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Stop Trying to Get a Seat at the Table

It's time for HR leaders to stop concerning themselves with trying to get a seat at the proverbial table, the author says, and answer the question: Are you there to be valuable, or merely to be seen as valuable?

Monday, August 13, 2012
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The catch-phrase for HR practitioners throughout the mid 2000's was for everyone to "get a seat at the table." Sound advice at the time, the echoes of that mantra can still be heard. But what does that mean for today's HR professional? Is getting a "seat at the table" like running for city council, stopping just shy of placing election signs in the company's courtyard and going door-to-department-door making campaign promises and asking for votes?

It is true that the HR profession had to move out of its administrative comfort zone and into the world of strategic impact. HR needed to change the minds of many who only thought of them when they had a question about the dental plan, or when there was a clean-up to be done on aisle two. The profession had to leave shyness at the door, flex some business muscle and show up to the c-suite. I'm proud to be part of a field that has come so far in such a relatively short time, and which continues to evolve to meet the demands of an ever-changing world market.

For many, the transition from personnel manager to business partner was natural. Subject-matter expertise, fresh ideas and strong business acumen led the way to a permanent seat in the executive wing. For others, the transition wasn't so natural and, to this day, some HR directors work for a CEO who seemingly can't be convinced of the value of HR's unique position in the organization.

Whatever your situation, it's time to stop running for office.

The real question is: Are you there to be valuable or to be seen as valuable? Of course, we all want both. And when executive management doesn't see the HR function as worthwhile, then our ability to be impactful is significantly diminished. However, it doesn't completely die with perception, unless you allow perception to determine your reality. Even if you're in the "clean-up" environment, you can still make an impact. And when you do, your leaders, even the most stubborn of c-suite executives, will have no choice but to see your value.

So, where do you start?

First, rethink what it is you're doing. Be willing to change all of it. Perhaps you've been measuring turnover for years and no one seems to care. Then why still measure it? If you're scrambling to put together and present metrics each month, to no avail, then you are measuring the wrong things. Perhaps your CEO doesn't care to hear about normal churn (unless it is significantly out of step with the market). Instead, what he really needs to know about is the regrettable departures; the high-performing, high-potential employees who had a bright future with the organization, but left anyway. He wants to know what we could have done about it, should have done about it and what we will do about it next time.

Perhaps you've been telling her about how long, on average, it takes to hire a replacement for the person who just quit, when what she really wants to know is how long it will take to get the new person proficient enough in the job to generate as much revenue for the company as the person that left. What training procedures have you put in place to minimize the amount of time the organization will suffer from the expertise that just walked out the door?

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And, instead of boring everyone with a stale announcement of this year's annual performance-review timeline (Zzzzzzz), show up with a year-over-year performance analysis, including trends and reasons for the increases/decreases in the achievement of organizational goals.

Secondly, know your business. This seems an obvious statement, but I continue to be surprised by how many HR practitioners know a lot about HR theory and recent case/labor law, but who don't really understand the strategy, goals, metrics and financials of the business that they support. Have regular meetings with the department heads of your organization. Take a few people to lunch. If you don't know your business then you cannot make a meaningful strategic contribution. And you won't be taken seriously.

Finally, know your material. Avoid the pitfall of reading from a piece of paper when you're speaking with your executives. If you sit down with your executive to communicate some important information, but need a cheat-sheet to explain it, then how will you instill confidence in your leaders or gain their trust?

Every business has its relationship politics. But it's time to stop concerning yourself with perceptions and start focusing on creating your own value proposition. Trust me, if you know your business, know your people, show up with what they want to know and deliver what it is they may not even know they want, you'll find yourself at the table . . . seat or no seat.

Scott Allender is vice president of global human resources for Warner Music Group, overseeing HR for two of its major divisions.

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