Stepping Up To Get a Seat: Reaching for the Brass Ring

Libby Sartain, one of the most respected leaders in HR, is retiring. As the past head of HR for both Southwest Airlines and Yahoo her interviews are filled with some very good advice to aspiring HR professionals. One such interview was published by WorkForce magazine in an article entitled Seats at the Table, but Who’s Ready? The article starts out “When it comes to the long-sought “seat at the table” for HR leaders, Libby Sartain sees both good news and bad. Sartain, who sits on the board of directors at retailer Peet’s Coffee & Tea, notes that human resource leaders are increasingly joining such boards—a clear sign of growing clout for the profession. But she notices a dearth of HR practitioners who are prepared for top jobs in the field.” (Emphasis is mine.)

So if you are one of those HR practioners that is clamoring to have your “seat at the table” how do you get prepared? Well one way is to have a boss/mentor who prepares you through education and example. But many of us don’t have that opportunity. So how do we get it?

The answer is VOLUNTEER to serve on the Boards of community groups. Many community service groups are always looking for people to serve on their boards. They need people, they need expertise, they need different points of view, they need different contacts, basically they need help. Many would find a human resources perspective especially valuable when it comes to involvement with people decisions, such as hiring directors.

What do you get out of it? A valuable learning experience. You get out of the rut of your day-to-day. You see the decision-making process of a board in action. You learn about the financial operations of a group, an experience most HR people have sorely missed in their experience. You learn negotiation skills and you have the opportunity to lead. If capable, and you want it, you can step up and take on the Chair role of the organization. This truly gives you leadership experience you may not have the opportunity to get in your job. I have had the opportunity to work with several groups, a symphony orchestra board, a Rotary Club, and a Leadership Alumni group. I learned something every time.

Can it be time consuming? Sure, there will be trade-offs you have to make. Might you be asked to do some fundraising? Probably, but that in itself is a great experience for HR to have. ALL HR people should know something about raising money and being “salesy.” Volunteering on a board is not for the vaint of heart or the lazy, but it is well worth the experience. It is what will help you get into that strategic, decsion-making HR leadership position.

The “Brass Ring” of strategic HR leadership is out there you just have to lean a little further to get it. And if you are not willing to “put up” to get there then shut up. Keep your day-to-day role and your 8 to 5 and don’t complain when the go-getter ends up as your boss.

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