HR Leadership Column

Moving Outside Your Lane

HR leaders play a critical role in creating a culture where employees can bring forward new ideas. But when it comes to voicing a point of view about non-HR aspects of the business, far too many in the profession are reluctant to do so, even when they have something valuable to share.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016
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When I was CEO of SHRM I always tried to attend at least one meeting a year of a group called the Association Committee of 100, which was made up of CEOs of trade associations and professional societies. The meeting was generally held away from Washington, where most of us were headquartered, and usually held at a resort that hoped to attract the CEOs' meeting and conference business. Let's just say that we all got great customer service!

While a nice resort and great customer service were fine, it wasn't the main reason I liked to go. After all, when you run an association, you get to attend a lot of meetings for members that are usually held at very nice hotels.

What I liked most about these meetings was the opportunity to get new ideas and learn from my peers. While SHRM was (and still is) pretty large by most nonprofit standards in Washington, I knew that the size of the other organizations my peers led didn't matter. Our roles had more similarities than differences, and I always came away from the meetings with an innovative idea or new information that I could use at SHRM.

I know I wasn't the only CEO who felt this way about the meetings, because I know that all CEOs are always hungry for new ideas that can help grow the business, improve business performance and address new business challenges. CEOs are always looking for insights about what may be around the next corner, and they'll grab them whenever they can.

I was reminded of this by a speaker I recently heard at the DisruptHR event in Boston. These gatherings began being held around the country (and a few internationally) a few years ago, and are intended to be information exchanges "designed to energize, inform and empower people in the HR field."  Generally sponsored by vendors in the HR space to keep the cost of attending low, the events feel like TED talks on speed. Following a cocktail hour of networking, the program consists of a series of speakers who speak for no more than five minutes, with 20 slides that advance every 15 seconds. (As an aside, this same format is being used during main-stage sessions at HRE's Health and Benefits Leadership Conference and the HR Tech Conference.) Presenters at DisruptHR can speak on anything -- so long as it pertains to talent -- but for only five minutes.

During his five allotted minutes, Chip Lumen, co-founder of HireVue, the video interviewing-platform company, spoke on the topic of "disruptive leadership."  He highlighted his company's approach to leadership which includes emphasizes the need to act with authenticity, question authority and have a point of view.  While he made other points during his allotted time, the one that resonated with me most was the importance of having a culture in which everyone feels empowered to speak up.

As a CEO, I depended upon and appreciated input from the people I worked with, as well as from CEO-networking events. I always tried to hire people who were smarter than me for the very reason that they were more likely to identify opportunities or challenges I'd miss. I wanted good ideas and I didn't care where they came from.

But here's the thing: While HR leaders play a critical role in creating a culture in which employees can bring forward such ideas, what about their role in voicing points of view about non-HR aspects of the business -- or bringing forward new ideas? 

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Too often, I've known of HR professionals who take a very narrow approach to their role within the organization. They basically adopt a strategy of "staying in [their] lane." They won't share an opinion or insight on a subject that falls under someone else's bailiwick --  or question why a business direction is being selected. Some remain silent because they lack confidence in their opinion or insight; some remain silent because they wouldn't want others doing the same to them. Some simply don't want to be bothered.

If you're great at HR, but don't have a deep understanding of your business or your industry, or you don't know the difference between a budget and a financial statement, it's probably smart to stay silent.

But if you know your business, and you know your industry, and you understand how your company makes money and what the cost structure of its products and services is, speak up!  Model the behavior you want to see demonstrated throughout the organization. Understand that you are part of the leadership team for the business; you're not just responsible for HR.

CEOs don't care where a great idea or question comes from because they're looking for all the help they can get. So if you have something valuable to offer, my advice would be to not hold back just because the matter isn't of an HR nature. I would think your CEO isn't going to care that you're playing outside your lane.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


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