Owning a Seat at the Table: A Supercharged Webinar for HR Professionals

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Presented by

Paul Swain - Guest

Paul Swain - Guest

Principal Consultant at Ultimate People

Paul is the Principal Consultant at Ultimate People. Paul has spent over 20 years in the HR profession across multiple industries in Europe, Asia and Australia, the last 10 of which were spent as the HR Leader for household name businesses in Australia.
Jonathan Englert - Host

Jonathan Englert - Host

Founder at Andiron Group

Jonathan is a noted communications strategist and journalist specialising in disruptive technology with experience in HR and innovation culture. He is currently finishing a PhD at the University of Sydney which seeks to better define the ingredients behind technological invention and the communication of ideas.

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Webinar Overview

The Big Picture

During Covid, HR was often leaned upon to address existential questions, such as can we open or not? In doing so, HR established a strong position at the executive table however it is prudent to highlight that this relatively new position may be perceived as a tactical, time-bound appointment rather than a strategic, ongoing role by others within the Executive Team.

 So how do we maintain and leverage this central position in the business?

During this Webinar, we will dig into what being a business partner means at the executive level. We know it means listening and supporting good commercial objectives, but it demands more than this. Owning a seat at the table means seeing the whole of the business and delivering outcomes as that bridge between the people & the business.

Join us for a very rich discussion about how to effectively navigate away from some of the misperception out there about the true strategic value HR professionals can bring.

What We’ll Discuss

  • We explore what it means to own a seat at the Executive table.
  • Bridging that gap with communication to your Executive table peers.
  • Being a business partner by listening to what your business needs to succeed today and tomorrow.
  • Delivering on metrics and business objectives to drive a successful workforce.

We look forward to this interactive discussion & debate and bring along your questions for Q&A.

Welcome everyone to Ability Map’s first webinar of 2023, owning a seat at the table. My name is Jonathan Engler. I’ll be your host today. I’m a journalist by training with a focus on disruptive technology and people and culture. I’m very pleased to have the chance to speak with our guest. Paul Swain is an HR leader with years of experience across some of the most recognizable brands.

In multiple regions, including HR leadership roles at Christian Dior and DIMMs Hall now applies all that experience as principal consultant of ultimate people helping HR leaders grow both professionally for their own careers and also so they can unlock the benefit for the organizations they work for.

Today we’ll be digging into what being an HR leader means. Now, Paul hasn’t been afraid to court controversy. Challenge some long held assumptions about the role of HR leaders, especially around the notion of getting a seat at the executive table. Paul, welcome. Can you kick us off by talking just a little bit about the idea of getting a seat at the table?

What that actually means, in your opinion or what it should mean. Yeah, sure. Seat gets talked about all in.

HR complains a lot about the seat at the table and I guess where to use your language about quite controversy around that. My response to that a lot of the time has been you don’t get your seat at the table because you don’t deserve it. And what we’re really talking about is where the HR function or the people function, or however you choose to describe it, just doesn’t really influence the organization.

Doesn’t get a really well recognized say in the way things are done of that is. And the reason for that is one of our own making. So yeah, the, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of talk in our profession around I don’t get a seat at the table and the C-suite don’t understand and so forth and so on.

And my response to that is That’s on you. You can’t go around blaming the rest of the world for why you can’t cut through and why you’re not successful. And and I don’t think the HR profession at large loves that response to it because it, it all of a sudden makes us real accountable real fast.

So yeah, I guess that’s where the controversy come from, Jonathan. This is not a hopeless situation, right? There are ways to cut through and when we were doing our pre-brief, I think one of the things that jumped out at me was you think a lot about this idea of passivity and then versus being active enough.

So what do you mean by not being active enough or support versus leading? I. Yeah. Yeah, that’s a, and that’s a really good point to pick out, Jonathan, is there’s a real passivity trap in hr. And that is the, there are many functions, and I’m actually working with some HR teams and their leaders right now around the way they see their role in the organization.

And if you approach. Your function and your role as a HR lead that you are there to support the business, then that’s what the business will look for from you. And to me, that makes you a tier two function and it makes you a tier two part of the leadership team. It’s no good positioning yourself by saying People are on the sharp edge of the business, are making all decisions and doing all the hard we’re.

