Want a Seat at the Table? Great, But That's Not Where Strategic HR Happens
June 15, 2017
Several years ago as Chief Learning Officer in an organization, I watched a new CHRO place "business partners" from her team in each large business unit. Some of them made a difference, some never really did. Even the CHRO struggled to gain legitimacy with the executive team on matters that didn't directly involve "people stuff." Why would HR need to be involved in something like an acquisition, except to review the employees benefits of the acquired company—right?
Wrong. But as an HR leader, you won't be able to convince the executive team you should be involved in strategic business decisions simply because you're sitting at the same table. After watching how the CHRO and her team approached their roles, I learned that earning trust is not done by pulling up a chair. Instead, the real work is accomplished through meaningful conversations with every individual in the business. It is accomplished by making connections that business leaders are too busy to make. It is accomplished by drawing meaning from data—and discussing the business implications of talent decisions in a clear and efficient way.
A savvy HR leader should be able to make a case for being part of the executive team—which means "getting a seat at the table" is easy. But building credibility is not so simple, and it requires work both at and away from the table.
Strategic HR leaders should know what's really happening in their organizations across departments, and connect the dots. You can do this through quality conversations with your peers, employees and the larger community.
The key to building connections? Asking good business questions, listening to subtle answers and facilitating dialogue about how to make things better. For example, employees love to talk about their jobs and their departments, so encourage them to open up. And once they do, take action: Connect the employee with someone who can resolve their issues, facilitate an open dialogue and follow up to make sure the resolution sticks.
Talent management leaders should not simply take on the role of mandating compliance. Decisions about HR are business decisions: performance management, employment policies and compensation structures are all part of the business infrastructure.
In order to demonstrate the business value of your responsibilities as an HR leader, you should facilitate dialogue about what a program or policy might influence. Define the problem, and get the business leaders to agree. Provide alternatives to address the problem, and let the decision be "theirs." If they've already defined the problem and agreed to the solution and it didn't work, help them to figure out why.
By guiding business leaders to a decision, you remove HR from the role of "policy police" and become a strategic partner.
All too often, I've seen HR experts (and other leaders) pass around stacks of paper when given an opportunity to "update" the team. Business leaders are already in data overload, and giving them a 50-page report or slide deck isn't going to help. Instead, do your own due diligence: What does the data say? How does the people data align to the business data? From your conversations with leaders and employees, what are their main challenges? Does the data you have point to root causes of these challenges?
Once you analyze the data, you can surgically zero in on meaningful takeaways. Present this to business leaders by "marketing your data." Get them excited about the findings, and then propose a solution. get agreement on the problem. You can help the C-suite solve major business problems—and remind them of the source (you).
I've Had a Seat at the Table
If I had it all to do over again, I would promise myself that whenever I was presenting on a leadership team agenda, I would use my time to ask questions and facilitate a dialogue. I would have an answer to these questions already, but the purpose would be to heighten the leadership group's sensitivity to the complexity of talent management issues.
Leaders today look for a quick fix, but rarely does a quick fix exist for issues of people, culture or systems. If you can successfully generate deep and reflective thinking about the organization, you're well on your way to being a strategic leader. And that's much more valuable than simply pulling up a chair.
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