Parting Pearls of Wisdom

[Editor’s note: This is Sue’s final HR Leadership column. We here at HRE thank her for using her distinctive voice to share her perspective and insights in the almost 60 columns she’s produced over the past seven years.]

Earlier this year, I realized something while doing some overdue electronic housekeeping. By reviewing months of emails all at once, I had a better perspective on the nature of the emails coming and going through my inbox. I now had a much better metric of where and how I was dedicating my time and attention.

And here’s the thing: I saw that I’m spending a lot less time on HR-related activities and I’m spending a lot more time on non-HR-related activities. I’m serving on nonprofit boards and engaged in other volunteer work as well as spending more time with friends, family and traveling.

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I realized that while the HR profession – and more particularly, HR professionals – have owned a piece of my heart for so many years, I’m not giving them the time and attention that I think they deserve.

Simply stated, it’s time for me to move on.

So, after decades working with and for the HR profession, and with thanks to the editorial staff at HR Executive magazine for being such a pleasure to work with, I’ll share some final advice on being an effective HR leader.

First, please stop asking for “a seat at the table.”

Can we all agree to just ban that clause from any discussion about the profession? It’s like nails on a chalkboard for me. “Asking for a seat” is the wrong question.

The question you should be asking is “How can I add value and become essential to my organization?”

No one owes you a seat at any table. It’s earned.

How do you earn that coveted seat? As I’ve written before, I think it’s the Four Cs.

Be competent.

This means knowing the body of knowledge that’s required to be in the HR profession, and being able to use that knowledge effectively within an organization. Certifications and competency models can help you confirm that you have the knowledge required and the ability to use it effectively.

But HR competency alone isn’t enough. Being competent also means understanding the language of business, understanding how your organization makes money and knowing where your industry is headed. It means paying attention to and understanding the social, demographic, economic, technological and political forces that will impact your business.

Gaining competency isn’t the end goal. It’s the journey you should always be on.

Be curious.

If gaining competency is a journey you should always be on, curiosity is one tool you should be using on the journey. Curious people are always learning because they’re always asking questions, reading up on topics outside their field of expertise and generally exploring.

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If you’re curious, you’re more likely to ask about the challenges your external and internal customers face. It will help you gain a deeper understanding of their challenges and better equip you to help them meet those challenges. It will make you a better HR professional.

Be courageous.

I believe that the most successful HR professionals are the ones who have courage. This means the courage to speak up if you think your peer or CEO is about to make a strategic – or legal – error. It means the courage to present alternative options when you believe important options are being overlooked. It means taking the side of an employee, rather than a manager, when the employee has been mistreated, even if the manager is a star salesperson. It means having the courage to walk away from an organization when you know the organization’s leadership is unethical and unwilling to change.

Competency is a magnifier of courage because it’s a lot easier to be courageous when you know your profession. Someone with courage, but lacking competence, will be ignored.

Be caring.

Focusing on the business shouldn’t come at the expense of caring for the people who work there. If you really don’t care about people (“It would be a great job if it wasn’t for those pesky employees … “) you’ll never be a very successful HR professional.

Great HR professionals care about the business and the people. They recognize and understand that taking care of employees is ultimately taking care of the business. It also shapes and defines the person you see in the mirror every day.

But in addition to the Four Cs, you should be proud of what you do. Never be apologetic about the importance of your role within an organization. The HR profession has changed business, changed society and changed the lives of millions of people around the world. HR has helped make workplaces safer, fairer, healthier, more humane and more diverse. HR has helped employees learn and grow and reach their full potential.

Be proud of your role in this profession. It’s a great way to spend a career.

Susan R. Meisinger
Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources. She can be reached at [email protected].