HR, The seat at the table won’t be yours for long

if you can’t hold a conversation once you get there

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Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a senior HR leader who had been demoted from the elusive “Seat at the Table” after pushing – hard – for it 18 months earlier.  She believed that once she was in the “inner circle”, she would be free to move HR up the curve from tactical to strategic.  But she was unprepared, and soon on the outer.  There was no formal demotion, just a change where she was now only invited to select conversations at the executive level.  As she put it, she was now “sitting at the kids’ table”.  Getting a seat at the table is one thing.  Getting to sit there permanently is another. 

Getting “a seat at the table” is one of the topics that comes up again and again in conferences, white papers, and blog posts targeted to HR Professionals (and IT and Sales professionals).  It struck me today that although this blog is now in its’ seventh year, there isn’t a single post referencing the question directly, yet Strategic Workforce Planning is in many ways the answer.  

HR is intricately involved in the execution of strategy, and in an increasing number of organisations, in its’ formulation.  After all, it’s the executive that sets the strategy, but the entire workforce that executes it.  HR, therefore, is in a unique position to provide valuable input into the formulation – so long as they can speak the language of business.  

Have you ever been to a dinner party where one person just can’t hold a conversation with anyone else?  That’s an unprepared HR person who’s just been granted a “seat at the table”.  Chances are, they won’t get invited to the next party.  And you don’t get an invite to a dinner party in the first place if you haven’t first engaged with the host on some level.

Instead of focusing on how to get an invite, how about we focus on how to add value, to provide insights, to bring a different perspective?  Do that, make a meaningful input to conversations with the business, and the invitation to the party will follow.  For HR wanting to get invited to the executive table, that means understanding the business strategy, what it’s going to take to formulate and execute it, and how you can help.  It means an eye on the future, not looking exclusively at the past, or the present.  It’s not about “best practice” or “how company X does it”, and it’s certainly not complaining about what you wish was different.  It’s about ROI, results, improvement, and insight.

“How do I get a seat at the table?” is the wrong question to ask.  You don’t get an invitation to the party by wishing you had one.  You either engage at a meaningful level with the host, or you crash the party and make such an impression that nobody can imagine having another one without you.

And here’s an exercise – 

1) If you could invite 5 people to a dinner party from any period in time, be they alive or dead, real or fictional – who would they be?
2) Now list the reasons why you would invite those 5 people.
3) Now ask yourself – honestly – can you provide those things in an executive-level conversation?
4) If so, DO IT!  If not, work on it, then… DO IT!

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