HR People – have you earned your seat at the table?
We have all heard of the saying ‘gaining a seat at the table’. Recently we have seen this statement attributed to Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and Facebook Chief Operating Officer; but it has often been used in reference to human resource practitioners and the debate around becoming a true business partner in order to be recognised as key contributors at the top level of organisations.
There have been significant advancements in this area and among the ten largest public companies in Australia all but one has their senior HR leader in a prominent role as part of the executive leadership team. Many business leaders recognise that human resource management is not soft and fluffy or transactional and payroll related, but a critical consideration in all aspects of the business operations and that, quite simply, without people a business would not exist.
HR Professional Distinction
Despite progress made at the executive level of HR, I think there is a distinction at the middle management and operating level between an HR professional providing advice about HR/IR and people related matters, as opposed to an HR professional being part of strategy development with HR/IR and people matters in mind. HR advise at these levels is often provided ‘when asked’ and, although I don’t doubt the quality of the advice, this positioning as an internal expert does not necessarily lead into a more rounded business focus. Being called upon at moments of crisis such as the analysis of risk in an employment law claim is quite different to analysing business metrics and providing tactical and strategic advice to fellow business leaders.
A true business partner is someone who intricately understands their business, is part of the team who develops the strategy and plans, has clear decision-making accountability and can influence the outcomes of the business. Clearly, from an HR perspective, they need to be more than an adviser.
HR Becoming an Effective Business Partner
Deloitte’s recent research report on Global Capital Trends 2014: Engaging the 21st Century Workforce reported that less than 8 percent of HR leaders have confidence that their teams have the skills needed to meet the challenge of today’s global environment and consistently deliver innovative programs that drive business impact. More broadly, the research found that 42 per cent of business leaders believe their HR teams are underperforming or just getting by, compared to the 27 per cent who rate HR as excellent or good when assessing HR and talent programs. It argues that to become an effective business partner, HR teams need to develop deeper business acumen, build analytical skills to underwrite their leadership, learn to operate as performance advisors and develop an understanding of the needs of the 21st-century workforce.
HR professionals who do have a seat at the table and report directly to the CEO or MD are business partners who don’t wait to be asked for input or advice, and nor would their colleagues expect anything different. My experience is that people at the most senior level demonstrate business depth and knowledge equivalent to their peers around the table. However, as you move beyond the executive level of HR there appears to be reluctance at the middle management and operating levels to ‘back themselves’ when considering general business matters – apparently it is safer to remain in a position of adviser or expert about specialist matters, as opposed to delving into solutions which may assist the broader business. As the research above suggests this perpetuates questions around the quality of HR overall and there is less acknowledgement from the business that teams are performing.
How HR Can ‘Gain a Seat at the Table’
I have observed very senior HR people pitch an idea to their leadership team with an idea that sounds good as it will both develop people and help attract and retain talent – we all want that right? But when questions are asked about risk, return on investment or impact on existing plans or projects already operational within the business, their knowledge has been left wanting. Integrating HR knowledge and creativity with the overall business, whether with a one-off idea or a new people program, is a challenge – there needs to be a greater appetite to appreciate the demands of an organisation and how these impact HR service priorities. To overcome perceptions, a change in language is needed across the HR team in order to deliver real added value.
So how do you gain that seat at the table?
- Immerse yourself into the strategy – seek to understand the strategy and operational plans, if it doesn’t make sense – ask questions. Develop knowledge across the organisational functions; understand acronyms, metrics and key performance indicators. Become familiar with functional language, ie sales targets, brand values, risk registers, governance protocols, commercial and financial analytics – be a business generalist in the first instance and an HR specialist secondly
- Immerse yourself into the leaders – develop a relationship with each member of the executive and senior leadership team, understand their individual concerns, drivers and success indicators. Understand where risks may occur with the leader’s style or plans – be proactive and have a plan in place to mitigate risk and optimise opportunities
- Immerse yourself into the business – meet as many employees as you can, gain an understanding of the ‘feeling’ of the workplace, develop rapport, ask open questions, encourage ideas and suggestions for improvement – become a familiar face!
The immersion approach means you are rich in information, data, insight and trusting relationships – as a collective, this is powerful. You can develop supporting strategies and plans; pre-empt risks and issues; ‘coach’ the leaders; target communications to the employees; embed constructive behaviours across the business and you can rightly assume your seat at the table!