3 ways HR can earn a seat at the executive table
Editor's note: The following is a contributed piece by Mark Mayleben, partner at Jobplex, a global recruiting solution firm.
Where would Apple be without Jonathan Ive, the man responsible for the look and feel of the iPhone? Or Nike without Tinker Hatfield, the legendary designer of the Air Jordan shoe line, the most successful product in the company's history? The contributions of these geniuses have been world-changing. And the impact these men have had on their companies is incalculable.
My guess is that you have similar superstars at your organization — a small cadre of brilliant creatives who produce an inordinate amount of value to your business relative to their peers. If this is the case, finding, attracting, recruiting, engaging, and developing this talent is mission-critical work. Indeed, in this global economy where elite performers are increasingly scarce, acquiring and retaining top talent is as paramount as capital allocation. Talent is king!
Why, then, do so many executives continue to regard human resources as a back-end support service responsible for administering the mundane functions of compensation and benefits, payroll, training, and onboarding? And why do they continuously rate HR's performance as adequate or worse?
Could it be that many HR leaders haven't demonstrated an intimate understanding of the business or an ability to focus their teams on spearheading initiatives that create tremendous value for the enterprise?
It's time for this to change. As keepers of an organization's talent and culture, HR executives can and should have a monumental impact on the business. No one should be better positioned to put the right people on the most transformative, strategic projects. And no one should be more knowledgeable than HR on how to find game-changing talent; ensure that talent is engaged, thriving, and growing; and identify which team members the competition is trying to woo and why. Indeed, HR is the function that is best suited to unleash the power of your greatest competitive advantage: your people.
To bring this level of strategic vision and business acumen to the company and eventually earn that coveted seat at the C-suite table, many HR leaders will need to reinvent themselves and gather more expertise in these three key areas:
#1: Operations and profitability
A modern, strategic HR leader who is trusted and called upon by business executives must have a keen understanding of how the business works, the key drivers of profitability, and how to effectively communicate this knowledge to everyone else.
But how can you gain this insight without having spent any time in the money-making operations of the business? I propose two solutions.
The first approach involves pushing for the institution of quarterly, all-employee meetings that include detailed presentations on the current state of each business unit (including metrics and deliverables) and what's on the horizon. At these gatherings, be sure to ask thoughtful questions about the various teams, what challenges or obstacles they're facing, their competitive advantages and/or weaknesses, and any innovative initiatives they're pursuing. When Netflix began holding these types of meetings, a culture of curiosity and transparency was built. All employees knew exactly how the business made money, how they were doing, where they were headed, and what might hinder their progress.
For some, though, gaining buy-in for consistent general assemblies might seem a little far-fetched. If that's the case, perhaps an even better way to strengthen your knowledge of how the organization operates is to spend time within the different business units themselves. Humana provides a great example of this. From 2013 to 2017, its chief human resources officer took the bold step of placing more than 20 percent of his staff in lengthy (sometimes more than yearlong) rotations within IT, finance, operations, quality assurance, and more. The experience gained by working on significant projects within other parts of the company gave Humana's HR leaders an untold number of new insights on the complexities of the business they likely couldn't have learned in any other format.
Taking either of these approaches will empower HR leaders to begin thinking like a true business leader — a fundamental characteristic of those at the executive table.
Who should your firm hire to accomplish your long-term objectives? Where can you find these superstars? What should you pay them? If your top performers are leaving the company, where are they going and why? What technologies can you leverage to streamline your recruiting processes, create better candidate experiences, and capture the elite talent?
Every world-class HR leader knows the answers to these important questions intimately. For those who don't, an effort should be made to plunge into the world of talent acquisition.
One great place to start in this endeavor is to leverage the knowledge of your TA agency partners. Most executive search firms, for example, are deeply invested not only in the success of an individual recruiting project, but also in gathering vital industry data and conveying insights to their clients.
For example, on a recent search I led for a global airlines company, we provided a full market map. This included a detailed list of everyone in the industry in a similar role, the major accomplishments and leadership styles of each potential candidate, the structure of their teams, the major initiatives they're leading, their compensation packages, and what it'd take to acquire them. Agency partners can also be great unbiased resources for discovering best-in-class recruiting technology, organizational structures, and process design.
Additionally, if you need to scale up the talent of the leaders on your team, executive search firms are better connected with brilliant TA leaders than perhaps anyone. Ask them for referrals.
The key is to treat your agencies as true partners and talent advisors. Tell them your business needs, and request this important information. When you do, you'll be more empowered than ever to propose solutions to your recruiting organization.
#3: Leadership development
Studies have shown that the top 1 percent of the workforce within an organization contributes nearly 10 percent of the overall output, and the top 20 percent accounts for nearly 80 percent of the output. Thus, it's imperative that the strategic HR leader has an acute understanding of who the organization's A-players are and what value they're bringing to the business. They must then ensure programs are in place to engage and develop these superstar performers.
To identify top performers, start by carefully studying the annual reviews and 360-degree assessments of each employee. The key here is to learn which employees are most beloved among their teams, which ones are regularly out-performing the others, and what characteristics and behaviors are common among the elite.
Collecting this information is just the beginning, though. You must also draw out game-changing insights and make changes where necessary. To do so, consider asking several questions, including the following: "Are our top performers being compensated at market rate?" "Are they being recognized in other ways for their outstanding contributions?" "Do our hiring processes assess each candidate on the identified vital characteristics and behaviors of our superstars?" "Are our top employees systematically being developed for more prominent, bigger roles in the future?"
There are many great talent management practices you can look to for ideas on how to develop your best employees. A good place to begin may be to study the talent management playbook of BlackRock, the world's largest asset management firm and an organization obsessed with recruiting and developing elite talent.
BlackRock is relentlessly focused on finding creative ways to protect the company's culture and ensure management is constantly attracting, engaging, and developing top performers. One way they do this is by offering targeted stretch assignments to high potentials. This gives them broader scope, larger responsibility, and exposure to new areas of the business. These experiences are then supplemented with didactic courses on driving performance through teams, influencing for results, enterprise leadership, how to effectively delegate, and more.
In the end, these types of programs not only strengthen the business acumen of your brightest, but they also boost their engagement and the probability that they'll stay loyal to your organization for years in the future — a huge boon to your business of which you'd be a key driver.
To earn a seat at the executive table, then, the strategic HR leader must be intimately familiar with how the organization earns a profit, the people who empower it, and what those leaders need to be successful. Identify and develop your organization's equivalent of Ive and Hatfield, and you'll soon earn that coveted right-hand seat.