At some point in his or her career, a human resource (HR) professional will encounter the notion of “earning a seat at the table.” This overused buzz phrase is fraught with meaning and can result in a serious case of consternation. Sitting at “the table,” from this writer’s perspective, is all about understanding the management systems of the organization, the organization’s relationship with its external customers, and the organization’s approach to change. It is a bit like Arthur Dent’s experience in Douglas Adams’ (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy consternation over being chosen to take an interesting ride through new space and time, while attempting to hang on to the backpack of our past experiences.
In my work with senior management teams, I often hear the frustrations that senior managers experience with their HR staff. That frustration comes in the form of comments such as “they’re too rigid,” “they don’t understand the business” or the infamous, “it seems like they are always about saying ‘no’ when we need them to help us figure out how to make it work.” On the other hand, as HR professionals we often find that we are offered a seat at the table just in time for dessert. The common complaint from HR folks in this dilemma is “if only they would have called us sooner.”
John Kotter’s (1996) book, Leading Change, illustrates the importance of “creating a guiding coalition” (p. 57) in leading and managing organizational change. I contend that most organizations today are wrestling with their own brand of change. The emerging role of HR professionals includes an invitation to participate actively in the change process, providing leadership on a business unit basis. The line versus staff distinctions of the past are blurring. These guiding coalitions, from Kotter’s perspective, are the right people with the right position, power, expertise, creditability, and managerial leadership skills to develop and maintain organizational trust in times of change.
For HR professionals, learning to be part of a guiding coalition, sitting at the table from the beginning, is a new ride in a new galaxy. With apologies for the many metaphors, this is the emerging work of our profession. It is both necessary and appropriate for HR professionals to move to a place of strategy architect that Ulrich, Brockbank, Johnson, Sandholtz, and Younger (2008) describes in the book on HR competencies. One of six competencies, Ulrich et al describes the strategy architect as someone who is prepared and knows “what to say and how to say when participating in business discussions” (p.125).
How, then, does a human resource professional move from a strong and deep content area of specialty to a more generalized role of listening, learning, and framing the appropriate answer at the appropriate time? My response to those professionals asking that question is to spend time learning about your organization’s managerial leadership systems. HR professionals seeking to make what can feel like a ninety-degree turn in their professional development, need to become more comfortable with how the organization makes visible its strategic focus, the clarity of tasks defined to achieve that focus, and how the organization finds and develops the right human capital talent at the right time. I ask these HR professionals to pay attention to some key things when preparing for their new role in supporting a business unit. This “hitchhiker’s guide to an interesting galaxy” describes the important places in the road to pay attention to as one moves out of the specialist role into a place of business unit support in their organization.
Understanding Strategy – How does the organization think about its future?
The first, and sometimes unfortunate, question is “does the organization have a visible strategy?” Yes, there might be some interesting plaques on the wall and words on a website, but is the strategy visible to the front line? Can the individual directly facing the customer articulate how what they are doing ties to the strategy set from the top?
An HR professional, working as a business partner is perfectly placed to hear what employees are saying about the strategy and vision. What is the strength of the strategic message communicated to those employees closest to the external customer? An astute HR business partner understands the context of this larger strategic message. He or she is in the ideal place to listen, learn, and frame the message with the customer focusing parts of the business.
The challenge for the HR professional moving from specialist to this new relationship is that they have focused on working internally to support other employees in meeting their strategic goals. As a specialist, the tendency is to think of their customer as the employees and managers of the organization, hence, the “internal” customer. When one moves to a business unit support role, the definition of customer changes from internal to external. Learning to think like a manager who faces the external customer everyday is an important and necessary shift in thinking – a new galaxy, to borrow from our hitchhiker’s guide.
Ulrich et al (2008) describes this reframed thinking as learning to behave as a business ally, moving beyond the HR specialist, to a business ally and strategic partner. Working as a business ally means thinking as one who truly understands what is happening in the total competitive and social context of which the organization is a part. Who is the external customer? What does the competitive environment look like? What are the value chain and pipeline relationships that impact the organization on a daily basis? Learning to pay attention and understand these relationships deeply is critical to the HR professional being invited to the table.
Structure – Does it support the work that is to be done?
Architects, as Ulrich et al describes, “are not quite engineers and not quite artists” (p. 125). Good architects design with the function in mind, thereby honoring the adage of form following function. If we accept the premise that organizations exist to get work done (Jaques, 2006), then it naturally flows that a well-designed organizational structure follows the strategic vision to meet the needs of the external customer. This may seem like a blatant statement of the obvious, but I am continually in awe of organizations that appear to design a structure to meet their own needs, not what they profess the needs of the external customer to be. The key questions “what is the work?” and “how does that meet the needs of the external customer?” often fall by the wayside in the approach to building a solid structure.
Learning to sit at the business unit table requires learning to look at the boxes on the organization chart from an objective and “agile” (Ulrich et al., 2008, p. 124) perspective. I describe it to my HR clients as learning to play in the white space. Working with business leaders, the HR professional can serve as an objective voice of reason on process teams; learn to see the roles “boxed” on the organization chart from the vertical, as well as the horizontal perspectives. Skilled HR leaders understand that work flows both ways in an organization: top to bottom and side to side. They add real value to managerial leaders through staying objective and learning to see the organization through the external customer lens.
