CEO TalkBack: HR Key Strategic Partner


Over the last few decades, HR has been working hard to get a seat the strategic table. What that means to the organization is more important than ever for those seeking a more strategic partner in the profession. As with my past CEO TalkBack columns, I went straight to source and talked to three CEOs about their view on how HR professionals can best contribute to strategic planning and what they personally value about HR’s strategic contribution.

HR Helps Shape Culture
Robert Pratt, the past CEO of Coast Hotels and past-president of One Lodging Management, a private company that runs about 120 hotels, sets the stage well. He says: “I am passionate about this topic. The hospitality and service business is so people intensive that I really believe in the power of HR.”
For the last 15 years, Pratt’s strategic team has included HR and, to this day, he views HR as a key member of the strategy team, and critical for strategic decision making.

“In my view, HR is really about finding, attract, and helping to grow the best people, and ultimately shaping the culture. I think many companies make the mistake of thinking that HR owns the culture. My personal belief is that the leadership team owns the culture and HR’s role is helping the team to shape culture. HR facilitates the activities that lead to the culture the company aspires to,” Pratt explains. “If a CEO thinks that HR owns culture they are kidding themselves. I believe in this so strongly that when I sit on a company board I will often the lead the HR committee so I can influence this belief at the highest levels.”

From Widgets to Engagement
Barbara Grantham, CEO and president of the Vancouver General Hospital Foundation shares this belief. She recalls how, in the past, the leadership team would spend a lot of time talking about products and services, whereas today it’s mostly about employee engagement, empowerment and alignment.

Grantham’s advises that in order for HR professionals to bring their A-game to strategic conversations, it’s best to come prepared to evoke meaningful dialogue and to ask questions that prompt the leaders to align the strategy to people.

“I want HR to ask questions that have leaders think about HR and how we align strategy, culture, and empowering people,” says Grantham. “And, I want HR to help us recognize our limits to strategy given our HR capacity.”

Of Pillars and Alignments
Pratt also wants HR to link their recommendations to the strategic pillars: “I have never been a fan of gimmicky solutions, and I don’t want HR to recommend an initiative because everyone else is doing it. I want HR to communicate an understanding of the strategy and culture we are trying to create, and to show they are listening to our people and what they want. This context becomes the foundation for their strategic recommendations.”

“For example, if we know that stress management is an issue then it may make sense to have a better lunch room, and create more welcome spaces where people congregate and connect, but we don’t need a ping pong table just because other companies have it,” Pratt adds.

Strategic From Start to Finish
Dr. Brian Stephenson, past-president and vice chancellor of Lakehead University also believes that HR is a critical pillar for strategy and culture. Yet, he wants HR to also be a key partner in helping the other executives to link the strategic plan, budget, and accountability mechanisms. “In my view, HR needs to set up the systems that help to ensure that everyone is performing according to the strategic plan, and this includes how we evaluate and coach people to improve their performance.”

Stephenson views HR as a strategic partner and advises: “For HR to truly be a partner they need to be involved in strategy formulation from start to finish, and they must be able to speak to the HR implications of the whole plan.”

He also wants HR to present realistic, affordable and creative options for fulfilling the people component of the strategic plan and leading change. Stephenson says: “It’s not, ‘We can’t do it.’ It’s, “Yes, we can do it, but here is what it will take: the options available, the risks we need to manage and how much it will cost you.”

Key to the insights from all three CEOs this issue is the need for HR professionals themselves to understand that they are indeed central to the strategic planning process—not passive participants, but leaders in their own right.

Realistically, most companies put the majority of their expenses towards salaries. HR professionals need to see themselves as key drivers of the strategy and continue to get involved—as co-facilitators, enhancers and organizational catalysts.

The function itself has earned the seat at the table. Now it’s time to pull the chair in a bit closer and hone the strategic influence.

Natalie Michael, CPHR is a CEO and executive coach with She is also the author of The Duck and The Butterfly: Coaching Questions for Leaders at Work and the co-author of Your CEO Succession Playbook: How to Pass the Torch so Everyone Wins.

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