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How HR Professionals Can Land a Seat at the C-Suite Table


You’re an HR professional on the rise. You’re sitting at the same table as other C-level executives and, like them, you’re influencing your organization’s core strategy and big decisions. No longer are you relegated merely to administrative topics. You’re a major player with a key role in the overall direction and success of the company. 

Then you open your eyes, look around, and slowly come back down to earth. Your seat at the C-suite table was no more real than the wish that you’ll consistently recruit the right person for every job opening during the coming year.

Unlike finance, marketing, business development and the like, HR is rarely at the core of a company’s strategic vision. It’s often pushed to the sidelines, too specialized—and sometimes even considered too non-critical—to be allowed into the heart of things.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. HR professionals can in fact move up the ladder and grab ahold of the top rung to gain equal footing with other C-level executives in their organization—the key is knowing how to develop a strategic climbing technique.

Start with the Basics

It should go without saying that, to get anywhere, you first must be technically proficient in HR matters. According to Tony Preston, senior vice president of business strategy at SilkRoad, a provider of HR solutions, and former head of HR for a 5,000-person software company, any business that will even consider you for a more advanced role will expect you to first possess in-depth HR experience. This includes understanding key issues in corporate culture and having knowledge about compensation, compliance and so forth.

“These things are still very, very important,” Preston says. “They are what gets you a ticket to the dance. But once you’re there, you need more than vertical expertise to move forward.” 

Make Yourself Visible

The next step is to make sure you’re seen. Literally. “At the beginning of my career, I was told to make it a point to walk the floor four times a day and collect problems and issues from coworkers,” says Charley Polachi, managing partner of executive search firm Polachi. “For the HR employee hoping to boost their career, it’s highly advisable that they make themselves visible.”

Of course, visibility today means more than just being physically seen by others. HR professionals should use social media and other electronic channels to keep themselves top-of-mind among those in the crowd who count.   

To keep abreast of key topics and issues that affect your organization, you need to read more than simply HR content. Make a point to peruse general business publications and industry-specific journals, subscribe to relevant industry newsletters and follow the social media channels and blogs of important individuals in your company’s market. Read what the CEO reads.

If you come across a great article that offers key insights into your company’s industry, forward it to members of the executive team, recommends Andrea D. Cranfill, SPHR, principal at FlashPoint, a talent management consulting firm, and a former director of HR. “People see, ‘he’s reading our industry publications.’ That sends a message,” she says. 

You can also use your knowledge when interacting with C-level executives face to face. Speak up and mention that you read about an important issue that may affect your company’s quarterly earnings, or how your biggest competitors are dealing with challenges similar to those your organization is facing. People will notice that your ability to provide insight and advice goes beyond the HR department, which makes them more likely to pay attention to you. 

Learn How to Crunch Numbers

Businesses are more data driven than ever, and this includes HR departments. HR professionals looking to move up should take advantage of this and learn how to use programs like Excel (or other software programs the company is using) to track key data metrics in order to understand statistics that underlie HR, such as workforce analytics, compensation and revenue per employee. 

Knowing the exact impact of your department on the company as a whole indicates that you’re in tune with the goals of your organization and are in a position to provide insight and advice and play a key part in strategic decisions. Chris Costello, principal at employee benefit brokerage firm CBG Benefits, offers the following three examples of data points HR professionals can use to help their company’s performance while boosting their own careers: 

  • Conduct employee benefit benchmark reports to compare how the benefits your company offers compares to your competitors’;
  • Perform leave and absence analysis to highlight the impact and trends employee absenteeism may be having on the company and identify ways to address this; and
  • Assess employee satisfaction and needs through surveys and other means of data collection to gain insight on staff satisfaction levels and identify areas for improvement in order to boost retention.

A decade or so ago, marketers were more focused on a creative approach, but now creative is merely one aspect of what they do. Today, the focus is increasingly on analytics and data, which are what drive better performance, says Tim Low, VP of marketing at PayScale, a cloud compensation software company. Low sees HR now moving in a similar direction. “You don’t have to know super complex math, but you have to be able to look at data, determine trends and pull out connections,” he says. 

According to Preston, another skill set in scarce supply but “huge demand” is project management. Being able to manage projects end-to-end is a “key HR skill,” he says. To gain experience and abilities in this area, HR professionals should take courses in project management and volunteer to head up important company projects. This can really pay off in the long run by building valuable competencies that are likely to impress company execs.

Further Your Education

HR professionals should do everything they can to ensure they’re at the top of their game in terms of HR expertise. To extend your education beyond a graduate degree, Joe Shaheen, SPHR/GPHR, managing principal at Human Alliance, recommends getting involved with professional organizations, such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). You can also earn professional certifications, such as the HR Certification Institute (HRCI) or Certified Human Resource Professional (CHRP) designations.

If you want to move up in your company, it’s also recommended that you pursue a formal education that holds relevance beyond the HR department. Preston says he ascended to a different level of credibility within his organization after he studied for an MBA, as he was able to communicate “in a language business folks understood instead of ‘HR speak.’” With his academic training, Preston can now read a profit and loss (P&L) statement and explain financial metrics and so forth, which has made him a much more valuable contributor to the company. 

Polachi agrees, recommending that HR professionals make a concerted effort to educate themselves on basic business skills, as they’ll provide a better understanding of how your organization works and will elevate you in the eyes of company higher-ups. “Learn your finance and accounting,” he advises. “Get a balanced business degree.” 