Sort of with their rise miles, thinking about times when they’ve been in that situation where, even by strategy, HR functions have said we’re not here to tell you what decision you can or can’t make. You make the decision and we’ll support you in that. And that’s absolute rubbish.

It’s not what organizations are looking for. It’s definitely not what CEOs and leaders are looking for. You don’t let people fall into traps and then help them dig their way out of it. You’ve gotta, you’ve gotta be strong and take the lead and be decisive and and lead the organization. And wherever you are, a passive will support you.

We’re here to help. A function. I’m not saying don’t support people. I’m not saying don’t help them, but what I’m saying is if that’s the only way people see you, you’ll be back in the dark recesses of the boardroom real fast because you don’t bring value in that way. Not at the top level.

Yeah. And one of the things that you, you drew or draw a connection to in your thinking around this, how this ended up being, is that the focus. Oftentimes it was on risk management. Can you elaborate on that? On how that Yeah. How that became a sort of foundation? Yeah. And this is a really important one to understand.

So one of the things that I’ve been really interested in since leaving the employed world and trying to enable HR leaders to, to get more success through their people is,

The commerciality of what you do. And this is where the I think this is what separates HR leaders the good from the bad is HR leaders who are commercially successful, truly commercially successful, are the ones who are driving the business forward are, but I don’t know that comes naturally.

So if you look at my generation of HR leaders, so you know, probably. The vast majority of large organizations would have somebody of my sort of vintage running them. And the way you got yourself up to that lead role in HR really was by being a good risk manager. The business in the earlier parts of your career would the business and the profession would value.

Your risk management, your industrial relations knowledge, your paying conditions execution capability and your compliance around that, and it, and you get more and more conditioned to be a great risk manager. And at heart, HR professionals are great risk managers. The challenge is you reach a stage in that career where you have to go, okay, my risk management capability is really just a.

If we have more and better policy management, we don’t generate more business by doing that. We’re not really more profitable by doing that. And I know you can have puristic arguments that say sure if we manage, if we improve our instant reporting for accidents, then we’ll be a little bit more efficient.

And if you’re a little bit more efficient, you sell a little bit more stuff, sure. But you can’t really take that to the executive table and say, this is where I’m bringing value. You’ve gotta hang yourself out there and say, if we want to be a more capable organization, we need these skills in this place, in this time, and as a consequence, we’ll generate more business.

And that means we have to invest it, not spend money on overhead. And then I’ll demonstrate what a great. Professional I am by managing costs down. Managing costs down doesn’t get you very far. Managing revenue up gets you a really long way, and that’s what the business is looking for. That is what your c e O is looking for.

That is how you will gain credibility with your C-Suite colleagues because the ones that around that C-suite table performing highly are the ones that are driving the business forward and just way, way too. The HR lead is not in amongst all that. They’re giving the great examples of how they negotiate settlements down, and they saved a few thousand dollars here and a few thousand dollars there.

And then the marketing director goes, we’re gonna spend $10 million on an advertising campaign, and it’s gonna generate a hundred million dollars in revenue, and blah, blah, blah. And the person alongside you goes, Great. Thanks for your example of the few thousand dollars you saved as hr.

We’ve spent more than that on the leadership team’s wages, listening to your example, but it’s where too many HR professionals are comfortable because just so comfortable in risk management, but being a good risk manager is only a ticket to play. It’s not where high performances. Yeah. And I remember you, you had a striking phrase, which is, risk is invisible, and then it makes me think, but you need to get the runs on the board.

And the runs are very visible. So could you, if someone is caught in that space, if an HR professional is caught in a, in that, that, that space of not almost being invisible what are some of the things that could help you break out of that of that? Yeah I think that’s a great question.

And we, I can see in the q and a, we’ve got a question that is similar to that, asking for an example of the question is can you give a strong commercial proposition that you’ve seen people and culture, HR lead that drives business performance and strategic enablement? And the answer to that?

