The HR Essay: How HR can get (and keep) a seat at the decision making table

TLNT's launching a new series: The HR Essay. We invite the best HR brains to do a deep-dive into an HR topic. First up: You've got your boardroom seat. Now, how do you keep it? By Arend Boerse...

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Nov 28, 2023

It’s pretty safe to say that now, more than ever before, organizations are realizing that people are at the heart of their long-term success.

The pandemic brought a lot of grief, a lot of setbacks, and a lot of heartaches. But amidst this all, many of us walked away with a fresh perspective on what’s most important. And this fresh perspective puts a new spotlight on what HR has been advocating for since the conception of the term Human Resources 75 years ago.

For many HR professionals this refocus allowed them to gain traction with their people-centric business philosophies.

And as a result of this, more than ever before, HR is getting a seat at the table.

Executives listened to HR, to better understand how cultivating talent and fostering engagement can be the differentiating factor for surviving challenging times.

Do I have your ear?

Executives listened alright.

When you scroll LinkedIn or read an article from your favorite leadership and management publication, you’ll notice that many authors have job titles other than consultant or HR.

You’ll receive advise from a CFO on how to build a trusting team. You’ll follow the storyline of a CEO who tried to implement a significant change and how she brought the resisters along.

You’ll get brilliant insight, after brilliant insight, from operational leaders as they distill their frontline experience into leadership gems.

It is exactly what we as HR wanted.

But if you’d ask any HR professional the question whether or not our job is done, you’ll get a resounding: “not by a long shot!”

HR has every intention to evolve along with this positive growth spurt companies are having.

But this renewed interest from executives in learning how to create a space where employees can show up and do their best work can be like starting a new hobby.

Excitement can fade once they realize it takes practice and commitment before you start seeing real results.

So, how can HR keep their seat at the decision-making table in the aftermath of the pandemic? 

Influencing with the four C’s of trust

In essence, leveraging your voice to the point of influence in the strategic direction of your company is nothing more than building trust.

Trust, even though it can be extremely nebulous, can also be broken down into specific actions, shaking off the mystique and making it much more tangible.

One of the frameworks that defines trust is the ‘4 C Model’.

Trust can be built if you; are competent, show up with consistency, communicate well, and care for others:

Competence: Are you a capable HR leader?

Our dreams mean nothing if we don’t take steps towards actualizing a better future.

But where to start?

A good rule of thumb for any HR leader is to not start with your most noble ideas.

Building an engaged workforce, creating high performing teams, or developing successful people leaders doesn’t happen overnight.

You might believe in your vision, but for others to buy into it they need to see how it will pay off first.

And nowadays few have the patience to wade through failures before success starts to become tangible.

One helpful exercise that maps out your vision and their associated action steps is a fishbone diagram.

At the head is your vision and every bone is a component that contributes to this vision.

Once you get granular, pinpoint one or two things you’ll address in your first 90 days that will give you a quick win. This is not only a win for you, but something of value to your colleagues outside of HR.

Your vision is big and there’s always more work to do than there is time, but don’t forget to celebrate and share the successes. This is fuel for the entire leadership team to keep going.

Case Study:

A company I was involved with a while ago had a long list of HR things that needed to be addressed.

All of these things were reasonable requests but some were more complex than others.

For instance, they had an outdated worker’s compensation and family and medical leave process with very little oversight, costing them quite a penny. And they had HR compliance issues, causing them to be cited by state inspections year over year.

Of course, different issues were priority for different stakeholders. The strategy I came up with was to tackle the HR compliance issues first, which was manageable within a three-four month timeframe, by building a reliable documentation, tracking, and auditing system that would sustain itself once implemented.

This also meant we had to be firm and say “not yet” when others would come and ask us how we’re doing with updating our worker’s compensation process – something significantly more complex.

Clearly communicating our objective and creating a focus helped us pass our first state inspection with zero deficiencies, something that got the entire company’s attention.

This allowed us to continue to partner with trusting stakeholders in tackling the other issues on the list.

