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Aiming Higher: Abt's Clarissa Peterson Leads Human Resources Into the Future

Clarissa Peterson
Clarissa Peterson Sometimes, the greatest success begins with failure. 
That’s a lesson Clarissa Peterson points to as part of her journey in becoming chair of the HR Certification Institute (HRCI), an organization that has been certifying human resources (HR) professionals around the world for more than 40 years. Under Peterson’s leadership and guidance, more than 145,000 HR professionals in 100 countries now hold one or more of HRCI’s accredited certifications, demonstrating a commitment to the profession by achieving the gold standard in the field of HR.
Before joining the Board of Directors at HRCI, Peterson led human resources teams in telecommunications and consumer product companies, and served on the global integration team managing the largest law firm merger in history. “I had a wealth of HR experience before becoming certified,” Peterson said. “And while I recognized the value of an HRCI certification for my staff, I wasn’t certified myself. So I decided to walk the talk.”
Peterson sat for the Senior Professional in Human Resources exam (SPHR), but didn’t prepare for it.  And, she said, like anything else in life, the results of not preparing were pretty predictable. 
“I failed. By 14 points! And my whole team knew I was taking the exam, so I had to come back and tell them the news. But failing that exam was a gift because it made me even more respectful of the HR body of knowledge.  I committed to learn things I didn’t know or relearn things I knew. Ultimately, failing the exam made me a better HR professional.”
Humbled, Peterson took the SPHR exam again…and passed. And when she took the Global Professional in Human Resources (GPHR) certification exam, she passed on her first attempt.
Passing exams and becoming certified were the initial steps Peterson took in a journey within HRCI which ultimately led to her serving a six-year term on their board of directors, including a two-year term as board chair.  
“Becoming chair of HRCI is one of the richest, most fulfilling experiences I’ve had, both personally and professionally,” Peterson noted. “It served as personal validation for a career that has given so much to me. But more importantly, it’s afforded me an opportunity to give back to the HR profession.”
Under Peterson’s leadership, one major challenge HRCI is addressing is the high unemployment among HR professionals transitioning out of the U.S. Army.  
“During my time as chair, HRCI noticed the staggering unemployment numbers among Army HR personnel,” said Peterson. “When we looked a bit further, we found that the language the military uses to describe jobs is very different from what’s used in the private sector. So lots of talented HR people in the military were having their resumes disqualified because they didn’t seem to have experience that many actually did have.”
In order to address this challenge, Peterson traveled to Fort Jackson’s U.S. Army’s Soldier Support Institute in South Carolina. While there, Peterson talked to soldiers about the importance of certification, and affirmed HRCI’s commitment to help personnel “translate” their resumes.
Today, HRCI continues to work closely with the U.S. Army and other branches of the U.S. military, helping transitioning personnel gain certification to become more competitive in the private marketplace. In addition, HRCI has a webinar and several additional resources dedicated to helping men and women in uniform.
“I told the soldiers at Fort Jackson about me failing my first certification exam,” Peterson said. “The message I needed them to hear is that while certification is important, don’t lose sight of the journey. That one experience helped me learn so much about my profession and myself, and I encouraged the soldiers to learn everything they can as they go through the transition into civilian life.”
As her term comes to an end in December 2015, Peterson’s role on the HRCI board has shifted to immediate past chair/chair of the governance committee.  But her passion for advancing her field remains.
“No matter what you do, you want to say to your employer, ‘I’m investing in my own professional development.’ In partnership with the HRCI Board and staff, I’ve had an opportunity to help thousands of people demonstrate their commitment not just to a job, but to a profession. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I’m looking forward to continuing to develop the next generation of HR professionals.”
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