps and bounds.

She’s now preparing to leave the “comfort” (probably the wrong word, but you know what I mean) of a large corporation to go off on her own as an independent HR consultant.  And, I absolutely have no doubt she’ll be successful.

But back to person one, Colleen:  When I talk to her, I hear lengthy whining about all the outside influences that have negatively affected her career in HR.  The brutally competitive economy, corporate downsizings she didn’t see coming, bosses that won’t give her a fair shake, clients who disrespect her, and her list goes on and on and on. The same old tired excuses. It’s like hearing a bad Taylor Swift song playing over and over again.

By the way, she’s right!  She’s not exaggerating.  A long time ago, I used to work in the division she’s in.  The issues she talks about, unfortunately, still DO exist — years later!  In fact, I remember getting frustrated and pissed off by many of them myself.

But the issue is NOT that she’s right.

The issue is how much Colleen allows these issues to hold her back.

On the other hand, when I talk with Karen, it’s a totally different story.

Sure, these same challenges come up, but only occasionally.   Instead, she talks excitedly about the innovative strategies she has discovered and developed to keep her career growing regardless of external influences.  Whenever I see her, she aggressively quizzes me about any and all career strategies I’ve seen or discovered recently that might work for her.

Recently, she read an old version of my article: “26 HR Career Boosting Moves” and excitedly identified four of them that she plans to put into action right away.

And therein lies the ONE single attribute that truly sets Karen apart from Colleen…and is a key for stepping up your career in HR.

It’s not working harder.

It’s not being smarter.

It’s not being lucky.

And it’s not building more relationships (though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that).

It’s the fact that….

“Unlike Colleen, Karen embraces the “A” FACTOR.
By that, I mean that she takes ACTION.
And she doesn’t allow 
her actions to be imprisoned
by the need for PERFECTION.”

Let me explain further.

Unlike Karen, Colleen needs things to be damn near perfect before she gets going.  In a recent conversation with her about her HR career, here’s some pieces of what she told me…

You definitely won’t hear ANY of this crap from Karen.

In applying the “A” factor — that is, taking ACTION — Karen doesn’t assume that you will fall flat on your face in failure if everything isn’t perfect and all your ducks are in a row.

She assumes that your ducks ain’t never going be 100% in a row.  And if they are, life will just declare duck season!

In fact, if you were to ask her:  “So how do you take your HR career to the next level, even if you’re not quite sure what to do?” here are 8 pieces of advice she’d give you…

1.  Just put one stake in the ground and start moving.

If you don’t know where to start, just take the list of 26 HR Career Boosting Moves, pick one of them and start moving on it.  Don’t try to get things perfect, just get started.  Perfection is boring and not necessary.

Don’t let having everything 100% lined up stop you from taking action.  You can turn a bad HR career plan into a good one, but you can’t turn no career plan into a good one. So get going.

Half of your career plans are wrong anyway…you just don’t know which half.  And you won’t find that out until you start trying things.

2.  Make it all about execution, not having the best plan.

If you feel like you need a plan, develop one.  That’s fine and smart.  Just do it quickly.  Keep it to one page but move to execute your plan just as quickly as you can.

Keep in mind that all the planning in the world will get you absolutely nowhere. You need to take that first step, no matter how small or how shaky.

Just lace up your shoes and get going.

The rest will take care of itself.

3.  Motion beats meditation.

Don’t over-think things.

Too much thinking often results in getting stuck and going in circles.

Some thinking is good.  It’s good to have a clear picture of where you’re going or why you’re doing what you’re doing — but don’t get bogged down pondering all the possible paths.

Get in motion quickly.

4.  Bite off only what you can chew, then chew it.

It’s Karen’s mantra.

And it’s spot on.

Tiny, itty-bitty steps work.

She told me that “if you manage to hit singles every day, the year will be a home run.”

Love it!

So step up to the plate.  Take your swings.  Test your ideas and see what works and what doesn’t.  Biting off more than you can chew can kill action.  Maybe because of choking.  I dunno.  But taking little tiny blows will eventually break down that mountain.

5. Negative thinking gets you nowhere.

Self doubt? The urge to quit? Telling yourself that it’s OK to be distracted and that you can always get to it later? Squash those thoughts.

Well, OK, you can be distracted for a little bit, but you get the idea. Positive thinking, as corny as it sounds, really works. It’s self-talk, and what we tell ourselves has a funny habit of turning into reality.

6.  Meetings aren’t action.

This is a common mistake in HR.

We like to hold meetings to get things done.

Meetings, unfortunately, almost always get in the way of the actual doing.

Stop holding meetings that lead nowhere!

7. Talking (usually) isn’t action.

Well, unless the action you’re taking involves giving a presentation or speech.

But usually, talking is just talking.

Communication is necessary, but don’t mistake it for actual action.

