How to Land a Seat at the C-Suite Table

Among many small- and mid-sized businesses (SMB), human resource departments are no longer seen as an isolated administrative function. Instead, there is growing recognition HR is an integral part of a company’s infrastructure, on equal footing with such functions as finance, operations, IT, marketing, compliance, and innovation. That would seem to warrant a seat at the C-suite table for the company’s top HR professional, but landing one can be difficult at companies where the outmoded administrative mindset still prevails.

Changing Perceptions

Confirming the changing perception of the HR role, Paychex conducted an HR survey in which only 13 percent of SMB HR department leaders see their role as “primarily administrative.” Even more encouraging, four in five of these leaders say they are viewed as a strategic partner at their company, and more than two in three are engaging in C-suite discussions about business initiatives.

Despite this progress, research by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services shows that non-HR business leaders are split in their opinions about the appropriate role of HR professionals at their companies. Whereas 39 percent see HR as being most effective when aligned with the company’s overall business strategy, an almost equivalent number (38 percent) contend that HR should stay focused on its traditional role of managing benefits, compensation, and compliance.

Because of such divergent opinions, there is a lack of consensus about whether the top HR spot is worthy of C-suite inclusion. “The Rise of the CHRO,” a report produced by global talent and leadership firm Boyden, acknowledges many companies have seen the wisdom of elevating HR to C-level status. However, the report also identifies enough ambiguity about the HR role to make its presence in C-suite environments “far from ubiquitous.”

Pleading Your Case

HR professionals must be proactive in pleading their case to Land a seat at the C-suite table. Here are strategies you can use to provide a rationale for that C-level slot.

  1. Define your role. First you need to describe how your role is integral to attracting talent who can implement meaningful change for the benefit of your company. Provide evidence of the growing importance of the chief human resources officer (CHRO) as an overall business trend. Business media brand Fast Company, for example, included CHRO on its list of “10 C-Suite Jobs of the Future,” describing how the HR exec’s role has evolved from compliance-oriented to core leadership in an environment of heightened competition for talent. In that regard, you can define your CHRO role as filling the demand for a key executive with responsibility for identifying, attracting, and developing talent.
  2. Show your ability to think strategically. Push the point that talent acquisition is not an isolated or administrative activity. Rather, it’s part of a larger strategy extending from recruitment efforts to training to managing personnel. Talent acquisition also relates to the corporate culture, and as such, it’s a discussion worthy of input from all facets of the organization.
  3. Learn how HR fits into the bigger picture. Research the other roles in your organization to understand how HR fits into the overall work required to reach your company’s goals. Jorge E. Diaz, senior VP of Global Human Resources for Fleetmatics, wrote in a blog post for Udemy for Business, how he was able to elevate his role by focusing on how to partner with other managers in pursuit of such joint goals as building their employment brand and optimizing their company’s recruitment process.
  4. Elevate your game. The C-suite is about leadership, so rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of the HR function, delegate those duties to others and free yourself to pursue broader, long-term goals. Harvard Business Review makes the salient point: C-level executives have more in common with each other than they do with their department underlings. The expectation is executives will work together, each providing their unique perspective and insights in a way that contributes to more comprehensive and well thought out decision making.
  5. Act like you belong there. Andy Rice, with Black Box Consulting, hit the nail on the head: HR executives should not expect a seat at the C-suite table without being able to articulate why they need to be there. Make sure you do your homework, and have a clear idea of how you can contribute to the bottom line of your company. Express the value of your inclusion in terms other leaders can understand—dollars and cents.

In summary, don’t come across as an isolated HR person but rather as a vital member of the team who can speak authoritatively about how talent acquisition and defining the corporate culture will advance the company as a whole.

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