Five ways for HR to move up to top management

Don’t get left in the administrative ghetto, take the leap into the executive ranks.

Many HR managers feel that they are stuck in middle management levels and are unable to make the transition into senior executive ranks. Instead of advancing their careers, these HR practitioners continue to perform administrative, non-strategic functions for their organizations.

The clerical focus of HR is long out-dated. The best companies to work for ensure they create a strong link between human resources policies and corporate strategies.

Such organizations recognize the sustainable competitive advantage that comes from assembling and retaining employees with a high level of loyalty and commitment. The best companies develop these attitudes by providing staff with:

•meaningful incentives and recognition;

•flexible benefits;

•training (paid for by the company); and

•market-value remuneration.

All these issues fall within the domain of HR professionals. Clearly, corporate strategy and HR have become strongly linked, which represents the most significant advance in the HR profession in the past 25 years. Yet, why do so many HR practitioners continue to toil away in some administrative ghetto and feel cut off from the decisions being made in the executive suite?

The reason is a lack of business knowledge among human resources managers. According to a recent survey of HR professionals, conducted by Canadian business publisher Carswell, fewer than 40 per cent of HR professionals have any formal training in strategic corporate planning. This deficiency prevents HR professionals from positioning themselves as value-added partners to their organizations, and from moving into upper decision-maker roles.

The following is a five-step action plan for HR managers to get a foot in the door of the executive suite, develop influence throughout an organization, and gain the attention of their CEO.

1. Learn the business

HR practitioners often identify with their profession, rather than with the organization for which they work. At the start of a career, it is important to be recognized as an expert in the field of HR. To win executive-level recognition, HR practitioners must become an expert in an organization’s business.

If serious about career advancement, an HR practitioner needs to understand how the organization works. Find out the answers to questions such as: •Who are the best customers? •Who are the main competitors? •How is the product or service delivered?

•What are the latest financial results?

Listening to management is a good way to get started. Developing ties with successful departments in the organization will also extend business knowledge. Many HR managers need help learning how to analyze financial reports. This is an important skill so do not put it off. It is all part of learning to speak the language of the business, a proficiency needed to advance.

2. Learn how to do

strategic planning

An effective corporate strategy that is put into action is a key to any organization’s profitability and growth. HR professionals need to develop the ability to contribute to an organization’s strategy development process.

Understanding business models, recognizing common roadblocks to implementing strategies, gaining expertise in planning and generating commitment to change within an organization are all skills that can be learned and practiced. This expertise is beyond the scope of entry-level HR programs and must be learned as an HR practitioner’s career advances. Practical knowledge about strategic planning is best gained through executive-level training, which allows experienced HR professionals to apply these new insights directly to their jobs.

3. Focus on HR issues

that concern the CEO

Each CEO and senior management team has a set of interests that an HR department should recognize, and then align its activities to. Taking this perspective will help the HR practitioner and department focus on the important, not just the urgent.

Management succession is often an issue of vital concern to an organization’s top decision-maker. An organization that is moving into a special market will require personnel with special skills. HR should play an important role ensuring that talent is available to meet the changing needs of an organization. This is a good way to begin taking a strategic approach to HR.

4. Align HR activities to the organization’s strategy

Every organization has a strategy. It may be growth by acquisition, operating as a low-cost producer, or providing a high-quality product or service. The strategy may be poorly communicated outside the executive suite. Learn to identify the business model that applies to the organization.

For example, if the company is making announcements about acquiring or merging with another organization, it signals that the HR department should begin preparing for co-ordinating salaries, benefits and rewards across a newly expanded operation. By extending HR activities to encompass such organization-wide issues, HR managers will add value and gain influence with upper management.

5. Develop and communicate meaningful HR strategies

Eighty-six per cent of HR professionals who responded to the recent Carswell survey believe it is very important to adopt a strategic partner role in organizations, yet only 20 per cent of the respondents say this actually happens.

To narrow this gap, HR practitioners must educate their CEOs and senior executives about the value of involving HR in the strategic planning process. This requires having the knowledge, confidence and proactive attitude to step up to the plate and propose solutions whenever issues arise requiring a strategic HR perspective.

David Bratton is president of London, Ont.-based Bratton Consulting Inc., which specializes in strategic HR and change issues. He is an instructor for the Advanced Program in Managing Strategic Change at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and author of Best Practices in Human Resource Strategy, published April 2001 by Carswell. He can be reached at (519) 679-2774 or

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