Staying at the Table

There are no more HR projects, only business projects applied with an HR lens. That was one of the many enlightening lessons I learned when I attended the CEB HR Leadership Academy workshop. As HR practitioners, we know that getting a seat at the business table is only half of the battle. Staying relevant, being credible, and being able to value-add is the critical part of the battle. The question remains on the how.

For today's posting, Ian Cook, a book author and seasoned leadership consultant, pens his thoughts on how HR professionals stay relevant to the clients and companies they serve. Ian and I met at the recent HR summit where I introduced Ian onto the stage. Through my interaction with Ian, I learnt that Ian specialises in what he calls "micro leadership," the notion that every people manager especially at the operational level plays a critical role in meeting strategic business objectives. It would be interesting to hear how HR professionals can partner with managers in making an impact and difference. Here's Ian's take on this topic.

At a HR networking event I attended Alice Waagen, President of Workforce Learning LLC, presented on “The Top 5 Skills for Human Resource Professionals.” One of her top five struck me as by far the most critical for HR’s success in any organization: “Business Acumen.” Interestingly enough, this was the one that generated the most lively discussion among the attendees.

Under “Business Acumen,” Alice included a basic understanding of the classic elements of business: finance, marketing, strategic planning, production, customer service, and the role of technology. By the way, this applies for any sector–private, public, or not-for-profit.

Why is having this broad knowledge important? Because HR professionals need to understand the world of the line side of the enterprise if they are going to be a trusted advisor to their internal client(s). Yes, trusted advisor. This is the other and more critical role of HR, beyond ensuring compliance to corporate human resources related to policies and processes.

But in order for HR to achieve genuine trusted advisor status, let me suggest two additional skills under Business Acumen:

  • An understanding of the specific “business” of the organization. What are the key products, services, production processes, strategic plans, challenges, infrastructure strengths and weaknesses, and so forth? This gives them “street cred” with managers on the line side. In addition, it enables HR folks to provide informed input, especially at the C-level, on key business issues that arise.
  • A good sense of how successful sales people build and maintain relationships. Good sales people (and trusted advisors) develop a deep awareness of their client’s concerns, fears, hopes, desires, assumptions, biases, etc. They are able to look at problems through the filter of their client while adding value by applying a professional human resources prism as well.

For example, the VP of Field Operations is concerned that customer service attitudes are poor, causing retail sales to drop. HR makes an evidence-based case that the culprit is weak management skills leading to low front line staff morale. How to proceed? The savvy HR manager frames the goal in terms of getting sales back up. This is what he talks about when proposing any training initiative or other intervention to boost morale. Fix the sales problem and you’ve earned the respect of the VP. How you do it is not high on your client’s list of concerns.

So, if you are in HR, make sure that you understand your organization’s core business. Then position your role as, first and foremost, supporting the enterprise’s success. And, if you are a non-HR executive, insist that members of your Human Resources department learn what they need to know about the business of the business in order to earn that seat at the table of decision-makers.


About Ian Cook

Ian is an experienced presenter, group facilitator, executive coach, and author of the acclaimed Would They Call You Their Best Boss Ever. Through his keynote presentations, highly interactive workshops, and custom-designed team-building practices, he helps his clients leverage their investment in their managers and teams. Watch a video featuring Ian in action. You can contact Ian via his email. and visit his company's website,

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