8. Reading about it isn’t action, either.

It’s ironic that you’re reading this article about taking action.

And as much as I love having your eyeballs rights now, it’s no substitute for taking REAL action.

So hurry up and get done reading this so you can really get to work!

To recap, do you want to take your HR career a quantum leap forward?

Then follow Karen’s lead and make it all about the “A” factor…taking action.

Stick your toe in the water.

Get something started towards advancing your career.


And use that as momentum to keep going.

Take tiny steps forward.

Don’t wait for things get “better” or “perfect” to start.

And start now!


Your feedback is welcomed. Please click HERE to add your comments below.


Share your thoughts on this article in the comments below by CLICKING HERE.

Want more strategies for leveraging your HR brand and THRIVING in your career in Human Resources?  Then check out:  UNWRITTEN HR RULES: 21 Strategies For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources.  For additional details, go HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals  including UNWRITTEN HR RULES.   He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

Feed your network: If you like this article, feel free to share it with your FACEBOOK friends by clicking the “share” and “like” buttons below…or share this with your TWITTER followers by clicking the “tweet” button below.

40 Responses to “The “A” Factor: The ONE Secret To Getting Promoted in HR Consistently…”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Alan – this is a great article – and I think can be applied to any professional, these are great ACTION tips! I think in HR we can tend to “over examine” everything, have a plan A & B & C…. and listen to the negative tapes that run in all of our heads.

    If it’s not written it’s not done!

  2. Marie Says:

    Great article and terrific pointers. There is something for everyone here.

  3. Michelle Says:

    “She assumes that your ducks ain’t never going be 100% in a row. And if they are, life will just declare duck season!”

    How true! I think this is my new favorite quote!

    As always, excellent advice. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us Alan.

  4. Vikram Singh Rawat Says:

    Dear Allan,
    thanks for this awsome article with us or should i say the real facts in professional and personal world. Pls. do share these inspiring facts which will be very useful for the persons like me who has just started the career in HR field.


  5. Alan Says:

    Elizabeth & Marie – You’re right these quick tips can apply to folks beyond HR. Nice point!

    Michelle – glad you loved the Karen’s quote. I’m flattered and all credit goes to her. I just love how she can turn a phrase.

  6. Frances Says:

    Great article. The point about being imprisoned in perfection and giving yourself permission to procrastinate definitely hit the mark. Thank you for a great kick in the right place!

  7. Gaurav Says:

    I still love the part of Unwritten HR rules: What are you waiting for. Just got Best Kept HR Secrets. Next week should be beautiful.

  8. Alan Says:

    Gaurav – You’re right on about the “What are you waiting for?” section of “Unwritten HR Rules.” A lot of HR folks waste time waiting on their boss to take the lead on stuff that’s totally, totally, totally (yes 3 times!) within their control…and miss tremendous opportunities to use these “opportunity voids” to catapult their HR career forward. Great point!

    Enjoy “Best Kept HR Secrets.”


  9. Unshakeable Says:

    Alan I agree with everything you’ve listed. And I have to admit I’m a lot like Colleen. I don’t whine or make excuses – at least not out loud and I do try and take action. I think my biggest flaw is my lack of motivation.

    I’ve been with my employer for 4 years. I never received a performance evaluation until last year – year #3. During my evaluation, my boss barely discussed any of my successes like bringing the entire facility into compliance within 2 years and successfully passing an OFCCP audit or streamlining the recruitment process so managers could stop hiring their sons and church members (imagine what that looked like before I arrived – by the way I’m AA and the facility I manage is not). I made great strides to meet my bosses and my business partner’s expectations especially since the biggest concern (which my boss expressed during my interview) was compliance.

    My 1st PE was riddled with how people perceived me (and not managers – their admins). He filled the discussion with people’s perceptions of me. Now mind you, when I arrived there were a lot of changes that were made that people didn’t like and probably ended up resenting (like terminating the VPs son who did little to nothing and made more than anyone in that same position).

    Everything he pointed out during our discussion was internally focused. And that was my entire PE. Granted, none of that information was reflected in the hard copy of my evaluation but none the less I still feel like my boss and I never came back from that.

    I am the only HR on site and I get very little support with my daily duties of managing a facility with some 200 employees representing the different lines of business; some of who my boss doesn’t even have knowledge of because they are in another side of the business.

    I also do not feel like I am making enough; which obviously has a lot to do with my lack of motivation. I know these all sound like excuses and I really haven’t told you the 1/2 of it, but I am trying very diligently to force myself to move forward.

    I am starting to think that maybe I’m feeling this way because this isn’t the career I’m supposed to get settled in. My passion is teaching and writing; I chose HR, so I try not to complain. I am aware of why I’m like a Colleen. My level of motivation is almost non existent and I know that is a problem only I can fix.

