The Seat of Knowledge: Competencies for the New Human Resources Leader

Mike Grogan

When professionals in human resources and training get together they often quiz one another on whether they have "a seat at the table" with other leaders of the organization. The answer to the question seems to be a barometer of how they are regarded. Are they seen as an essential and equal part of the lead team? Or are they regarded as more of a tactical service provider?

It would be a mistake to personalize the decision, making it only about the human resources representative’s sense of prestige and/or self-worth. Instead, it seems more powerful to treat this decision as a matter of language and culture. More specifically, does the executive team fully understand and appreciate the language of human resources and how its areas of expertise (recruiting, hiring, retention, succession planning, performance management, compensation and change management, to name a few) are deeply connected to and impacted by every business decision? Likewise, does the human resources executive fully appreciate and understand the language and daily challenges of the other functional areas, including finance, sales, marketing and operations?

It is so much easier to discount and dismiss a person, or entire department, if one is ignorant of their areas of specialization. This is compounded by the fact that those who possess strong subject matter expertise tend to make it look easy, which may lead others to falsely conclude that their role must be easy; anyone could do it.

If we could wave a magic wand, we might have executives walk in the shoes or sit in the chairs of their counterparts for a day or week to experience the challenges and nuances of business from their counterpart’s perspective. Until we discover such a wand, it falls to human resources to embrace its role as a change agent to improve understanding across the functional boundaries.

Unless executives are deeply prejudiced against human resources—and some are—bringing them around to see the value of human resources may not be too difficult. Let’s assume that human resources is not at the table and the executive team decides it needs to cut costs in order to survive. Further, they decided to reduce staff across the board. In such a case, the company leader might inform human resources of the decision, and then request a host of implementation and execution plans. That would be a perfect time for the human resource executive to raise questions that the lead team may have overlooked. For example:

  • Have you thought about the impact on our recruiting efforts?
  • Are you willing to accept legal exposures from the possible lawsuits that may arise from layoffs?
  • What is the plan for addressing productivity losses as morale takes a nosedive, and as we have to invent new processes to adjust to our headcount?
  • What are we going to do about the star performers who interpret the layoffs as a harbinger of more bad news in the future and decide to leave?
  • Is this decision consistent with our values and culture?
  • How will we adjust our performance objectives and incentives to account for the added responsibilities for those who survive the cuts?

From such a conversation, reasonable executives should be able to see that going to human resources after a decision has been made with a laundry list of human resources to-dos is the equivalent of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Human resources need to be there before such decisions are made. It may take more than one event, but if human resources consistently provides its expertise and post-facto, the executives will eventually see the importance of bringing human resources to the table. Or, with a few compelling examples to draw upon, human resources can make a strong, rational case for why it needs to be at the table.

While human resources expertise is, or should be, invaluable to leadership decisions, we still live in a culture that places premium value on analysis, sales skill, operational efficiencies and other left-brain knowledge areas. For human resources professionals to do the best job possible of selling the value and power of human resources, they must, like any good sales person, better understand the language, culture and concerns of their internal customers.

Broadly speaking, earning a seat at the leadership table requires greater credibility, and for many of a company’s other executives, credibility is associated with the Big Three knowledge areas:

  • Financial Knowledge: Some human resources professionals admit an aversion to numbers. If that is the case, and if the staff meeting agenda is strongly weighted toward financial reports and other metrics, then why have human resources present for that conversation? These days, human resources needs to know its own costs, and the financial impact of human capital on the company. It is probably not acceptable in any company for the human resources professional to say, "I don’t do numbers."
  • Product/Industry Knowledge: While it is easy to become consumed and engrossed by one’s own subject matter, the human resources professional gains enormous credibility with peers by undertaking to learn products, competition and industry drivers. It is not necessary to become an expert. But it does help to have enough grounding that you can ask good questions and connect these industry drivers with human resources expertise like recruiting and compensation.
  • Functional Knowledge: From an executive perspective, a reasonable understanding of the key functional areas may be seen as table stakes for being invited to staff meetings. This does not require an MBA, though coursework could be useful. Instead, one can learn about sales, marketing, operations, customer service and technical services by asking experts in your own company for tutoring and mentorship. Look for opportunities to sit on cross-functional teams, and learn to appreciate how experts in different functional areas view and operate in the business world.

How much expertise is enough? The answer is that one should never arrive at an endpoint of knowledge and say, "I’m done." There is always more to learn. At the same time, the mere act of showing interest and having the intention to understand other functions can create a breakthrough with credibility. When I worked for the international division of Pfizer, I took a couple of Spanish courses but never became fluent. However, when I traveled to Latin America and attempted to speak words and phrases in Spanish to my hosts—who were fluent in English—every one of them expressed delight with my bumbling attempts. Likewise, attempts to learn the language of business will go far with non human resources executives.

So if you want to have a seat at the table, get better at helping others understand your "foreign language and culture," and invest time in learning their language, culture and customs.