Hey CEO: You’re Making a Mistake When You Ignore Your HR Leader

“And what do you know?”

As all eyes turned around, he knew then that it was time.  This was a senior leadership team meeting and the head of HR had just given his insight into the issue that was being discussed.  Numerous times he had been given that slight and it rolled off his back. But this time it hit bullseye and he realized then that the time had come

There is a phrase in our HR lexicon called “seat at the table.”  It is a phrase that I despise.  My reason for that stance is that no other function within an organization has to wish and hope for that geographical location. NO OTHER.

Partnership of Equals

Being a part of the “team,” in theory, should be a partnership of equals: everyone bringing their expertise to bear; a laser focus from multiple disciplines with the intensity to break down any issue and surgically repair it over a period of time.  That is a theoretical approach.

In real life you will have folks that will not see this core team as a team of equals.  The problem in this specific scenario is that the CEO is the one who made that statement in the room of “equals.”  At the end of the meeting a few of those members gave the HR executive the proverbial pat on the back in saying, “You know how he is.”

This is a matter of dissension in the executive conference rooms of organizations today. HR executives are often not seen as equals.  This has been true since the beginning of the profession.  Administrative expert, yes, but stay in your lane if you want to move beyond that.  There has been a slow shift to having an empowered HR leader, but in a lot of cases, it is window dressing.

CEO as King Maker

CEOs should know that they need to depend on their company’s human resources to achieve success. Businesses don’t create value; people do.  Having the right level of talent in the right roles is going to be the key in this turbulent environment.  However, you find CEOs who are distanced from, and often dissatisfied with their chief human resources officers (CHROs) and the HR function in general. Research by McKinsey and The Conference Board consistently finds that CEOs worldwide see human capital as a top challenge, and they rank HR as only the eighth or ninth most important function in a company.

However, we are not alone.  There was a time that other functions were not seen as real equals. The finance function has transformed in recent decades to become a fixture on the executive leadership team. Just as the CFO counsels the CEO to lead the business by raising and allocating financial resources, the CHRO should help the CEO by building and assigning talent, especially key people, and working to unleash the organization’s energy. Managing human capital must be accorded the same priority that managing financial capital came to have in the 1980s.

But as my friend told me his story, one thing was evident: it is up to the CEO to elevate HR and to bridge any gaps that prevent the CHRO from becoming a strategic partner. After all, it was CEOs who boosted the finance function beyond simple accounting. CEOs were also responsible for creating the marketing function from what had been strictly sales.  The CIO’s role has moved from hardware and software to a higher level with digitization, networking, and the internet of things, as well as the implementation of data science.

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So the onus is on the top of the pyramid to realize that we are all professionals with our own level of expertise.  Each skill set is a viable filter focusing on challenges within.  It is kind of like trying to bake a cake without all the ingredients.  You miss out on a key ingredient and the results are not what expected.

As a former VP of HR at Martha Stewart, one thing I never forgot her saying was, “For perfect results,when you bake, the first time the recipe is theirs, the next time it is yours”

So Mr. Big Shot CEO, listen to your team and give them all an opportunity.  Use all the ingredients the first time, you can always make adjustments the next time around.

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.