Seattle HR Collective: What Earns HR a Seat at the Table

March 24, 2018
March 24, 2018 HRCollective

Seattle HR Collective: What Earns HR a Seat at the Table

Last week marked the third in the Seattle HR Collective MeetUp series, a joint venture between uniquely HR and Recruiting Bandwidth to create and facilitate a new forum for Seattle area HR leaders to build community, develop new skills and elevate the overall standing of the HR function. The Seattle HR Collective is a startup-friendly HR community that provides professional development beyond the basics of HR including networking opportunities and sharing of best practices, with the help of local business and HR leaders as guest speakers.

In order to tackle the larger problem of HR’s standing within corporations, we invited local business giant Peter van Oppen (Trilogy Partnership, former CEO and Chairman of Advanced Digital Information Corporation, and more) to discuss his perspective on what earns HR a seat at the table and what differentiates a strong HR leader from a mere process police officer. When the first words that come out of his mouth are, “I may end up offending some of you…”, you know that you’re in for an informative (if not provocative) evening. We were not disappointed.

Are you an HR Person or a Business Person Who Specializes in People?

Peter is a roamer—refusing to sit in the sofa chair provided for the MeetUp and instead favoring a deliberate sort of wandering punctuated by quick jokes and large physical gestures. Being married to a retired HR executive affords him a unique perspective on the trials of human resources, one that might not be easily discovered by a successful businessman like him. After a brief introduction Peter jumped right into an improvised speech more reminiscent of a lecture from a beloved and engaging MBA professor than a scripted TED Talk speaker.

“Raise your hand if you consider yourself an HR person…” He asked right off the bat, watching with an amused glint in his eye as the majority of the 45-member audience raised their hands. “Trick question—you’re all business people.”

Obvious perhaps, but many human resource professionals view themselves as just that, finding little room to grow outside of the HR pigeonhole. Some never ask the question. Whether from a lack of desire to reach the higher levels of an organization or working for a place that doesn’t value human resources, the fact of the matter is that HR often gets a bad rap, one that can be hard to shake.

What Problem are You Solving?

Peter recommended changing your mindset, both about yourself as a businessperson and about what place HR deserves within an organization. If you believe the primary function of HR is to police and facilitate a necessary process, you’re thinking like a drone, not like a leader. To be a great business leader you must understand what problems the business is trying to solve, and understand the cross functional perspectives of the business problems to be solved — marketing, finance, product, and how it all works together. That’s how you can make a difference – by building a people strategy that solves the current and future business challenges. It’s critical that you recognize the importance of what you do, tie every initiative to a business outcome and avoid working in a vacuum.

Once you begin to view yourself and your department as an essential piece of the pie, the next step is to arm yourself with as much relevant industry information as possible to expand your breadth of knowledge and have something to show for it. This goes beyond simply understanding the ins-and-outs of departmental organization charts—a true HR leader is one who keeps themselves up to date with the local and national industry trends. They’re the type of people who are curious about what makes their execs stay up at night, who seek to uncover what the business leaders are actually thinking about or trying to solve.

You need to “get it” in the way that the acknowledged leaders do, maybe even better than they do. It may be uncovering the next great diamond-in-the-rough leader and assisting in their development, or pinpointing a gaping hole in an otherwise sound recruitment process, but you must never underestimate your own importance to the future and success of your organization. Don’t be invisible to leadership. Peter suggests you come in at odd hours (this may be controversial especially for working parents), volunteer for opportunities outside your department, make you and your role as a business professional as visible as possible. Sometimes you need to demand attention, and valuing your own growth and potential is a good place to start.

The Importance of Culture Fit (Add) and EQ

Despite the combination of tools, products, and technologies they create, companies are still powered by people, and therein lies the essential power of HR: supporting and advancing the company by virtue of its people. When it comes to finding a new job, it pays to put emphasis on the corporate culture and the emotional intelligence of the company and leadership that represent it. In the end it’s company culture that is the greatest indicator of organizational health and inclusion.  Culture is defined by values.

But there are pitfalls to be found in the formation of culture. There are two types of problem people: those who don’t reach every goal but who get the culture, and those who consistently make every goal but don’t get the culture and foster a toxic relationship to their coworkers despite the quality of work. We believe a culture that supports HR is also the culture that fires the toxic employee over the one who gets along with the rest. Defending people who “leave bodies in the wake” should not be a core value.  If you want a spot at the table as an HR professional—by which I mean an ambitious business person—it is best to start at a company that clearly recognizes their human resources as a business function just as important as their product, finance, and other traditionally C-suite departments.

Once you’re in, hire well. Peter put a lot of stock into what he calls the Three Es: Energy, Excellence, and Experience. Great energy (and subsequent go-getter attitude) gets honed and channeled into excellence, and excellence will lead to great experience. While it’s easy for some not-so-savory issues to slip through the cracks, it’s important to note that it all starts with the right energy. The first priority is not excellence (criteria like degrees, technical expertise, or an admirable project portfolio), nor is it the most experienced people that hiring managers strive to hire. With the right energy and a supportive team, an individual can truly reach the level of excellence their potential deserves. Through energy and excellence, you can reach experience. So hire for energy, and search for it within your own or a prospective company. Excellence and experience come later.

Wait, how do I get a spot at the table?

It won’t happen overnight, but here are a few takeaways from the evening:

  • Define yourself as a business person, not an HR person
  • Develop intimate business knowledge, not just of your company but of the industry as a whole
  • Work with a cross-functional perspective
  • Be visible to leadership — be in the know, be seen, volunteer for opportunities
  • Assess the difference between the function of a person and their potential
  • Value yourself, and find a company that does


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