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Most leaders don’t see how to employ HR as a strategic pillar of the business and this leaves a lot of professionals feeling somewhat frustrated.

In our HR in the Boardroom interview series, we talked to HR professionals, business leaders, and anyone who is an authority on HR to share what companies can gain by having HR in the boardroom and asked why and how HR should help drive company decisions.

Their responses were packed full of wisdom! Here’s a summary of what they said.

Gain a deep understanding of the business

All our experts stated the importance of human resource professionals gaining an understanding of the wider business, including financial acumen, operational acumen, and how they can create value.

“Understand how HR creates value for the organization. This will enable HR to increase focus on higher-value activities. For example, HR teams should spend more time driving workforce planning processes and not just focusing on recruiting the job positions that they are asked to hire for.” - Cecilia Laube, Stormico

“A great HR leader is one who is curious about the business and strategy, not just the people. CEOs should recognize that their HR leader can act as a business mirror to ensure the leadership team has the goals of the company in mind.” - Doug Dennerline, Betterworks

“I believe HR leaders should rotate through the business and business leaders should rotate through HR. Ultimately, we want well-rounded leaders who have a deep and broad understanding of the business, the culture, and how to best develop our people.” - Michael Knierim, KWM Consulting

“Effective business partners understand the business and develop solutions to the current challenges facing the organization. HR professionals need to shift from order takers to asking more questions about the business to uncover opportunities for improvement or innovation.”  - Edie Goldberg, E.L Goldberg & Associates

“Listening is the most important skill across the board and is the hallmark of a top CEO. HR practitioners would also benefit from learning skills typically reserved for CEOs and CFOs, like honing their finance, data, and business acumen.” - Jamie Aitken, Betterworks

“HR professionals should work on understanding strategic planning concepts, using tools such Porter's 5 Forces and SWOT analyses to understand how the company differentiates itself from the competition.” - Wesley Vestal, Commissioning Agents Inc.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

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Use data to support decision-making around talent

Many of the experts recognized the importance of people analytics and making a strong business case for talent initiatives backed up by increasingly sophisticated data.

“They [HR leaders} need to focus on the end-to-end experience, communication, and measurement of their users (employees), i.e. are employees happy, are people leaders being coached and supported, are people being invested in, is key pipeline talent being stretched and given opportunities to grow? To do these things well, you should be well versed in coaching, data, and the technology stack used (i.e. HRIS, talent systems, payroll, etc.).” - Donna Scarola, Parcl

“​​The complexity of today's operating environment demands new types of data to inform strategic discussions. This new data goes far beyond typical workforce analytics and even encompasses insights on talent risks and opportunities derived from large bodies of unstructured data.” - Cydney Roach, Edelman

“Having healthy and engaged employees impacts the bottom line of every company. HR can help leaders by providing clear facts and data to help them identify where to focus and then partner with them on the action plans that are developed.”  - Michael Kniermin, KWM Consulting

“Providing talent metrics is one way to show both the board and your shareholders/stakeholders how healthy the organization is operating. Intelligence on issues such as turnover, time to fill a position, percentage of employees actively involved in development, workplace culture, employee well-being efforts, DEI practices, and metrics can all speak to the overall health of the organization.” - Edie Goldberg, E.L Goldberg & Associates

“Have data at hand. It’s all about quantifying traditionally non-quantified data points so that you can make data-driven decisions and provide those kinds of insights to the organization. Implementing a human capital management system allows technology to uncover data points that would otherwise be scattered across a million different pieces of paper around the world.” - Jamie Aitken, Betterworks

Listen and be accessible

As HR is key to hiring and retaining talent the organization needs, to be a strategic partner of employees HR leaders need to be able to have a 2-way dialogue with them as well, which means implementing employee listening strategies and being visible and accessible.

“Be visible and accessible. The best way to build confidence and trust within the organization is to be more forward-facing and amongst the people than any other role.” - Doug Dennerline, Betterworks

The way business leaders obsess over users is the same level of interest HR must-have for their employees. Understand their needs, their pain points, what challenges they face, what skills they are seeking, etc.