    I deal with a lot of employee issues on a daily basis and even though I am suffering along with many of them, I don’t feel as if I have an outlet to express what I’m going through; so I suffer in silence. Maybe that’s where writing a blog comes in :-). I did purchase your guide by the way and I am very motivated by your teachings.

    I surmise that there is a level of manager respect and support that must exist for employees to truly be productive in their jobs. Every day is not going to be roses – this I accept. But when everyday is a bastion of thorns that can be a problem that lives and breaths the smoke of negativity into your daily grind. I’m sure being an executive in this business you can relate. I guess I just need to read more of your work.

    Thanks for all you do to support us as professionals. We definitely need more Alans in the world of HR.

  10. Alan Says:

    Unshakable – Thanks for sharing your personal story. Appreciate your being so revealing. Here are some thoughts…

    1. You don’t strike me as being like Colleen. Colleen is highly motivated but just wants things to be “perfect” before she takes action. You don’t strike me as a “perfectionist” because you’ve taken quite a bit of action (like getting your organization into compliance, taking out poor performers, etc.). You strike me more as a person who as you’ve said that simply “lacks motivation” and is not inspired by what you’re currently doing for a variety of entirely understandable reasons.

    2. I believe it’s time for you to move on. Find a role, environment and boss that you can get inspired about again. From what you’ve described it’s NOT where you currently are. Most people who step into “fix-it, turnaround” situations like you have, then leave once the job has been done. Either because of “burn out” or because they’ve not made many friends in the organization. If your organization is now in compliance and the deadwood eliminated, consider your “turnaround” job done and move on to greener pastures with a more inspiring boss, supportive culture and where you can leverage your skills in teaching and writing (if not on the job, on the side). I’d suggest keeping your current job for now, but immediately putting yourself on the job market. Your accomplishments will look good on a resume. Position yourself as a strong, HR pro who has a track record of not hesitating to step up and take tough ,decisive actions and you’ll attract many opportunities — many like the one you have, but others in more invigorating work environments. I might try a large organization, where there are lots of opportunities to move around and progress in a variety of different HR roles.

    3. “Unshakable”…absolutely, I love that name…keep that as your mantra…especially should you decide to pursue the advice provided in #2 above.

    Wish you much, much success.


  11. Lana El Moustrah Says:

    Thanks for all your personal sharing experiences and lessons I am enjoying reading your books Alan.

    Wish you more sucsess.

  12. Saurabh Says:

    This reminds and reinforces: “Strategy is Execution”. Unless beautifully executed, no strategy looks good on paper. Thanks for reinforcing this thought, Alan!

  13. Cristina Says:

    Hi Alan,

    thanks for explainig things so clearly.
    I think I’m in the middle, between Karen and Collen, but it’s the second time that I have a boss who dismiss me without any explanation, just after receiving congratulations from the CEO of the group and after very good results.
    Can you give me any tip? Should I refuse any second position in HR department and only aim for first position as a VP or HR director?

    I wish you more succes too.

  14. Carlos Gonzalez Says:

    I am the owner of a small HR company and have no boss but still most of this applies perfectly in my situation. My advice is to put your self in your bosses’ shoes and think what he is expecting. I am pretty much sure he wants action. Great article, thank you very much.

  15. Alan Says:

    Christina – I would give very careful consideration to any position/assignment/opportunity that helps grow your career in HR and moves you in the direction of your ultimate dream.


  16. Ayotunde Says:

    I have followed your write-ups on a number of issues and this one present an area of an employee’s existence that we rather not talk about. I was on this path some months ago so I know what it means. Even when you have some money kept aside, you still think of the days ahead and what it will bring.

    Thank you for this piece, it definitely will help clear once mind and move on to other things.

  17. Angelique Says:

    Dear Allan,

    This is a brilliant article and just what the Doctor ordered for me.

    My passion for this field has turned into confusion and doubt as well as self-doubt.

    The lack of perfection and textbook approach in HR practices has demotivated me. I am in a place where I need to get unstuck and back on my horse.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdon

  18. Miatta W. Says:

    Great article.I love Karen’s perception and attitude. I have applied some of these steps in my HR Career and will continue to do so in the future.

  19. Ray Deck Says:

    I absolutely agree with your comments for a significant segment of my HR community. However, there is also a segment that want to progress too fast, before they have developed a strong base of knowledge. There are some of my staff who need to hear the message “don’t be in too much of a hurry to advance”. The CEO of BhT Billiton, a majour mineral corporation, gave some good advice to a graduating class this year. He told them to ensure they build their credibility at every step up the career ladder, and be patient in this proces.

  20. Mia Kensey Says:

    Dear Allan,

    Thank you for sharing this article. I am just beginning HR career, and found this article to be very inspiring.

