Let’s just start by getting this out of the way: Human Resource professionals deserve to have the CEO’s ear.
That’s not flattery, it’s fact. As HR experts, you have experience and knowledge about how to build human capital in an organization, and there’s nothing more vital to a company’s success than its people.
And yet my experience — first as an economist and business executive, and now a business school dean — is that many HR professionals aren’t included in executive meetings where critical, value-creation elements of the business get discussed and budgetary allocations get made.
HR – viewed as the “soft side” of business
You don’t have a chance to advocate for the funding and projects that will boost workforce morale, efficiency, retention and empowerment. So you’re left functioning on the back-end with goals and expectations you didn’t help develop — and that’s a definite disadvantage.
The first step in changing the situation is to recognize that most executive team members view HR as a soft side of business. In other words, they may know you do a great job at transactions like advertising, hiring and training, but they don’t see where you fit in discussions about the financial and operational issues facing the company.
To earn a seat at the table, you’ll have to become a full-value provider, equal to the CFO or COO. Here are three ways to make that happen:
1. Become fluent in the language
Many HR professionals come from backgrounds in psychology or management that don’t require quantitative analysis. But to earn a seat at the table, you must become familiar with that process, and comfortable using the economic terms used by executive team members. That means understanding factors such as value creation, return on investment (ROI), key performance indicators (KPI), capital investment and cash flow.
HR focuses primarily on human capital, but there are four other kinds of capital – structural, financial, social, and intellectual — that require equal consideration in company decisions. You should understand how they work together to create a successful company, and how HR intersects with each area.
You don’t need to get an MBA to become proficient in business-speak, however a class or two in quantitative analysis and finance certainly wouldn’t hurt. Find a mentor (either inside your organization or externally), who can provide advice and help you develop the skills you lack. Someone outside the HR realm, preferably at an executive level, would be ideal.
And, finally, read to succeed. These four books do an admirable job of presenting the business argument for human resource development:
- ROI on Human Capital Investment by Michael E. Echols;
- The Human Capital Edge: 21 People Management Practices Your Company Must Implement (or Avoid) to Maximize Shareholder Value, by Bruce Pfau and Ira Kay;
- Human Capital: What it Is and Why People Invest It, by Thomas Davenport;
- Beyond Productivity: How Leading Companies Achieve Superior Performance by Leveraging Their Human Capital, by Gregory Dess and Joseph Picken.
2. Show up with concrete analysis
Once you’ve learned the terms executives use in high-level meetings, you can earn your seat by showing up prepared with concrete analysis of how Human Resources impacts the business function and syncs with the company’s larger goals.
For instance, you need to be able to show alignment: how the employees you develop (human capital) fit with the company’s buildings and systems, reputation, culture, policies, etc. (structural capital), contribute to customer commitment and satisfaction (social capital) and drive new technology and ideas (intellectual capital).
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Conversely, if an executive proposes a change in one type of capital – say, a merger or new product development – you need to be ready to explain the cost versus value from an HR perspective. How would that decision impact human capital in areas like hiring, training and morale?
This is how board members, executives and business owners think. They are constantly using analytical techniques to make decisions and judgments that will move the organization forward. Those HR leaders who can master numbers-crunching, who not only explain the reasoning for something, but show it via empirical research and analytical evidence, will have a valued place in the room.
3. Become known as a collaborator and problem solver
At the end of the day, there’s no one more popular at the executive table than the person who steps up to solve a problem. Here’s where HR professionals can really shine, because you’re already seasoned at solving problems behind the scenes, right?
Now it’s time to put those skills in the limelight. Perhaps there’s a manager who needs to address a particular customer need and you can develop a plan to hire and train to meet that goal. Perhaps the market is changing and you see some human capital strategies that will allow the company flexibility to align with those changes.
Putting together solution sets for emerging problems and collaborating with fellow executives and managers to meet those needs will definitely gain you the respect of those at the table.
One note of caution: Depending on your work environment and your relationship with company leaders, an invitation to high-levels meetings may take some time in coming. If so, stay the course.
Develop the skills mentioned above, provide your expertise whenever you have the opportunity, and make it known (humbly but confidently) that you’d have even more to offer if included on the front-end of value-based decision making. The wise CEO who takes you up on that offer will definitely be glad they did.