So the example that I. Because people understand it is around the retail sector, and the only reason I do it is because retail’s a really simple thing to understand. Doesn’t matter what you do in your profession, you’ll always understand the retail example, right? Because we all go to lots of shops and we all understand that a retail business buys or makes things over here.

Sells them over here for more than the cost of making or buying the overhead and vastly.

What you would understand is this, if you, the non-commercial stuff that we then do that doesn’t demonstrate a return is, we put employee technology in that makes the onboarding process more more streamlined and that saves costs and that’s great and everybody wants to put technology. But if I’m running a retail business, what I’m gonna say is, It’s about performance through people.

So if you understand that as the owner of the people stakeholder, if you are the HR league, you own people in the business, and that means you own that performance and every dollar in every business, in every market. I see we’ve got people from various different countries on this call. This is country agnostic, market agnostic, market condition agnostic is.

People generate every dollar that comes into your business. So putting the best performing people with the right skills in the right place with the right incentive and the right reward really matters. So if you’ve got, if I’ve got a hundred retail shops and I take my best. Store manager, and put them in my worst performing store.

And I ask this question all the time because it’s my go-to. How quickly do you think that underperforming store performance will turn around? And everybody’s answer is, couple of weeks, two weeks, three weeks, a month. And that’s because people change performance vastly more quickly and more than anything else.

And you want a better profit, sure you can bring your overhead down, but it’s slow and it’s marginal. And yeah, maybe you can improve the cost of your supply chain, but it’s slow and it’s marginal. You wanna perform better, create more revenue, and it is your people that will get you there. So where’s the difference between cost and investment and fancier and better policies is cost.

Training, hiring top talent, understanding what talent means in your business and. Having a better induction process. So your speed to competence from higher to competent and performing is faster. They are all things that if you know where to go look for the data in your organization, you can prove it.

You can prove the return on your investment, and every time you prove return on investment, you get more investment. If you are the marketing director, and for every $10 million you spend, you generate 70, 80, $90 million of revenue. You just need to be the people version of that. That’s really interesting and it sounds to me like if someone is caught in that sort of early version trap of that you’ve talked about, the passivity trap.

Are you suggesting pick one area of the business really? That you could show that movement, you could show that achievement. You’ve gotta know where to look, Jonathan and an experience. His experience, HR lead knows where to look. Now, initially, you’re probably gonna start lifting a few stones until you find the right thing.

You’ve gotta understand what your business does, and you’ve gotta understand it pretty well. You’ve gotta understand the commercials and you’ve gotta get there fast. If you are not as capable around the finances and the p and l, if you are not capable around the p l as the C, You are not gonna get anywhere.

Anywhere. You’ve gotta know where to look in whatever your respective business is. And I say that coming from experience. I’ve worked in, I have worked in the retail profession, I’ve worked in financial services, I’ve worked in telecommunications, worked in software, I’ve worked in outsourcing.

I’ve worked in horticulture, commercial property. I’ve worked in a whole bunch of industries, and it’s always the same. You’ve gotta understand how the business. Makes its money, and then what people’s contribution is to that. And there are a few things that you don’t need to be a HR professional to understand.

If I’ve got, if I understand what performance means in my business and I can raise the performance of individuals, then we drive more revenue. If I can’t. Do that, then I need to put in the right people with the right skills. I’ve gotta be a better hire. I’ve gotta understand what talent means in our organization.

Got you. Gotta understand the strategy of the business to see where it’s going so I understand what skills will need further down the road, et cetera, et cetera. So what you can’t do is cheat your way through understanding the business. If you’re not capable of understanding the business, again, you don’t deserve your seat at the table.

You’ve gotta be able to have an educated discussion with. The marketing campaigns and the c f O about the finances and so forth and so on, and they ought to have enough education to, to have a, a reasonable discussion with you about the performance of people. I want to just bring it back to something that you’ve said I think many times, which is that the HR leader then needs to listen to the business.

So how do you go about listening? I coach and mentor HR directors or those that are one step away from being a HR director and trying to figure out what they need to look like to get hired into a HR director role and piece of advice that. Newly appointed HR directors or somebody that’s moving after a long time in an organization is you need to go on a listening tour of the business.