    I have started a blog to illlustrate my journey through HR. This is my first blog, and I’m not sure if this is the appropriate content. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  21. Sandy Jones-Kaminski Says:

    Excellent post, Alan!

    Had to comment here because I was tickled to see one of your blog posts just shared on LinkedIn by someone I only recently added to my network. I believe she found you on her own, but always love it when I see folks in my network connecting!

    Hope that you are well,
    Sandy p.s. I’m speaking at HR West in Oakland in Apr this year and when they asked me for books I reco (to include in their bookstore), in addition to mine, I gave them your Unwritten HR Rules ISBN and a plug. 🙂

  22. Kimberly Says:

    I joined your blog today, and I am very pleased this is the first article I read. I found it very insightful and refreshing.

  23. Ingrid Says:


    This provides a good visual of many of the realities that some of us face – we know what we want, but we don’t know how to “go get it”.

    I’ve been a Colleen in the past…but for some time now I’ve been striving to be more of a Karen.

    Thanks for encapsulating the issues so neatly.

    Lights, Camera, ACTION!

  24. dana Says:

    Thanks you.I was just procrastinating on a presentation for tomorrow (making it perfect) and you got me going. I strive to be a Karen but I regress back at times.

  25. ella tatel Says:

    As always, it’s another learning experience reading your great article. Thanks a lot!

  26. Prisca Dorine Says:

    Hi Allan,

    I have been struggling to fit in the HR profession but now I want to be a Karen and divorce the Colleen that I have been. Great stuff!

  27. Sukanta Says:

    Hi Allan,
    Really like your thoughts on this.
    So many times even we HR people are stuck in the ‘Analysis – Paralysis’ syndrome.

    Thanks for the article and Yes….mindless meetings just for the sake of doing it, is not Action, it is the effective Execution that matters and not just making of great plans.

  28. Meera G Menon Says:

    Hi Allan,

    This article just acted like a tonic for me which gave me the instant energy to kick start my new venture. I have been planning it for some time. Now, I have the courage to go ahead and do it.

    Thanks a lot!!!!

  29. samarjit Says:

    Hi Allan ,

    The more I read your thought the more I get impressed . I too am a proponent of execution . So “A” factor deeply appreciated .

  30. Nirupa Says:

    Dear Alan,

    I have just started my career in HR. Great inspiration!

    Thank you!

  31. eunice Says:

    Am inspired. thanks allan

  32. Nyemo Says:

    Thank you very much sir, this is very helpful, I am taking action now.

    Warm regards.

  33. Diana Says:

    Thank you Allen, as always you provide so much enlightenment and inspiration. Appreciate your style of communicating and sharing your perspective which comes so comprehensive and factual and reflecting the true realities of workplaces and their main actors. Boosting my confidence believing to find in myself more of the Karen, however there have been and are overlapping moments….the perfection desire sometimes hinders action taking. I am also impressed and love reading others’ thoughts and sharing and impressed at your following the line of comments and not missing anyone who needs your piece of advice and giving it in the most complete and empathetic way. There is precious learning in your article as well as in your role of model of taking action by responding to your readers and being always a resource of empowering others. Thank you, always!

  34. FJ Says:

    “Bite off only what you can chew, then chew it.”
    Allan, thank you!! You are so right about not waiting for things to get perfect BEFORE taking any step. If we choose so, then we might as well wait forever!
    Indeed, I am inspired as always.
    Wish you all the best Allan!

  35. Paul Says:

    Dear Angelique (17). There are many so called experts in HR that are text book philosophers. Even worse – there are even more so called experts that are not from HR that believe they know more than you about HR – and tell you endlessly what HR should be doing.

    Be careful who you listen too. I always take my ear plugs out when Alan delivers a message.

  36. Chickie Says:

    Alan, as always this was an awesome article! I have been Colleen when it comes to being a perfectionist. I am slowing learning to move from this mindset. lol I love Karen’s out look. Great tips for sure, and I will definitely take them into consideration as I try to move more towards being a Karen vs a Colleen.

  37. Sophie Maidore Says:

    Great article. I’ve been a ” Colleen” for so long and not very happy with that.Now i have the tools to change . Many thanks for those valuable tips Alan. I always enjoy reading your newsletter which for me can be applied to any professional including personal Life.

  38. Raeisha Says:

    As always, and one again, that necessary tough HR love. EXECUTION has been all I’ve been hearing in my head recently. I have taken my shoe off and that’s more than I can say I’ve done over the last 2 years. I am definitely in a comfort zone and once I come out, I’m going to shoot “comfort” into space for it to be lost forever! Thanks Alan!

  39. Says:

    I think the “A” factor could also easily be “Attitude”. It’s amazing what a little optimism can do for our lives and careers. Believe you can do it and the action will help you get there!

  40. Muhammad Tahir Says:

    This is great!