Table Talk

Business conversations are chock full of metaphors.

Bosses “punt” when they decide to give up on a costly, failed project. When a situation requires everyone’s full attention, it needs “all hands on deck” or the boss “puts on the full-court press.”

But the metaphor most often used in HR has to be the “seat at the table.”

In every organization, the story goes, there’s a table, whether it’s a physical or a virtual one, where the important players gather to make the big decisions. It’s where business gets done, strategies are set, tactics discussed and careers made.

Presumably, seated around this table are the who’s who of organizational power players — the CEO, CFO, the heads of key business units, sales leaders and marketing bosses. Everyone who’s anyone is there but, to hear HR talk about it, more often than not there’s no seat for HR. When it comes to having pull, HR sees itself as a lightweight.

This is ironic because while this discussion is going on among HR professionals about how to get a seat at the table, HR has never been more qualified to be there. I’d wager the number of highly qualified, highly skilled HR professionals is greater than it has ever been.

According to the HR Certification Institute, a nonprofit group that certifies the skills of HR professionals, more than 130,000 people now hold industry-recognized HR certifications. That includes more than 74,000 people who have achieved the PHR, the primary certification for HR professionals, and more than 53,000 who have secured the Senior Professional in HR level.

What’s more, the academic study of people management has blossomed. Since Cornell University launched one of the first college degrees in what was then called industrial relations in 1945 and then a master’s degree program in 1950, scores of universities have set up rigorous programs focused on developing qualified, capable and competent HR managers. Further, it’s not uncommon to see HR leaders among the student bodies of prestigious academic MBA programs at Harvard, Dartmouth and Duke.

It’s not a matter of competency, knowledge of the business or lack of experience that is holding HR back. What it’s really about is confidence.

Don’t get me wrong. There is still plenty of room for HR to develop deep insight into the business and critical expertise in broader business competencies such as finance, marketing and risk management. But that aside, the greater challenge is developing confidence: confidence in the value HR brings to the table; confidence to engage other leaders in important business conversations; confidence to stake out a position and persuade others to see the wisdom of it.

But confidence is tricky. For some — many of them the most successful leaders — it comes naturally. These lucky people seem to have been born with a deep sense of self-esteem and project an aura that suggests that they know the best way forward, and despite whatever setbacks may come, they’ll get us where we want to go.

But the more interesting people are the ones who come by their confidence the hard way — through deep study, concerted effort and consistent expertise development. Think of the accountant who knows the numbers so well that he or she doesn’t need to refer to a spreadsheet, or the finance person whose ability to apply sophisticated financial modeling boggles the mind, or the marketing guru whose customer studies are so thorough and compelling that what to do seems crystal clear. This kind of confidence isn’t simply innate — it can be learned.

With the increasing sophistication of talent management practice and the data and tools to back it up, there’s no reason we can’t bridge the confidence gap that holds us back and get that coveted seat at the table. There are juicy business problems that we’re needed to solve. Do we have the right people in place to carry out strategy? Where is performance slipping and why? What skills do leaders need to develop to lead not just now but 10 years from now?

Confidence to sit at the table and answer those questions comes with its just deserts. The other options are unappetizing. To borrow a metaphor I heard at a recent conference, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”