Climbing the Total Rewards Career Ladder: Advice From 3 Comp Pros
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Climbing the Total Rewards Career Ladder: Advice From 3 Comp Pros

Time of posting an article for Barley Compensation Management Software
August 30, 2023
Reading time for Barley Compensation Management Software
7 min read

Many people pursue a career in Human Resources (HR) because of the array of focus areas they can pursue, from Learning and Development to Recruitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. 

However, few individuals choose positions in Compensation, Benefits, or Total Rewards. One main reason is lack of awareness. Often, these roles aren’t widely promoted or supported within the industry or traditional HR education programs. 

But for those with an analytical mindset—who like time with data as much as they like interacting with people—Total Rewards can be the perfect calling. 

What does a Total Rewards Specialist do? 

Total Rewards professionals have a range of responsibilities, including establishing their company’s compensation philosophy, running salary reviews, analyzing market trends, and designing employee total rewards program. Their ability to influence the employee quality of life—while also driving performance and retention—means that Total Rewards managers can have a huge impact on the employee experience and the strategic direction of their company.

Curious to learn more about this underrated career path?

We recently hosted a discussion with three experts to shed some light on the state of total rewards: 

  • Laura Gale, CEO & Co-founder of White & Gale Consulting, who has worked at large brands—like Blackberry, Aritzia, and Lululemon—before starting her own consulting firm. 
  • Daniese Adams, Director of Total Rewards at CareRev, who started her career as an HR generalist before focusing on Compensation and Total Rewards. 
  • Jamie Newton, Managing Director at Total Rewards Search, who has over 20 years of experience in HR, with the last ten being dedicated to the Total Rewards space. 

Read our webinar recap below for the panel’s best insights for breaking into and growing a career in Total Rewards.

p.s. If you’d rather listen to or watch the discussion, check out the webinar recording here

How to Break Into the Total Rewards Field

Many people end up in Total Rewards after roles in people operations, payroll, or finance. Daniese—who started her career as HR generalist and recruiter before ending up in Total Rewards—recommends the role for those who like working with numbers and data analysis.“You have to enjoy being in a spreadsheet for hours,” says Laura.

If you don’t have experience in a related field, consider how your education or past roles have given you related knowledge or skills. Daniese studied Data Science, as an example, which helped her navigate complex compensation datasets. Showing an interest in total rewards by taking courses or reading up on Total Rewards can also help get your foot in the door. (See our list of resources at the end of this post.)

All of the panelists agreed networking is important for getting into total rewards. “I think the biggest problem with our industry is people don't know it exists,” says Jamie. Since colleges that specialize in human resources don’t heavily promote the Total Rewards career path, Jamie says it’s important to be inquisitive to learn more about the field earlier on in your career. 

If you’re confident you’d like to work in Total Rewards, Laura suggests seeking internships at organizations with a dedicated compensation team or compensation-focused consulting firms as a starting point. Larger organizations may be more likely to have those specializations available, but the complexity of the organization and its pay structure may matter more than size alone—so don’t discount smaller organizations when seeking a role, she advises.

Daniese stresses the importance of community when it comes to building your skills. “No matter what level you're at, there's always someone that knows more than you, and you should take advantage of that through mentorship,” she says. “My mentor has provided me with direct access to invaluable tactical knowledge. And I find myself learning how to deal with things that I've not yet experienced myself just through helping others.”

How to Become a VP of Total Rewards

Becoming a Director or VP of Total Rewards isn’t necessarily a linear path. Jamie says those that want to climb the corporate ladder need to be well-rounded. This means having working knowledge or experience in adjacent functions, like HR analytics, benefits, or payroll. He also recommends switching up which industries, countries, company types, or areas of the business you work with (i.e. executive or sales comp) to get a wider breadth of experience. 

“You’ve got to strive in your career to take on more,” he says. “Actively going upwards is something you have to be very careful of in terms of what job is going to add to your skill set. You've got to have some thought for how to actively progress and develop.”

Multiple panelists agree that gaining experience in both large and small organizations can benefit your Total Rewards career. Smaller companies offer the chance to build programs from scratch and own different areas of human resources, while larger organizations allow you to deepen your skill set and navigate large-scale systems and implementations.

Beyond technical skills, Jamie and Laura stressed that communication skills are paramount. “You are, first and foremost, an educator,” says Laura. Learning how to influence stakeholders with clear communication is critical for having your programs implemented. 

When it comes to getting a promotion, Denis recommends continually educating yourself so you can take on new tasks and prove your value. She seeks out learning opportunities through webinars, job shadowing, and participating in online forums and communities. But putting yourself into real-world situations where you can apply new skills is the best way to improve. “Certifications and education are great. But to truly learn something, you have to practice it.”

Balancing In-House Experience and Consulting Work

Laura—who has worked both in-house and in compensation consulting firms—says there are pros to either type of experience. She recommends trying both before deciding your preference. However, spending some time working in-house will benefit a consulting career. 

In-house experience exposes you to related areas of HR, like performance and talent management. It also teaches you how to manage internal stakeholders and implement programs that work for your organization—and not just frameworks from consulting firms. “Most of our consultants have in-house expertise, and they understand how the business works and the internal politics around how to implement this within an organization,” says Laura.

Jamie says that consulting can give people strong technical knowledge from the breadth of clients they get to work with. But life-long consultants must hone their change management skills if they want to successfully implement programs in-house. “You can go in with some of the best ideas possible but not know how to navigate a business well.”

The Future of Total Rewards as a Field

All the panelists agreed the demand for Total Rewards experts is growing. But the supply of trained pros isn’t keeping pace. “It's still a profession that very few people fall into or actively target,” says Jamie. “We're still incredibly light on people actively progressing and staying with the profession.” This means total rewards is open for those who want to enter it. Jamie says a lot of people with backgrounds in accounting, legal, and HR are making the shift.

The increase in demand can be tied to the rise in legislation around pay transparency and pay equity—which many company leaders are recognizing the need for compensation professionals to stay on top of regulations, ensure compliance, and manage their compensation programs. Laura says it’s important to keep abreast of these types of shifts along with other emerging pay trends so that Total Rewards managers can be a part of reducing pay gaps or biases through their work. “Go outside of your bubble and look into what's happening globally—not just in compensation, but other areas of HR that interconnect within compensation.”

Laura also says learning about technology—including Recognition tools, Human Capital Management software, or Compensation Management tools (like Barley)—can help Total Rewards managers tackle internal challenges they may face when building out a program. “Try to truly understand your business problems and what solutions you may be able to put forward and recommend.”

Resources for Diving Deeper Into Total Rewards

Total Rewards specialists can help organizations bridge the gap between employee needs and employer goals. They create a more fulfilling workplace experience by making employees feel appreciated and understood. And, as our panelists shared, it’s a tight-knit, supportive field with lots of opportunities for learning and growth.

If you’re interested in breaking into Total Rewards or leveling up your career, consider sharpening your skills with some of these helpful resources:

Need to level up your compensation strategy?

6 Steps to a Better Compensation Strategy

Watch the full webinar

Growing Your Career in Total Rewards

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