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How HR Can Get a Seat at the Strategic Table

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to get a seat at the strategic table, you need to be strategic!

I frequently hear that HR and talent leaders want a seat at the strategic table, and yet many wonder why they’re not asked to sit down. My quick analysis over the past 40 years of dealing with all types of executives can be simply summed up this way: … to get a seat at the strategic table, you need to be strategic! The reason every other person at the strategic table is seated there is because they’ve been strategic over the course of their careers.

With the idea of getting a seat at the table, here’s a great way HR and talent leaders can demonstrate they are strategic: throw out your existing hiring processes and start over by implementing a process that actually raises your company’s talent level, not just sustains it.

Implementing a business process that achieves this would be the ideal opportunity to demonstrate HR’s “strategicness.” The problem is that HR and talent leaders do exactly the opposite. Rather than improve quality of hire – which represents an awesome opportunity – they go out of their way to maintain their existing processes thinking that cost control and improved efficiency is a more important goal. I contend that most hiring process are designed to clone a company’s existing working, not improve it, and doing these things faster is not a strategy. Let me make my case, and you be the judge.

The graphic shown is a representation of a company’s workforce divided into three equal components from least best on the left to best of the best on the right. While the mid-point represents the average of the current company workforce, it’s likely a pretty high average.

When you look at how these groups were formed, however, an interesting story emerges that gets at the heart of my contention that companies go out of the way to maintain their current talent level, not improve it.

How the Bottom-third Got in the Bottom-third

People wind up in the bottom-third as a result of improper interviewing techniques, lack of clarity around real job needs, or changes in how their work is structured. Consider the many managers who overvalue technical skills and others who make instant judgments on first impressions or their intuition. Into the bottom third add the people who don’t fit the job, can’t work with the hiring manager or don’t fit the culture. Most HR and talent leaders focus on minimizing these kinds of mistakes, which is a good thing, but it’s a tactical initiative, not a strategic one.

Why the Middle-third is Like Gravity: It’s Hard to Break Free from the Status Quo

The middle-third is comprised of people who first pass through the skills, experiences, academics and industry filters and also fall within a pre-determined compensation range. Those who don’t meet these conditions on either the high or low side (too much or too little) are quickly eliminated from consideration. There are a lot of great people who get excluded this way, which is a strategic mistake. However, more cloning goes on during the interview as the “pre-filtered” people are then evaluated on their personality, first impression and possession of generic competencies, which is another strategic mistake. Most of the candidates hired this way are typically found through job postings or via outbound emails sent to people who meet the “skills, etc.” filters. This is the third strategic mistakes, since to raise the talent bar you need to recruit in the full talent market.

Collectively, this is what I suggest is a “maintain the status quo” tactical process that precludes the hiring of diversity candidates, great people who don’t fit the expected mold, high potential candidates who by definition are light on experience, and returning military veterans. The problem is that most HR and talent leaders focus much of their efforts on doing these things more efficiently and at a lower cost. Maintaining the current quality level while avoiding mistakes is a tactical initiative, not a strategic one. But its like gravity: it’s hard to pull away from years of inertia and systemized processes.

Although Hiring the Top-third is Strategic and Important, It’s Also Difficult

As this survey reveals, and most people know, those employees who wind up in the top-third typically got there via an internal promotion or they were referred or hired by a former co-worker. Some were passives candidates placed by a strong recruiter working in close partnership with a hiring manager. Few responded to job postings. More significantly, many, including 100% of the people who got promoted, didn’t have the exact skills and experiences listed on the public job description. In most cases, the decision to hire those who form the top-third was based on their past performance and future potential rather than their current level of skills and experiences.

It’s hard to dispute the fact that hiring the top-third on a consistent basis has huge short- and long-term competitive advantages for any company. It’s also quite challenging to do on a regular basis and, as this video points out, it’s easy to make legal and business excuses why it can’t be done.

Getting better at maintaining the status quo and avoiding mistakes is not a strategy. Creating and implementing a hiring and recruiting process to raise the talent level is a worthy strategy and there is no question that whoever leads this effort will get an invitation to the strategic table.

Long ago, as a rookie financial analyst at a Fortune 50 company, I remember the CEO lambasting a group president who missed his profit plan by saying, “Strategy drives tactics, not the other way around. So you’d better come up with a better strategy real quick.” It’s a good lesson for anyone who wants to make a big difference.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He’s also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn’s Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.