Consistency: Is your word today the same as tomorrow?

It’s a mistake to believe that because our society is starting to recognize the importance of building a civilization instead of only pursuing maximum economic potential, that we as HR professionals deserve our voices to be heard.

We can’t declare ostentatiously “we told you so,” as that adage has never fixed any real problems.

You’ve got to remember that you’re only as good as our most recent efforts.

You can receive a large deposit in your trust bank account for every success you celebrate. But if you’re not staying true to your commitment and you’re not able to replicate and scale these successes, many small withdrawals will have your trust account emptied quickly.

Showing up consistently with the same focus and grounded in a shared mental model is a sure way to build long-term trust.

A take-out:

I’ve been having many discussions with DEI leaders, to better understand how they tackle something so seemingly insurmountable as the issues many organizations face when it comes to increasing diversity and creating a culture of belonging for every employee. A theme that repeatedly comes across from their answers is that they avoid trying to solve everything for everyone. For this tends to dilute their efforts and ends up feeling like they’re not moving the dial at all. They choose quality over quantity. And then they build constantly and consistently so that their commitment today is with the same intentionality and focus as it is tomorrow.

Communication: Listen twice as much as you speak

Stating your ‘why?’ takes practice in order to get the exact words to match what your heart feels and your brain knows.

Being articulate is an important part of communication, but only one small component of it.

We tend to under-appreciate our team members’ ability to hear us and risk repeating ourselves in our tireless efforts of driving our point home. You already know your own opinion and won’t gain as much as you think from repeating it.

The question is, do you know your colleagues’ vision and their thoughts and ideas as well as your own?

Building trust is more attainable through listening than through talking.

Linked to the C of competency in building trust, HR needs to understand the business.

The best way to gain this knowledge is through active listening. And if you ever feel like you’re fading into the shadows of a conversation because you haven’t exercised your voice, try to opt for a clarifying question instead of filling the space with your opinion.

You’ll be surprised with the credit this builds.

An example:

At one point, I assigned one of my team members a new leadership team to support. She was nervous at first because it was a stretch assignment and she didn’t know much about the business line.

But when I asked for feedback from the department heads, they were raving about her. I brought this feedback to her and she was stunned. She responded by sharing that she hadn’t – in her eyes – contributed anything yet. She had mostly listened and asked a question here and there.

This simple, selfless way of showing up allowed the leaders to feel appreciated and supported.

She didn’t, at any point, try to make it about herself or about HR. Once she was ready to contribute, her ideas were complimentary and shared in a way that felt respectful, therefore resonating with the audience.

Caring: An unappreciated tool for influence

Last but certainly not least, people will listen to those who show genuine interest in them.

We need passion for our HR mission to move mountains in the landscapes of work.

And we need genuine care for how what we do will impact each individual.

No matter how large and well intentioned your change effort is, ultimately the impact is an “n of 1” and unique to each employee.

Remember: we all crave to be seen. This is true for both inclusion in company-wide decision making as well as for acceptance in a single, individual conversation.

The intent is not to do it right all the time.

We need to let go of the misconception that once someone becomes a leader and they’re put on a pedestal that they aren’t allowed to make any mistakes anymore.

Perfection is an illusion. Yes, leaders are held to a higher standard and receive, rightfully so, more scrutiny for their actions.

HR has a responsibility to ensure a high level of integrity in business operations and an inclusion of the employee voice in all that we do.

But this responsibility doesn’t have to be acted out on by finger pointing or rubbing salt in wounds. We all live in glass houses. Showing vulnerability allows others to do the same, creating a culture where perfection doesn’t stand in the way of progress.

Carrying around with you a scale balancing good deeds against bad ones will leave you stuck in the past, and others will soon pick up this habit too.

A trusting relationship implies growth and being able to discuss issues without assigning blame will allow you to go from individual contributors to community builders.

As the saying goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

And even though we’ve made great headway over the last 75 years, we still have a long way to go. So, let’s go together.