Playing in the white space takes courage. It means we sometimes stand alone in asking the tough questions as to how the roles might fit together in a more meaningful way. Bringing an objective, well thought out set of guiding questions to a manager making organizational structure decisions can be real value-add to their thinking process. Unlike an HR specialist role, where we do need the answer, the ninety-degree turn in skill here is learning to listen, frame good questions, and reflect back what we hear. Credibility comes when working from a place of understanding external customer needs, while guiding and framing through the right questions, at the right time.
Task Clarity – Does the performance appraisal system support the strategy through good task assignment?
Elliot Jaques (2006) in his development of Requisite Organization theory speaks of task assignment as the core of a good managerial leadership system. A lifetime of research led him to understand that human beings really do want to be productive and do their best in the contributions they make to society through their work. What we each do is different and unique, but in our heart and soul as humans, we are alike in this deep desire to fully “spread our wings,” value the work that we do, and meet our full potential.
Somewhere between empowerment and micro-management, a common ground of task clarity allows the individual human spirit to be with others in the collective, called the organization, and achieve the goals of that organization. A system that aligns the tasks that need to be done to meet the strategic goals of the organization with an individual’s contribution to that organization is what we want from our appraisal systems.
To continue with Jaques’ thinking, it is managers who have the accountability for task assignment and the clarity of those tasks. It is my experience that skill in good task assignment is one of the most difficult competencies for managers to master. Good managers understand good task assignment, but they need help in learning to master the skill and keep their skills honed as the strategic needs of the organization shift.
Mastering the skill of clear task assignment serves as the basis of a solid performance appraisal system. What needs to be done? When does it need to be done? By whom? These are simple, straightforward questions that occupy a manager’s mind on a daily basis. Hopefully, the organization’s performance appraisal system supports this premise.
The hitchhiking HR professional in place in the business unit often encounters the lack of alignment between task clarity and the performance appraisal system in the form of the “procedures for disciplining an employee.” With apologies for revealing a bias on my part, the issue is often a lack of clarity in task assignment. The adult known as the employee is being disciplined for not doing something that may not have been a clear task assignment from the beginning. Taking a look at the work employees are being asked to do and their capability for doing that work can often help to determine the extent to which “bad behaviour” is actually occurring.
Employee relations issues can often be managed by spending the time to solve the task clarity issues. Sitting at the table with senior managers takes courage in asking the tough questions about the alignment between what the organization thinks it wants done versus how that is cascading through the organization.
Ulrich et al (2008) described this emerging HR professional role as learning to think as a culture and change steward. Changing an organization often means changing the work of that organization. Changing the work of the organization means changing the task focus of the organization. The HR function has traditionally been seen as the keeper of the performance management system at some level. Performance management belongs to the managers; HR facilitates the conversations and make sure the message is coming through clearly.
Think about a time that you were working through an employee relations disciplinary process. Did anyone stop to ask the question if the task was clear from the beginning? Asking that question is some of the best value-add we can give to our business unit managers.
Talent Management – How does the organization manage getting the right people in the right place at the right time?
Finally, we arrive at the place in the galaxy where the right people are showing up, at the right place, at the right time. How does that happen and what is the role of the HR professional?
Ulrich et al (2008) speaks of this domain as the place where talent management and organization design come together into a critical integration point. There are three critical elements of this integration: understanding the business unit strategy, keeping an objective eye on the structure and finally, and paying attention to the individual task assignments of each role needed in meeting the strategic goals. Understanding these elements, and learning to ask the right question, at the right time, is a key skill in assisting organizational managers in hiring and developing talent.
This role involves another ninety-degree turn from specialist to partner for the HR professional. It is about moving from an external recruiting focus of bringing talent to the door to one of collaborating with business unit managers on an ongoing basis, to facilitating the match of the right talent to the right assignment, at the right time. In the “war for talent,” learning to listen and integrate external customer needs with the strategic internal talent needs is a critical supportive role that HR professionals play in their organizations.
Managers value a partner who “gets it” from a talent perspective. Managers also value a partner who understands the larger, competitive framework in which they work everyday. When the match is not right, or a role remains empty for too long, it affects the work of the manager. Knowing that their HR partner is right there with them goes a long way to building credibility and earning a seat at the table.
We Live in Interesting Times
These are interesting times for HR professionals learning to explore new galaxies and moving into a more fully integrated role in the organization. From my perspective, learning to live in interesting in times is not the ancient curse that is often given to this quote. Yes, our organizations are moving at the speed of light. Yes, we are called to move into a different space and place professionally. Yes, it is more than a little unnerving. We are hitchhiking through a new galaxy. Stick out your thumb and enjoy the ride!
Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. NY: Ballatine Books,1979.
Kotter, John. P. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.
Jaques, Elliott. Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organiztion and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century. Baltimore: Cason Hall & Co., 2006.
Ulrich, David, Wayne Brookbank, Dani Johnson; Kurt Sandholtz, and Jon Younger. HR Competencies: Mastery at the Intersection of Business and People. Alexandria, VA: The RBL Institute, Society for Human Resources, 2008.
About the Author
Sandi Cardillo is a facilitator with the Queen’s IRC Advanced HR program.