Know Your Organization Inside and Out

Shaheen notes that one of the main reasons why HR is repeatedly shut out of more important roles and meetings is that 95 percent of the HR professionals he knows don’t understand how and why their businesses work the way they do.

“They want to talk about harassment claims and performance reviews; they don’t want to talk about how to improve the performance of the company,” he explains. “HR is so much into theory. They’re unwilling to get down to the details of running the company. If they do that, there would be more promotions, higher pay and more accolades.”

If you want to play an important role in your company, you absolutely must know how it works from top to bottom. To expand your knowledge—and influence—beyond HR issues, Polachi recommends that HR professionals train themselves to think like an internal customer. 

To do this, sit in on sales meetings, participate your company’s sales training program and go to weekly staff meetings of other key departments, such as finance and marketing. In addition to teaching you about how these departments work, you’ll get to know the people who work there and the roles they play in contributing to the company.  

In order to understand the perspective of external customers, listen in on sales calls, read customer feedback surveys and familiarize yourself with everything your company provides, whether it be products or services. All of this will give you a greater understanding and appreciation of what your company offers and how effective these offerings are at meeting customer needs.

“If you understand the customers, internal or outside, you are more woven into the business,” explains Polachi. “HR is a cost center, but should think like a revenue center. Know why things succeed with customers and why they fail.”

Without this knowledge and expertise, Preston says, HR professionals can expect a less integral role in important company matters. 

“If all you bring to the table is HR, you are likely to be given 10 minutes to speak at some meetings and not invited to other meetings,” he says. “If the only reason you are invited to a meeting is an HR topic, you are probably in the second row of invitees. If you are a CEO, you expect more from the CFO than an accountant, and the marketing person needs to understand the competition. HR has to provide the same thing.”

Develop Key Relationships

Though HR folks deal with, well, lots of folks, many are surprisingly unsavvy at building strong relationships with those who can potentially help advance their career. Cranfill says she has seen many HR professionals take workplace disagreements personally, push too hard for their own agendas and burn valuable bridges. 

Shaheen agrees, saying many HR professionals are “desensitized” to others—they interact with so many people that they don’t stop to build strong individual relationships and, as a result, their career trajectories suffer. “There is a correlation between pay and relationships,” he explains. “Those who build stronger relationships with their teams and their company make more money and get promoted.”

Rather than telling people what to do, HR professionals should strive to be genuinely informative and provide helpful advice, which will naturally compel people to want to listen to you. 

This brings up another strategy you can use to advance your career: get a mentor. Find someone more advanced in their career than you and watch how they build relationships and provide value to the entire organization, recommends Cranfill. When you hit a tough spot, ask for their advice. A good mentor can provide key guidance and help you develop the skills you need to move up in your career.

Position Yourself as a Leader

Once you’ve educated yourself about your organization, developed a solid business knowledge base and forged strong connections with the right people, HR professionals should use their expertise to improve the way the HR department contributes to the success of the organization. This does more than just make you helpful to others: It helps make you a leader. 

“Leading is all about having a positive impact on your organization,” explains Cranfill.“ To do that, HR leaders must be outwardly focused, meaning they understand the business inside and out.” This means going beyond simply understanding customers—it means knowing the market, important business trends and how HR can help the business achieve its goals. 

As an example, Cranfill points to an HR professional who is developing a new training program. It’s not enough just to know how to create this program, she says. To get buy-in from upper management—and show the business side you understand the organization and know how to use HR to solve business problems—you need to know what’s going on with your customers and exactly how this program will positively impact them. 

Gavin Pommernelle, who has over 20 years experience in HR management and is the founder of Talent Driven Value, says he conducts surveys that routinely find 80 percent of CEOs report that HR does not provide them with what they need to achieve their business goals. “If the business is trying to build its market share in a particular location, what are you doing to help?” he says. “HR can help by having a good recruitment process that brings in the right people.”

To highlight how HR professionals can improve their contribution to an organization, Shaheen gives an example of someone given the task of hiring 10 people. Most people in this instance, he says, will simply ask for the job descriptions and tell management that they will post the positions. 

Instead, Shaheen suggests HR professionals find out what type of candidate management thinks is ideal for the position and why, exactly what duties and responsibilities the position entails and how these positions will affect the organization’s P&L. “Use HR to help the business,” he emphasizes.

This is where gaining a more comprehensive business knowledge comes into play. “We’ve found that most effective HR professionals are strong business people first, who happen to apply HR strategies to help advance their organizations,” Polachi says. When you develop strong business and leadership skills first, you won’t just move up the HR food chain, you’ll get the ear—and acceptance of—other C-level execs. 

Know When to Walk Away

So what happens to you and your career if you stay within your comfort zone and stick mainly to HR issues? “HR professionals tend not to be promoted,” observes Shaheen. “They hit a ceiling and they don’t get hired into other parts of the company.” 

But what if you’re doing all the right things and still aren’t getting promoted, appreciated or offered a seat at the C-suite table? “My advice: walk away,” Shaheen says. “If you’re doing all the right things, you have to be willing to walk away from your company and go to another company.” 

Consider professional sports, where athletes who struggle on one team frequently get traded to another, where they blossom. What happened? The new team offered a better fit—these players gelled better with their teammates, connected better with the coaching staff and were better suited to the new team’s style of play.  As Shaheen puts it, “you may not be a good fit for one company, but a better fit for another.”

Thumbnail image courtesy of Victor1558.

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Alan S. Horowitz is a contributor to Software Advice.

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