HR Insights

Why I’m Sick of Hearing About HR and that “Seat at the Table”

When will HR stop talking about getting that "Seat at the Table?" (Photo by istockphoto.com)

After reading “Survey: Leadership Confidence is Down – Especially in HR,” by Theresa M. Welbourne yesterday at TLNT, I searched Google and got approximately 263,000 results for the phrase “Seat at the Table” HR. The title of the articles ranged from the serious to the somewhat hilarious.

Here’s a sampling of some of the abbreviated titles:

  • Earning the Seat
  • How to get and keep the Seat
  • How to keep the Seat if you have it
  • 10 steps to get the Seat
  • HR needs to have the Seat
  • Beyond the Seat
  • HR from the break room to the conference room
  • Earning a Seat with the big dogs

This was all on the first page of search results. I finally just clicked away. I had seen enough and could not take it anymore. If getting a “Seat at the Table” was as easy as the articles proclaim, the phrase would be retired and never used again in the annals of HR. It would join the graveyard of other buzzwords of the past such as “Personnel Department” and “orientation.”

I, for one, am sick of the phrase. Having worked for a boss who did not want to touch anything strategic, I know from whence this came. She would call strategic projects the “fancy projects.” Regardless of my coaching and counsel, she just refused to move forward until a new CEO arrived and demanded it. She was out of the door within months.

This fate awaits a few of our colleagues in the future. The reasons for this are:

  1. Transformation of the workplace culture;
  2. The residual effects of the current economic environment; and,
  3. The expected tsunami in the workplace once everything settles.

The comfort zone of the old HR mindset is on its last legs. But before HR can be taken to the next level however, the thinking needs to move to the next level. It reminds me of Albert Einstein, who once said, “We can’t solve our problems at the same level of thinking that created them.”

I have always felt that being strategic had to be part of your DNA. Being inquisitive and not being enamored with the status quo are traits of people that think strategically. Being strategic is the hallmark of someone who is always looking down the road and constantly looking for opportunities. Being strategic is the sign of someone who embraces change and ambiguity, and thrives in it. Being strategic is the mark of someone who is comfortable asking “What if?”

These skills can be enhanced, of course, but to be a true strategist calls for a totally different mindset. The workplace of the future will demand it. The leadership of the future will demand it. The profession of Human Resources will demand it.

So when the Google search for “Seat at the Table” is done years from now, all it should return are archived articles from the past with nothing current in the search results — I hope.

Ron Thomas is a Chief Human Resource & Administrative Officer currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He formerly was Director, Talent and Human Resources Solutions at Buck Consultants (a Xerox Company) and is certified by the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). He's also worked in senior HR roles with Martha Stewart Living and IBM. Ron serves on the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He also serves as a Faculty Partner and Executive Facilitator at the Human Capital Institute. He has received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence by the World Human Resource Development Congress in Mumbai. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com, or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Ronald_thomas.
  • http://twitter.com/CigarSPHR John Nykolaiszyn

    When I read this back in 2008 (http://www.knowhr.com/blog/2008/11/30/10-tenets…) I made up my mind that I would stop using the “Seat at the Table” phrase. Permanently.

    I also hung it up on my whiteboard and kept it there until the day I changed jobs. Sadly, my colleagues paid little attention to it (or didn't care). C'est la vie.

  • Judy Clark

    Hear! Hear! I have been “yelling” for years about the “seat at the table” cr*p. If someone wants one, then earn it! If you can’t earn it, then being there will do no one any good, and it will reinforce the perception of HR’s ineptness to those already inclined to think that. That harms all of us, including those for whom it isn’t true.

  • Susan Burns – TalentSynch

    Great perspective, Ron. I agree with you wholeheartedly on the importance of thinking strategically to shape, guide and influence how HR leads and transforms the organization. A strategic mind needs to be an integral part of our DNA and personal mastery. The irony of searches for “seat at the table” is that, by their nature, imply a tactical mindset from the beginning. Voice is gained through vision, influence and results, which are components of great strategic work.

  • http://twitter.com/cosmicnoodles Stephanie Andrews

    Cue angels singing 'aaaahhhh'!
    THANK YOU! I detest the frigging seat at the executive/leadership/b.s. table!

    Ugh, it makes me cringe! I'm sorry for everyone who worked really hard to get HR recognized as an essential, an integral, part of any organization, but like the burning bras of yesteryear, the need has fizzled out.

    We're good to go thanks – so enough with the blogs, articles and god-awful, self-promoting conference seminars.

    Incidentially, I mentioned my hatred for executive table seats (I can't even sit in a board room now without giving the chairs the stank eye) in a recent post featured on renegadehr: http://renegadehr.net/personality-test-snake-oil/

  • Rich Boberg

    You are so right. You have to earn it. Nobody is going to give it to you.

  • http://twitter.com/One_Page_Talent One Page Talent Mgmt

    It's funny that no other function — Marketing, Finance, IT, Supply Chain — ever whines about having a seat at the table. It suggests that business gives a seat to those who show they deserve one.

    The requirement is far beyond being a strategic thinker. HR professionals need to show they know business, LOVE business and are making managers' job easier to do. On knowing business, my manager many years ago at Bank of America had a great saying — if you walk into a business discussion between the CEO, CFO and head of HR, you shouldn't be able to spot the HR leader.

    On loving business, we need to better embrace the capitalistic foundation of business and truly love the business side of business. In too many firms I still here vestiges of the “our job is to take care of employees” culture. That's guaranteed to cause your invitation to the table to be rescinded.

    On making managers' lives simpler . . . in too many companies HR still comes at managers with thick competency guides, multi-page performance management processes, hour-long 360 surveys. If we want to be at the table (and I'm fine with the term because it pointedly illustrates how far our profession has to go if this is the topic we choose to discuss), we need to prove to the business that we're there to help them succeed, not get in their way. Create HR practices that are so embarrassingly easy for managers that they can't help but execute them.

    • http://twitter.com/BenjaminMcCall Benjamin McCall

      Actually other functions do whine about it they just don’t call it “seat” or “table.” They call it frustration!

    • Susan

       Great remarks Marc, and I love your quote!  What’s frustrating is working with executives, managers and employees who still expect HR to take care of people, rather than contributing to the financial success of the business!  Here’s to taking HR to new places!!

      • Susan

        PS don’t get me wrong, HR is people busines and a critical part of the business world, it just translates into processes and policies far too often.

  • http://twitter.com/BenjaminMcCall Benjamin McCall

    This “Seat at the Table” thinking is old and should be stopped… mainly
    because no decision maker sits at a table. They barely sit at a desk… they do work!!!