Politicians do this when they first get elected, the first thing they do is go on a listening tour, if you will. And that’s what you need to do. You’ve gotta go and have a look around the business and initially accept that you don’t know everything. Even if you’re within a sector, if you’ve gone from.

One horticulture business to another. The way they do things and their objectives and whatnot will be quite different. The advantage that you bring once you start to gain an understanding of the business, the advantage HR professionals have is that people are always people no matter where you go, no matter what the.

Culture of the country Now. I’ve lived in several countries now and diversely different countries, grew up in the uk cut my teeth there. But then I lived in Malaysia for a while, which was a Muslim country. And one of the things that I learned actually was. When people go looking for difference, they find it.

But when you go looking for similarity, you find it because no matter the organization, the culture, the country, the market conditions, people want to know where they stand. They need feedback. They want to know what you expect of them. They want good objectives. They want treating with a level of humanity and all your skills around.

Knowledge around diversity and inclusion, or how to manage risks, or how to incentivize performance, or how to pay people accurately and on time, or how to keep them safe. You adjust it a bit by industry and business, but really your cost, skill and knowledge set, you just take the vast majority of it with you and you would adjust it to the circumstance.

Yeah that, that makes sense. And so it really is an immersion and then in knowing your people, right? I suspect. Are there strategies for doing that that, that fit with your overall strategy of earning this seat at the table? We’ve got question that I think circles back to that idea of the listening tour and I just read it quickly.

The respondent says, always goes out into the field with sales and marketing manufacturing sites, wanna join a new organization. Yeah. But are you suggesting, Paul, that HR folks focus on sales first to learn the business? Or is there another function specifically you’d suggest?

And then what about partnering with the C F O? How does that, that roll in? So it’s part about knowing how the business does what it does. How do we if that sounds like a retail business, so executing what they’re doing in store, but you’ve gotta understand how that retail, what that retail business cares about.

As a great example, if you are Rolex or Ferrari, your retail business is not about selling more stuff. They already sell everything they manufacture. It’s a, so you’ve gotta understand what the business cares about. Because you’ve gotta align what people do behind what the business cares about.

Yeah. Yes. How do you get to learn the business? I think you go out and experience as much of the business as you can. You don’t need a detailed understanding of how every job gets done. You can have a team working with you anyway, and the further down the org chart of the HR function you get, your business partners and then and so on.

They’re gonna have a really good understanding and if they don’t get them out and get them a really good understanding real fast. That question, Paul? Sorry. The function, but the fun, the specific function, if there was one function, would, do you have a suggestion on what that function would be that you would want to.

No, it depends on the business. Is that right? And I don’t think you should, right? Yeah. Yeah. I think you need to have a good sense of all the functions there. I would always prioritize the C F O, right? Because this is a commercial and professional endeavor, so it doesn’t matter, even in a nonprofit, you still gotta generate revenue, right?

So you’ve gotta figure out how the business makes money, and I think you would do that. Stop thinking about function and I, again, I, this is how I coach CEOs actually, is to stop thinking about function and start thinking about stakeholder. So you’ve only got three stakeholders in a business. You only have shareholders, somebody owns and benefits from the revenue of the business.

You have customers because somebody pays you to do what you do. And you always have people, this chief people officer or the C H R O, whatever you wanna call it, Stakeholder. Okay. Why important Learn when you learn. How it does business, how it generates revenue, that’s customer. And you’re trying to understand how you make money from that.

And that’s shareholder, so that’s usually gonna be your C F O and your, I don’t wanna call it a chief customer office and nobody calls it that, but sometimes it’s a C o, sometimes it’s a head of sales, whatever it is. Or understand what the business does what customers get, and then how you make money from it.

And not enough hr. Not enough HR professionals do that ’cause they’re scared of it. Interesting. And so we actually have a fantastic follow up, which is flipping the script here and saying, do you have an example of how you do begin educating the executive leadership team about the importance and business impact of, of people practices, particularly contemporary people practices.