"By understanding employees, you will be able to predict what needs to be created next. For example, something I like to do is create personas for employees. After collecting data via interviewing and surveys, create personas based on the needs, pain points, interests and roles in your organization. This will help you decide where to focus your strategy and prioritize what is needed first.” - Donna Scarola, Parcl

Getting curious and asking many questions with different people across the company often can reveal the root cause of an issue that needs to be addressed.” - Edie Goldberg, E.L Goldberg & Associates

“By recognizing, seriously considering, and acting upon employee voices, employers can build a community where trust is stronger.” - Cydney Roach, Edelman

Be a mirror to the business

HR works across all business units and is responsible for keeping the business healthy and productive. This puts them in a priveleged position to be able to challenge leaders on their thinking regarding talent and business strategy.

“Be a mirror to the leadership team, especially the CEO. This will help make sure the people they are hiring and developing have the skills to get the organization where it needs to be.” - Doug Dennerline, Betterworks

“HR can also play an important role as the sounding board or sparring partner to ensure the most important priorities are being tackled such as stress, workload, poor managers, etc.” - Michael Knierim, KWM Consulting

“A great HR leader is one who is curious about the business and strategy, not just the people. CEOs should recognize that their HR leader can act as a business mirror to ensure the leadership team has the goals of the company in mind.” - Jamie Aitken, Betterworks

“Challenge the status quo. HR has a strategic advantage over other functions because it is involved in pretty much every part of the company. Because of this, the function has a front-row seat to areas where new thinking may be required and it has the tools to inject new thinking too.” - Cecilia Laube, Stormico

Focus on the future and root strategy in business outcomes

While it’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, strategic HR professionals (i.e. those that get invited into the boardroom) can think long term and formulate programs and initiatives that are firmly rooted in business outcomes.

“The same way in which business leaders use indicators and data to model sales and profits, HR can use tools and data to model what the organization might look like or need to look like. Often, it can feel as if hiring or organizational design is on the back foot, but by asking leaders important questions coupled with data you can help model out scenarios that reduce stress and reactivity.” - Donna Scarola, Parcl

“HR should be developing an HR Strategy aligned to the business strategy that includes robust workforce planning. This starts with understanding the growth drivers for the business and partnering with the leaders to identify the skills, capabilities, resources needed and the timing.” - Michael Knierim, KWM Consulting

“HR should be able to explain why retaining or disposing of approaches makes both “sense” and “cents” to the business – to borrow a phrase from Leapgen co-founder Jason Averbook.

"Rather than focusing on a new technology or process that will make life easier for HR, explain how the business benefits. HR competes with other functions for investment dollars and must be able to articulate a compelling business case.” - Jamie Aitken, Betterworks

“Create new talent strategies that improve the company’s competitive position and make it more able to attract the best talent, optimize the workforce to increase productivity, and improve organizational agility.”  - Edie Goldberg, E.L Goldberg & Associates

“Do not lose sight of the long-term objectives of the company. In fact, HR should be the function that is consistently working and enabling the long term. For example, HR should be the steward of the company's culture and organizational health, which are both multilayer efforts.” - Cecilia Laube, Stormico

What Can Stop HR?

While all of this advice is useful and a driver of success for HR as a business partner, there are still a number of factors that can spell trouble for an HR leader looking to have influence in the C-suite.

Keri Ohlrich, a member of the People Managing People Editorial Advisory Board, highlighted a few of them in a recent interview.

1)    C-suite Leadership: Top of the list – leadership vibes. If the big shots in the C-suite aren't feeling the love for HR, we're pretty much stuck in first gear. No support, no progress – simple as that.

2)    Budget Woes: Even when the higher-ups are on board, HR often gets the short end of the budget stick compared to other departments. We need tools, resources, and systems to work our magic, but sometimes the dollars are just not on our side.

3)    HR Talent Hustle: If we don't have the right folks who can talk the talk and convince the C-suite about the importance of HR, we're kind of stuck. It's not always about HR being low on the priority list, sometimes it's just that we need the A-team to show how crucial we are.

Engage with experts over in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders sharing knowledge and best practices to build world class organizations.

By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.