Top HR leaders share how they fought for a seat at the table

They reveal why it was so important to win influence with the C-suite

Top HR leaders share how they fought for a seat at the table

The pandemic has created a unique opportunity for HR leaders to take their seat at the decision-making table, leveraging the workforce to solve the big challenges facing businesses today. Now more than ever, successful businesses have shown its people are its strongest tool for survival in a fast-moving, post-pandemic world.

But if they’re not there already, how do HR leaders secure that seat at the table? At a virtual roundtable event earlier this month, hosted by Ignite Global founder Kim Seeling Smith and attended by HRD, three top HR leaders shared their experience and insight around influencing the C-suite.

Elisa Colak, Oceania talent leader at EY, said having a seat at the table is all about hearing, listening and understanding where the business and its people are at.

“We’re in the best position to be able to reflect back to our leadership what is really happening on the ground with our people, and what is going to help engage them, to help activate and motivate them,” she said.

“I think if I look back over the last two years, what the pandemic has done is almost propelled the people function in our business to the centre. It’s been about taking our people on a journey and making sure they feel safe, they feel supported and to make sure we've got the right policies and structures. But I think a seat at the table for me has been very much about bringing the people agenda to the right place at the right time to get the right action and at speed.”

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With 12 members of the ELT and a 50/50 gender split, Colak said she’s fortunate to work with a people-focused CEO. It’s enabled them to put staff, and in particular their wellbeing, at the heart of decision making, such as implementing business-wide ‘unplug days’ to allow people to down tools and switch off. While it wasn’t an easy sell to generate buy-in, Colak said she was able to communicate the importance of wellbeing strategies to key decision makers.

“Research is saying the next pandemic is going to be burnout and mental health issues, so if we don't start as HR practitioners thinking about our people and what we can be doing in the next six, 12 months or two years’ time, we are really letting our business down. I think that's been the benefit of a seat at the table to share some of those insights and to connect our leadership to what's really important for our people,” Colak said.

Fellow panellist Laura Staples, head of people and performance at Laminex, said her role is focused on workforce activation, and having a seat at the table enables her to join the dots between commercial strategy and their people.

“The way in which I do that is through having strong partnerships with all of the leaders in the business. I think you need to be able to understand what each of the functional strategies are so that you're thinking outside of just people strategy,” she said. “One of the common things that I think people leaders do is focus so much on what they're going to do for a great HR strategy in the business without really creating that commercial bridge to some of the more strategic business initiatives.”

So how did she elevate the people team to that point? Staples said she encouraged the HR business partners to become obsessed with strategy, and work closely with their stakeholders to deeply understand their strategic goals. She knew being part of the broader strategic discussions would enable her to support her HR team and the key lay with strategy.

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Similarly, Colak said she secured her seat at the table by elevating the work of the HR team and not underestimating the value they bring to the business. She developed an understanding of the pain points facing executive leaders and how the people function could help with a solution.

“My real catalyst was thinking about how I take the amazingly good work that we've got and get it in front of the right people to get things moving in the business in a way that's going to bring productivity growth, value, engagement,” she said. “It was just about looking for those opportunities and grabbing them when I got them.”

Deborah Greenwood-Smith, chief operating officer at Equiem, said for her, a pivotal moment after she was brought in to build the people function from scratch was deciding how she wanted to be perceived and the actions she wanted to be judged on.

“I think absolutely it's about solutions, and it's about simplicity, but it's also about outcome. I think often leaders might know their problem well, and they even have an idea of some solutions, but they rarely, I find, are very good at defining what good looks like,” she said. “In my first two to three years whenever people had a problem I spent a lot of time saying to them ‘why don't we just throw the idea around and brainstorm it together’.”

Greenwood-Smith said that even if it wasn’t a people problem, often she could help the leader see their obstacle from a different viewpoint and ask questions that lead to a solution. She stressed HR leaders’ innate ability to problem solve, urging them to rely on those strengths more often to elevate the people team within their organisation and claim their seat at the table.

Having joined the tech-first property platform Equiem from a retail and manufacturing background, Greenwood-Smith said there was a lot to learn. But most importantly, she had to change the perception of HR from a purely transactional function to one that could drive business outcomes through its people. She said HR leaders need to avoid getting bogged down in the transactional elements, creating time to have conversations with executive leaders, understand their challenges, and earn their respect through striving for outcomes.

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