Getting a Seat at the Table: A Radical, Yet Logical, Approach

In order to understand where HR is today, it is important to understand a bit of our collective history. Human resources evolved from the “personnel” department. In those days, business was far less complex, and personnel acted as a low-level and somewhat isolated bureaucracy. Its overall function was to deal with the clerical aspects of signing up new employees, to keep employee records confidential, and to interact mostly with other personnel people. It was not uncommon for a hiring manager to hire a candidate, offer a salary, set a starting date, and tell the person to report to personnel in the morning to get on the payroll. The idea of a senior-level manager going to personnel with a major issue relating to an employee was unthinkable; the bureaucracy added no value to the problem at hand. Sadly, personnel was as far from a seat at the executive table as one could get. Make no mistake; we’ve come a long way. As business became more complex due to the evolvement of government regulations, automation, technology, competition, and the realization that employees a valuable asset, personnel disappeared and human resources emerged. Specialties such as compensation, benefits, OD, ER, recruiting, and HRIS evolved, all adding great value to the function of HR. To varying degrees, we became partners to the line and senior management in many companies. We should be proud of the progress we’ve made. But here is the rub: being a partner to senior management, even to leadership at the highest levels, still does not put us in a seat at the executive table. We may be close, but in this case a miss is a good as a mile; you are either there or you are not. If we ever intend to integrate into the executive team and have the kind of value that C-level executives bring to the table, we must adjust how we think, how we see the nature of what we do, and how we conceptualize our very purpose in the workplace. For most HR people, this will be the most dramatic shift in thinking they have ever encountered. But for openers, let’s look at things we do that will never get us that coveted seat at the table:

  • Striving to become a better HR/recruiting professional. Although admirable in purpose and intent, becoming better at what you do produces less ROI over time. Although it might provide you with incremental added value as it relates to partnership competencies, it does not address the key issue.
  • Embrace enhanced technology for greater administrative purposes. Technology is far more than an indispensable part of our business lives; it is an absolute necessity for the survival of systems, data, infrastructure, and the way business is done today. Unfortunately, technology does not provide the value required to hold up our end and create a scenario that makes us indispensable to top-level corporate strategy.
  • Obtain process, certifications, and advanced degrees. I have seen HR professionals with more degrees, certifications, and seminar attendance than can fit on a business card. Once again, a good thing if you can spare the time ó but not the answer.
  • Demand a seat at the table. It has been said that power is never given; it can only be taken. This is a good philosophy in war, but it will not be effective in the workplace. Asking for a seat at the table is not an award-winning idea; it needs to be the other way around. Someone once said that anyone who asks for more authority should never have it granted. I agree.
  • Carping on how HR does not get the respect it deserves. Sadly, this petulant and ongoing behavior has a way of inculcating itself into the very culture within the organization you should be trying to influence. It also sets up a perceived battleground and adversarial relationship with the people you are trying to sit with in the first place. It’s a losing philosophy. It’s worse than shooting yourself in the foot ó more like shooting yourself in both feet.

There are of course other things that top HR professionals do that will not work either; everything from politicking to promote their own agendas to attempting to make friends with the right people at the right levels. This manipulative behavior is even less effective than the actions I listed above. This brings us to an obvious place, but not the place you might suspect. The question is not how you get into the seat so that you can perform. It is actually the reverse. The real question is: How do you perform so that you can get into that seat at the table? For this coveted arrangement, you must demonstrate value before you get the seat, not after. This is not a cute or facile play on words. It’s also clearly contrary to accepted lines of thinking, and it undoubtedly represents a fundamental reversal of the organizational dynamic that says you get the job and than perform. This is the opposite. Few understand it, and as a result, few make the grade. In order to be one of the few people at the table, you must demonstrate that you are deserving of the seat. The problem is that most HR people speak the language of HR as opposed to the language of business. In the boardroom, business rules the day: bottom line, top line, ROI, revenue growth, return on stockholder investment. Sure, HR-speak is on the menu ó but it is not even close to being the main course. Following this logic because the real challenge is as follows:

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  • How do you provide the substance and expertise required to be identified as a resource that is a critical part of supporting the organization’s business objectives?
  • How do you demonstrate the soft but very real skill of actually using your business head combined with your background to chart a course and implement the plan?
  • Can you understand, at the most fundamental of levels, what your CEO or board wishes to do with the company and work to make that course of action a reality?

Before you can get the seat, you must determine where the real power lies. With the board? With the executive team? With the founder? Organizational charts often belie the real power base, but that’s fodder for another article on reading and identifying the real organizational base of power. Let’s look at a real-world example. Let’s say that dramatic growth over a five-year period is an organizational objective. Don’t ask how that should be done. You are not there to ask about how to apply your expertise in order to make this objective a reality. You are a leader, a thinker, a doer. With you in that seat at the table, other members are glad to have you as a part of the team. When you walk into the room people know that you will not ask questions but explore options and provide solutions. Does growing organically make the most sense? Is growth by acquisition a better plan? What about joint ventures and/or outsourcing or other options? What are the costs associated with each of these options? Furthermore, can you provide a complete risk analysis for each concept with associated pros and cons along with examples of other organizations that have had success or failure in similar endeavors? Most importantly, can you make a recommendation that can be backed up with a solid business case for your recommendation? Let’s take another example. Your organization is thinking of closing three plants, dropping a business unit, and moving manufacturing overseas. The human capital and workforce planning issues alone are staggering. This is truly the heavy lifting that takes place in the executive suite. Can you devise the plan, drive the effort, develop metrics for success, and meet your goals while working as an equal with the other members of the team and successfully hold up your end of the responsibility? If so, you are that rare individual that can map a plan and make things happen. None of this change is easy. It requires a new and different way of seeing the world and a dramatic shift in how senior HR operates. Some might say it is impossible. My friend Kenny Moore, co-author of the brilliant new book, The CEO and the Monk, says, “what we need are more people that specialize in the impossible.” He is absolutely correct. But once you master the impossible a few times, both the word and the concept seem far less intimidating than they once were.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See twitter.com/howardadamsky if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at H.adamsky@comcast.net

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