That Seat at the Table Is In the Library

I spend so much time reading now. As I am finally a member of the executive team, there are so many areas that I needed to brush up on as the organization is in such a growth spurt.”

This discussion took place with one of my coaching clients who had just landed a C-suite opportunity for a conglomerate here in Dubai. Her prior roles were always senior level ones; the difference is that now she is a part of the executive team.

As she told me about her reading, a smile came across my face. As I develop HR leaders across the globe, this is what I tell them: “The learning never stops.” The higher you rise, the more info and background/context you need to pull from. However, I am not talking about “best practices.” Do not get the need for more information caught up in what some other organization did and how it worked for their culture. More on that later.

How will you respond?

As the C-suite demands more from the human capital expert, having that seat will be more than just geography. What do you do once you get there and the business of the business is being discussed?

  • What are your thoughts as the discussion goes around the room?
  • What are your thoughts as to the current business challenges from that perch of being the people expert?
  • What insights do you have about that strategic initiative of building more of a global presence in the new market?
  • What challenges will we face of talent for that new role we are creating from the transition to digital?

The rubber hits the road at the table

I recently gave a speech the World HRD Congress in Mumbai. The question I asked was, “How many of you could list for me 3 strategic initiatives that your company is pursuing?” This audience was for the most part, senior level HR professionals . Not to my surprise only about 30% put their hands up.

At one time I would get upset with the weak response I received. However, I have moved on; as the saying goes, “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.” (My mother’s favorite saying.)

The business skillset is paramount whether your title is HR Business Partner, Director or CHRO. This profession has coasted for so long, but now the pendulum is gradually shifting and there will be a need for a new version of what it means to be an HR professional.

Someone once said to me, “We are business people that just happen to sit in HR.” This is a take on the famous Starbucks slogan, “We aren’t in the coffee business serving people, we are in the people business serving coffee.” So yes, I will agree to that, as we need to become business people because the value of our role is wrapped in the business approach to an organization’s problem.

Best practices for whom?

But on the other hand, I am regularly asked, “Can you tell us the best practices of …?” Folks, best practices don’t make you the best. They make you the average. Not only that, but what worked at your competitor will probably not work for you. If your bank is based on old school banking and the profession is moving towards digitization, there is not a connect. Too many variables in the mix for the sync to work. Sure it is good to know what your competitors are doing, but copy and paste does not work and that is exactly what best practices cause you to do.

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The other part of the problem is that best practices are a misnomer. Every success story in your industry worked because of a lot of variables, and you just may not have the pillars in place to make it work for you.

History is clear that best practices can be enemies of growth. They allow us to take the lazy way out instead of pushing ourselves to be creative.

The C-suite opportunity with that seat at the table is going to demand more than regurgitating what someone else did. So if you are thinking of that seat within your organization, you had better put on your learning hat because you’ve got a lot of learning ahead.

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.