Top tips for reward and benefits career progression

If you read nothing else, read this…

• A successful reward career often depends on adopting a fresh approach.
• As well as getting to grips with an organisation’s broad business priorities, it is also important to understand its culture.
• To reach the top, reward professionals must be approachable and able to deal with all sorts of people.

High-flying reward and benefits professionals give their tips for reaching the top. Sam Barrett reports

Securing a spot at the top of the reward profession is no mean feat, with many of those who do so having spent years perfecting their skills. But a few tips and some career advice from those who featured in Employee Benefits’ inaugural list of Hot 100 Benefits Managers in February could help aspiring big-hitters to succeed.

One of the key pieces of advice offered by many top reward and benefits professionals is to develop a good understanding of an organisation. Neal Blackshire, benefits and compensation manager at McDonald’s Restaurants, says: “Make sure what you do is aligned to the objectives and strategic planning of the business. You can assist the business by motivating staff to take the action that will deliver these objectives. If you don’t do this, you’re wasting the business’ time.”

Many of those in the Hot 100 worked in other disciplines before moving to reward and benefits . Ricky D’Ash, head of compensation and benefits at Equity Insurance Group, part of IAG (UK), started out in catering before discovering where his real passion lay; Jane Vivier, reward and recognition manager at Cancer Research UK, worked as a manager for the London Eye; and Debbie Thompson, reward manager at Cheshire West and Chester Council, trained as an accountant before realising she was interested in people as well as figures.

Seth Russell, director of reward at Three, says reward professionals can think they know what will work when they join a new employer, but warns: “Even if it is an organisation you know about, spend time getting to understand its culture. It may have tried things before that didn’t work, so it’s worth understanding this and avoid repeating mistakes.”

Fresh approach needed

But while a good understanding of the organisation is important, success often depends on adopting a fresh approach, says Vivier. “I do admire those that are prepared to do things differently. When I first came into the profession, there were a lot of box-tickers, but this doesn’t bring about change. It’s also good for your own career and job satisfaction to try to find different ways to do things.”

Adam Brooke, vice-president, UK employee benefits at JP Morgan Chase, says to succeed, reward professionals must challenge themselves constantly. “Push yourself forward all the time. Don’t become comfortable.”

With responsibilities ranging from promoting benefits to assessing the financial viability of a new reward package, professionals need a mix of skills to reach the top, and good people skills are high on the list. Equity’s D’Ash says it is essential to be approachable and able to deal with all sorts of people, from new joiners to the chief executive.

Andrew Clark, head of reward at the John Lewis Partnership, adds: “It is about enthusing people. You need to demystify benefits so people can make informed decisions.”

Numeracy is also important, and McDonald’s Restaurants’ Blackshire recommends brushing up on this. “Fifteen years ago, you would probably have got finance to do benefits costings for you, but today it’s quicker and more efficient to do it yourself,” he says.

Another key quality is tenacity, especially in the current economic climate. Cancer Research’s Vivier says it is essential to be able to argue the case for something. “Use all your skills to show why it is worth doing. Sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate.”

Many high-fliers also recommend spending time in different sectors to gain experience. Although Cheshire West’s Thompson now works in the public sector, she began her reward career with a financial services firm. “I have changed employer every five years or so to give myself a new challenge,” she says. “Different sectors do things in different ways and it’s great to be able to bring experiences from previous jobs into my current one.”

Pitfalls to avoid

There are also pitfalls to avoid on the road to the top of the profession. These include office politics and trying to please everyone, but one of the main hazards is becoming too insular. “It is easy to become engrossed in what you are doing, but you must keep up to date with what is happening outside your organisation,” says JP Morgan Chase’s Brooke.

D’Ash adds: “As well as keeping abreast of legislative changes and new products, you need to know what your market is doing. This will ensure you are competitive when it comes to reward and benefits. And if you want to introduce something sexy, it won’t work if you haven’t got the basics, such as base pay, right. Build your house on solid foundations.”

Networking at conferences and provider events helps to keep knowledge up to date. Three’s Russell says: “Other professionals have helped and advised me throughout my career. Everything you do has been done before, so speak to others in your network.”

John Lewis’ Clark is on the board of governors at Newham College and finds this very helpful. “As well as sharing my experience to help run the college, I gain experience that is valuable to my role at John Lewis,” he says.

Successful reward professionals will all have taken different routes to the top, but enthusiasm is a quality they all share. Thompson says: “There is so much variety in the sector. Sometimes it’s challenging, but it’s always changing. It is very rewarding.”

But it can be hard to decide where to specialise. Clark observes: “As you gain experience, you will be able to decide what you want to do. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and go for it.”

Top tips to reach the top

Whether it is feedback from staff, new direction from management or advice from other professionals, listening and absorbing information is a key skill.

Challenge yourself
It is easy for reward professionals to replicate what they have already done, but not making a difference and becoming too comfortable could mean it is time to move on.

Those who build contacts, internally and externally, will keep their ideas fresh and up to date with the market.

Love your job
Professionals need to love reward and benefits in order to succeed in their career. But they should remember that they will not please everyone all of the time, particularly in the current economic climate, so should develop a thick skin and remember it is not personal.

Dos and don’ts of networking

Do have something to say
Gain some experience and establish some opinions before entering the reward stage. For networking, pick events with a mix of people that are important to your career.

Do network internally
When starting out, you need time to raise your profile internally because this will ensure people know what you are capable of. Reward professionals should gain the trust and respect of colleagues and act as a springboard to external networking.

Don’t ignore other sectors
Mixing with professionals from the same sectors will help ensure your organisation’s perks stay competitive. Mixing with peers from different sectors will keep ideas fresh.

Don’t forget the day job
Networking may progress your career, but it will count for little if you ignore your current responsibilities. So the day job should be your primary focus. If you do the right thing for your organisation, you will usually find recognition will follow.

Read more about the Hot 100 benefits managers