Inviting Mohammed to the mountain: HR and the Top Table

It’s one of those perennial HR blog/article/networking event/moaning-over-the-canapés topics, isn’t it? How will HR ever get a seat at the top table where it deserves to be? I can almost hear at least two groups of readers sighing, for at least two different reasons. Some of them at the use of the word ‘deserves’, perhaps? Part of me – possibly the ‘bah humbug’ streak I can feel gathering strength with every glimpse of tinsel and waft of carols – can’t help but think that those at the top table may have come to the conclusion that HR is already being discussed in its most relevant forum: the HR Department. (And to be fair, even my more charitable streaks feel they may have at least part of a point.)

While any HR practitioners who haven’t already clicked away have no doubt started to bristle, indulge me briefly while I note some of the other objections that have been raised. Writing at the Management Information Exchange site, Luc Galoppin essays an opinion that will do nothing to unruffled HR feathers, arguing – among many other points, all worth reading – that HR is a force for continuity, not change:

HR Doesn’t Drive Organizational Change. Let’s face it: By their very nature, the fundamental HR processes are aimed at safeguarding stability. But when you ask HR managers about the core competencies of their departments, they will tell you that the management of organizational change is at the forefront. They are wrong.”

Some commentators have been even less civil on the topic.

The Critical HRM blog, for example, drew this less than tactfully delivered conclusion:

HR people are not shut out of the ‘Top Table’, they just haven’t got long enough legs to get on the chair.”

But what I hope is the ‘just being generally human’ side of me can also see a more elemental flaw in the logic of expecting to have your point taken on board because you think it’s vitally important. To someone else, there’s a fair chance that you are going to sound demanding, self-centred, or just plain needy. That’s not to say that the argument is flawed or wrong: it should be abundantly clear from the posts on this blog over the last couple of years that we firmly believe that focusing on ‘the people aspects’ is critically important. But insisting that someone ‘gets it’ might not be as effective as inviting them to, or giving them the opportunity.

There’s another time old truism that says that, wherever you might want to get to, you can only start from where you are. (And the ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ gags belong in another posting.) When it comes to HR and the top table, that’s a topic that Jim Kirkpatrick recently picked up on in The Official Kirkpatrick Blog:

My encouragement to you is to set your own table rather than waiting to be invited to the big table. Once success is achieved through your grassroots collaboration, you will likely get invited to the big table.”

Speaking of truisms, ‘nothing succeeds like success’ is pretty relevant here: in terms of getting the attention of those at higher levels of the organisational structure/food-chain, being really successful is one of the more fool-proof methods. Just be mindful that it’s only one of the steps in the more sophisticated dance known as ‘speaking their language’: as we’ve commented before, HR needs something to sell and someone to sell it to.

And, returning to that basic human level, remember that most of us invite the people who – one way or another – present an attractive proposition for doing so. The festive season might oblige us to ‘enjoy’ the company of relatives when we are tempted to jab a fork in our leg as a distraction from the pleasure, but few workplace functions are in a structural/functional position where they feel obligated to invite HR. (Some of us have read too many allegedly amusing emails about HR and office parties to feel tempted: for some of us, it would be like deciding our lives would be better if only we lived under the gaze of even more CCTV cameras.) There’s a related problem, which is another aspect of HR’s perception elsewhere in the business. An earlier post here picked up on the reader comment kerfuffle that kicked off when The Guardian published a feature article called: “HR: your friend or foe”: similar thoughts have crossed other minds too. Commenting on the possible perception of HR as they emerge from meetings in the C-Suite, Luc Gallopin mused:

[…] as they get out of that room, HR will have lost all credibility as a fallback or buffer between workforce and management. The first thing people will ask as HR is still recovering from their C-suite domination is “whose side are you on anyway?”

Singling out any particular group to be the butt of jokes is, of course, something that HR should strive to stamp out: indeed, it’s an aspect of their work where personal experience might be used to good effect. But surely it’s not the only challenge they face where their professional skills should be their advantage.

The important challenge for HR is to engage senior management to recognise the importance of ‘soft’ issues, and to see that they are not only not separate from other aspects of organisational strategy but actually integral. The location – or grandeur – of the table around which that engaging conversation takes place is, to be blunt, irrelevant. Would we really have ignored Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream Speech” if he’d delivered it outside a branch of Starbucks rather than from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? (By way of underlining that point, I had to Google to find out where he did deliver it: the message has hit home across the decades, but the physical backdrop has faded from memory. So much for iconic, eh?)

We’re not saying HR should rebrand the CEO as Santa, pin their fur-trimmed stockings on their cubicle dividers and tempt him with a mince pie and a schooner of sherry. (And the thought of all that compliance paperwork to excuse the schooner of sherry isn’t the biggest problem with that little scenario.) But – armed with their understanding of people skills and their awareness of audience, impact and communication – an informal gathering late in December where you’d be honoured to have the CEO’s presence is a more attractive proposition to them than an insistence on being invited to their meetings.

Remember that you’re addressing a small audience: unlike Dr King, 200,000 marches and a national monument aren’t required. Think more along the lines of vol au vents, relaxed professionalism and, playing in the background a propos of nothing in particular, a PowerPoint showing a clear link between HR initiatives and organisational performance. Use your ears as much as your mouths, and it might be a finer opportunity to informally and subtly get across a few messages that may get a more profitable approach snowballing into action when the New Year rolls around.

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Filed under: behavioural change, communication, HR, leading performance, management, organisational development, relationships


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