You're either at the table or you're on the menu. That single line aptly sums up one of the worries currently facing HR professionals: their relevance.
The original quote is attributed to politicians, but at SHRM 2018, the annual HR conference in Chicago last week, it became something of a mantra. The quote popped up in some form in no fewer than five presentations and keynotes, many of which focused on breaking out of the stereotypes holding HR back and speaking directly to company leaders — in other words, how to get the proverbial seat at the table.
Speakers across the conference called it a unique moment for HR to seize that long-worked for position. Company executives in other departments are increasingly recognizing the critical competitive advantages of a people-first strategy and the corporate risk they face when HR doesn't get its due. From #MeToo to toxic culture exposés to a growing focus on sustainability and responsibly-run brands, experts said the future looks bright for those professionals that have been working to build those practice areas all along.
In a keynote on the second day of the conference Adam Grant, thought leader, author and Wharton professor, noted that HR has a critical role to play in helping companies create innovative cultures, a topic he has studied extensively.
"In the last decade and a half I've been trying to figure out how we can shape cultures of original thinkers and I’ve come to believe that HR has more influence on these cultures than any other," Grant told attendees. "Culture building starts with the people you hire."
Increasingly, as companies recognize that culture is strength, the expertise and skillset HR professionals bring to the table is proving to be a serious competitive advantage.
What's at stake
HR is a challenging role that is only getting more challenging, said Michelle M. Smith, an expert on leadership, workplace culture and talent and current VP of marketing at O.C. Tanner. The pace of emerging new tech, new laws and new regs is demanding, but coupled with questions about the strategic versus administrative role of HR, it can be overwhelming, she said.
Not only do HR leaders face threats from software and emerging technology like artificial intelligence, but internal threats of marginalization or being dismissed for not seeing the big picture also loom. Research indicates that as many as 50% of HR professionals could leave the field in the coming years, Smith said, driven by a number of factors including automation and tech. It's more important than ever that the functions of HR be highlighted and truly seen on a daily basis, she said.
Smith came armed with stats, including that 37% of CEOs in one survey complain their CHRO has a limited view of their organization, but 43% of CEOs also say they missed their innovation goals in the last year and a half because they didn't have the right people in place. Enter HR.
"Talent management has come to the top of the CEOs list now," Smith said. That is a good thing for HR leaders who can understand the crunch and staffing challenges their CEOs face, but they have to be able to speak executives' language, she noted.
"CEOs have no interest in you being an HR leader, they want you to be a business leader with HR expertise," Smith told session attendees.
The stakes are high. HR leaders that can't get their message across run the risk of finding themselves reporting to another company leader, or worse — broken into pieces and absorbed into other departments, including legal, finance and operations. Smith pointed out there are Fortune 500 companies where HR now reports to the chief marketing officer, in recognition of the link between employer brand and corporate brand.
"Business leaders have told us they will find someone else to do this work," Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of SHRM said in opening remarks at the conference. "There are companies right now where employee relations and labor relations reports to the legal department. Where compensation and benefits reports to the finance department. Where training and development reports to operations."
Be your own interpreter
Experts point out that HR has valuable information to bring to company leadership, but they need to understand what kind of insights and ideas resonate in the C-suite.
CEOs want to see HR using an enterprise mindset that looks across the full company landscape and anticipates problems, Smith said. HR and finance are two departments that can drive real innovation, and HR with its focus on people resources and engagement can be the connective tissue on innovation projects and priorities. Recognition of the importance of talented, engaged workers has cracked the door HR has long wanted open, she said.
But it is important HR not close their listeners' minds to the expertise they bring to the table. Smith recommends working with finance to get concrete numbers to support proposals and distilling critical information from engagement and employee surveys down to actionable advice without losing sight of what's important. CEOs, she noted, want insights and ideas, not detailed data.
"Business issues are people issues. Just about every business issue is a people issue. Let's not look at it through the lens of a spreadsheet. Let's not operationalize it," Smith said.