What, how do you do it? Yeah, so I, I think you, you have to. The bi, the business that you understand, its language and it’s, its language really is revenue and profit, right? And you’ve gotta demonstrate your commerciality. You’ve got to show how the things that you are going to do are going to drive the business forward.

And you’ve gotta be decisive in those things. So if you sit round a leadership team a C-suite board table or however you want to describe it and say, Hey everybody, this is how this business makes money. In order to make more of it, in order to grow in the way that we’ve said we want to grow or in order to, get more juice out of what we’re already doing.

This is the way we’re gonna make money through our people, and in order to do that, we need to focus our attention on this, and this. And, The best piece of advice I ever got given by A C E O actually was to say, we’re going to do this because it brings the most value and we’re not going to do these other things.

Not yet, they’re important, right? But whilst it feels good to create an internship program, I will you generate more business, will you drive the business forward as quickly as the business wants to By doing the internship program, and most of them are not really that r o i positive, the r o i on an internship program is probably negligible and they’re hard to set up.

But if I invest in sales training or I invest, if I invest in improving the performance management capability of my managers, or if we stop getting things that really frustrate our employees wrong, if X percent of our people leave because of this and they were bad losses because we didn’t want ’em to go, I’m just gonna fix that.

You’ve gotta demonstrate that you understand the business. And show that by fixing that problem or turning up an area of performance, really turning the heat up under something that matters, then you will, you’ll drive the business forward. Had this conversation yesterday with a HR leader. They had identified that short service attrition, so people leaving after a short time after joining.

Was really killing their business. So most of the people who left quickly after they joined, if you go sit around the C-Suite table and go, Hey, we’ve had a look at what’s going on in our business, new arrivals to our business, and you all know how hard it is to hire. You’ve all got vacancies in your team.

You all know it’s getting in the way of doing business. One of the biggest problems we’ve got is we can hire them. It just takes a while, but we don’t keep them. We need to do, we’ve understood why. What we need to do to fix it is this, and it’s worth millions to us because the cost of losing somebody, if the world tends to accept that the average cost of losing a good employee is about a hundred percent of their salary.

Go make that business case and only use 50%. Business case really weak, and then show what value it would bring by reducing attrition, by just putting a cost to it of 50% of the cost of the person’s wages. And in any business that’s got more than a couple of hundred people in it, it’s millions. You go sit around the exec team.

Table and say, this is what I’m spending to fix it and this is what it’s worth to us. You’ve just done exactly what the marketing director did. She said, we’re gonna spend this money and it’ll be worth this in revenue. And it’s interesting ’cause one of the, one of the attendees had this observation, which is that they’re seeing a need.

For a visibility into what the workforce can and cannot do well and how to better move them around or hire people who can. So that’s, that means keeping really a finger on the pulse in a way of your workforce in a way that, that you can really unlock their potential commercial potential for the business.

You’ve just flagging, sorry, I apologize, but I think flagging, we’re just ending we’re coming to the end, I believe. Yeah. And I just, I think on a final note, I was thinking that it’s always good to end on a hopeful note, and one of the things that in our pre-briefing session that struck me was it might seem obvious but here’s the question, but do CEOs and other execs actually want an HR leader to become this kind leader?

Even if they don’t understand that they want it? They absolutely want it. There is no doubt whatsoever. And when you talk to CEOs, The number that, the number of CEOs that intellectually understand that all the value in the business is its people. But what they don’t understand, and this is a whole webinar on its own about the career roots of CEOs, is they don’t understand how to get value out of people.

And they absolutely are looking for a HR leader or a people lead to unlock that for them. But you’ve got to understand it well enough to be able to take them on the journey. And you’ve got to show them how people drive revenue and that people are an investment, not a cost. You spend a lot of money on people.

You’ve gotta make more of that spend to be about an investment that you get a business and commercial return from. And if you are that person around the boardroom table, you are immensely valuable to the business and CEOs. They’re desperate for it. That’s that’s a great message.

And Paul, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Thanks everybody. Have a good rest of your day. And thank you, Paul. Thanks Jonathan, and thanks everyone for joining us from from all around the world. Absolutely. It’s great to have so many people from so many different places.

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