HR: Becoming a Strategic Partner and Earning a Seat at the Table

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We live in the most transformational time in human history. Ask anyone who studies change and innovation, and they will tell you that the slowest pace of change we will ever experience is today. Tomorrow’s change will be a bit quicker. The day after that, a bit quicker. And so our journey on the exponential curve of disruption perpetuates.

In this disruptive environment, organizations are continually being forced to adapt to changes in the realms of technology, automation, regulation, globalization, climate change and, perhaps most importantly, personal health and well-being.

Now, these challenges have been compounded and accelerated by the pandemic.

Amid this ever-growing chaos and uncertainty, people-only skills will become more critical than ever before. In the race toward automation and decentralization, the intangible human traits that we look for in our people are becoming increasingly valuable. Traits like creativity, intuition and ethics.

In response to this highly disruptive environment, the only choice is adaptability. And make no mistake, adaptability is a choice.

One of the most misquoted people in history, Charles Darwin’s catchphrase, “survival of the fittest” is a misnomer. In actuality, Darwin spoke of “survival of the most adaptable.” In other words, those who can adapt to their environment, live within their means and find areas of co-operation toward a common goal are those who will survive, thrive and outlive.

A Look at Recessions

Take the recent pandemic-fueled economic recession as an example. This global health crisis was a catalyst that sparked a global recession. Almost overnight, our society was turned on its head as we were all forced to adapt to an unprecedented set of disruptions. As leaders, we can learn from past recessions, as well as this one, in terms of what it takes to embrace adaptability.

Harvard Business Review study of three recent recessions found that only nine per cent of companies emerged from a recession in a position to outperform their historical financial metrics. On the flip side, nearly 20 per cent of companies didn’t survive.

The winners and losers in these instances were not randomly determined. Their fate was not a factor of chance, it was a factor of choice. And at the end of the day, it came down to leadership.

Those who found themselves in the nine per cent made deliberate, people-first decisions that positioned their organization to simultaneously mitigate pressing challenges, drive innovation and prevent layoffs.

Answering the Call

If the answer to disruption is adaptability, the answer to adaptability is leadership.

In this pursuit of adaptability, it becomes the responsibility of organizations to innovate, navigate disruption and put people first. This responsibility falls solely under the domain of leadership. As HR leaders, it is your duty to ensure senior leadership understands and embraces this dynamic landscape as well as the role your people will play, both today and in the future.

This is the case for HR to become a strategic partner within an organization.

So, with such a compelling case built on a burning platform, why does HR remain in the tactical domain? Why do HR leaders become and remain positioned as the “problem solvers,” the “safety net” and the “order takers?”

The tough answer?

That is where they position themselves. Over time, HR leaders across the country have found themselves pigeonholed, in large part due to their own behaviour and positioning.

This is not about assigning blame or inciting commiseration. Instead, if you recognize that you played a role in positioning yourself and your team, you can then recognize you have the power to change that position.

Getting a Seat at the Table

That being said, nothing in this world is granted. If you spend your career waiting for a seat at the table, you will retire dissatisfied. The reality is that you must earn a seat at the table.

The question then becomes, for HR leaders, how do you do that? How do you ensure HR becomes a valued strategic partner within the organization?

Shift Your Mindset

In our experience, several key activities will position you to earn that seat. Note that this is not a road map to be followed. Instead, it is a series of activities designed to catalyze a shift in mindset both for your HR team and your organization.

1. Deeply understand your organization’s vision and strategy

If you have only a passing understanding of your organization’s strategy, your team will have a near-zero understanding. If you have a moderate understanding, your team will have only a passing understanding. Therefore, as the people-leader of your organization, it is your duty to ensure you have complete clarity of your organization’s vision for the future and its subsequent strategy. Beyond that, you must be clear on how your HR team and, by extension, the people of the organization play a role in bringing the strategy to life. This will likely require reading, research and a series of inquisitive conversations. Don’t be afraid to seek to understand.

2. Translate the vision and strategy into core HR practices

Organizations often fumble with the execution of their plan, despite engaging in an intensive planning process. In many instances, the connection between strategy and HR was not made. Whether it’s through performance management processes, compensation plans, or coaching and development practices, HR must play a central role in bringing an organization’s strategy to life through its people. No plan can succeed without its people, and HR is the key link.

3. Ensure those core HR practices become embedded within the strategy

Your organization’s strategy should identify core HR practices that must be implemented. You must become the vocal advocate in this pursuit. Strategic HR practices will not become a core strategic pursuit unless the HR leader makes their voice heard. Create the case for change, demonstrate the need to act with urgency, and recommend core practices to be embedded into the strategy.

4. Ensure all leaders recognize the value of people as a driving force of success

Once you have successfully linked your organization’s strategy to your core HR practices, it becomes time to celebrate wins and vocalize the success of your efforts. Use every platform you have to demonstrate the power of your practices and to create buy-in. Over time, senior leaders will begin to see the value of these strategic HR practices and the subsequent cultural shifts. This is the case for keeping the seat at the table.

5. Continually speak truth to power

You are the eyes and ears of the organization. You see what others don’t. You listen to what others dismiss. For these reasons, you have a tremendous level of insight into the capabilities and impact of your organization’s senior leaders. Like it or not, it is your responsibility to share what you’re hearing with leadership, positive or otherwise. They may not embrace the feedback initially, but if they are the leaders they aspire to be, they will respect you for sharing it and will modify their behaviour accordingly.

6. Socialize everything

The minute someone stops talking about something is the minute it loses momentum. Inciting practical and behavioural change requires constant socialization, monitoring and encouragement. You must be the vocal leader, every day.

The Answers 

If the answer to disruption is adaptability, the answer to adaptability is leadership.

Over the years, I have seen first-hand the impact that a strong HR leader can have. Teams become engaged. People speak their mind and show up with passion. The organization embraces the need to change and puts people at the forefront of driving that change.

In every instance, the HR leader in question had the courage to embrace the discomfort of leading that change. They became a vocal leader. They demonstrated expertise, spoke truth to power, rallied their teams, and never stayed quiet.

They didn’t wallow. They didn’t commiserate. And they certainly didn’t acquiesce.

They were clear on how they wanted their organization to succeed and behave, and they led the charge to get there. And everything they did was a choice.

 


 

Jordan Orr is a consultant with Ignite Management Services, a Vancouver-based strategic planning and leadership development firm. Their strategic and coaching processes have helped dozens of organizations attain success through deeply engaging their people.

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