Small shifts in approach and language, such as moving from a reactive to a proactive mindset that understands and anticipates what is needed, will also help HR reach executive leadership with a message they understand, said Ben Fanning, chief engagement officer with BF Coaching. Know what your CEO worries about, he said, pointing to a PwC survey of 1,300 CEOs that showed 57% of them believe their company will grow this year but overregulation, availability of key skills and geopolitical threats could stand in the way.
"HR leaders do often have the solutions, but aren’t always being listened to," Fanning said. "Impact isn’t made by what you say, but what they hear. You aren’t impacting others if they aren’t really hearing what you say. When your inner voice says you’re not being heard, ask yourself 'how can I more effectively get my message across?'”
Meeting your audience where they are can be an important tool, as can leading with the assumption that most listeners respond best to information that answers the "what's in it for me" question, Fanning said. For example, an HR leader shouldn't just say there is a communication problem, but that 40% of projects are being delayed at a cost of X millions because of communication problems. Start with what your listener cares most about, he said.
Take on a CEO mindset
Understanding the inner workings of your executive leadership team's worldview is important for directors of HR departments of dozens and single practitioners alike, experts noted.
"Walk a mile in your CEO's shoes," said Lori Kleiman, managing director of HR Topics, in a presentation focused on HR departments of one. "Know what your CEO wants."
Being conversant in ROI, market share, risk diversification and product development and differentiation is a critical skill, Kleiman said. Then focus on the one that drives your organization; HR leaders have to know what their business cares most about. For example, if the company cares about risk diversification, don’t focus on hiring research and development staff. But if they care about product development, adjust your approach, Kleiman said.
Many HR folks have a business education background — an informal poll of Kleiman’s standing room only audience showed about half had some kind of business school education — but they may need to dust off some of those skills.
Common business tactics used to talk about the "four Ps" — price, product, promotion and place — as drivers of growth and engagement, Kleiman noted. That has evolved to focus on a new set of principles, the "four Cs": culture, connection, collaboration and creativity. "This is why we [HR] are the missing piece at the table," Kleiman told session attendees. "You need HR to do more than run through payroll and benefits if those are your drivers when you go to market."
Speaker and leadership expert Steve Gililand told conference attendees of his also packed presentation that leadership is about influence, and HR is in a unique position to build authentic influence in the workplace through its daily interactions with employees.
Stay at the table
The prospect of getting a permanent seat at the table is valid and achievable given the number of issues that have cropped up within the HR wheelhouse in recent years, from training to compliance to engagement, Oscar Muñoz, CEO of United Airlines, said in a keynote.
"Once you get a place at the table, you've earned it and you’ve gotta keep it," he said.
Company leaders are increasingly aware of how important HR functions are, Smith noted in her keynote. Twenty-seven percent of people judge the corporate social responsibility or sustainability of a brand by how it treats its employees. Think about the brand crisis Walmart faced based on perceptions of how it treated workers, she said. One survey found that 76% of people decide whether or not to engage with a brand, as a worker or a consumer, based on corporate social responsibility. How companies treat employees matters now, more than ever, giving HR a critically important role in shaping key elements of business plans and strategies, Smith said.
A careful balancing act
The challenge for HR, experts noted, comes in walking the line between effectively advocating for ideas and not losing sight of the primary role the department plays in serving employees. There is, after all, "human" in the title, speaker after speaker noted.
Steve Browne, VP of HR for LaRosa’s pizza chain and a popular speaker and blogger, called on HR professionals in his session to renew their commitment to the purpose at the heart of HR: serving employees. Too often, he said, HR folks hide at their desks or give employees a wide berth instead of focusing on how best to serve them, sometimes not even remembering employees names.
"If people aren’t worth remembering, you should get out of HR. If you say it takes too much time to remember a name, don't be in my profession. You're in human resources, not human capital, not furniture and overhead," Browne said.
HR needs to be bold, be good to people and be who they are in order to succeed, he said, and at the same time remember who they are there to serve and that they themselves are also employees.
"In order for us to own our jobs and be better, it's not someone else's responsibility," he said, "it's yours."