A global pandemic has been the catalyst for an ongoing focus on humanity, connectivity, health and wellbeing and navigating change at work. People & Culture professionals worked tirelessly in 2020 to deeply earn their seat at the table and must continue to lift in 2021.

Beyond a Seat at the Table

For as long as we can remember, People & Culture has been fighting to get ‘a seat at the table’. The pinnacle conversation in HR stables is how hard it is to get that seat – probably right place, right time, or being a strong generalist or specialist that’s deeply commercial. To be honest, we should spend less time on that, and more time on ensuring we use the seat well.

Even though the language of ‘getting a set at the table’ sounds active, the issue is passivity. We’ve often been invited to the table, as a pleasantry or to do the right thing, or with some hope for delivery, but let’s not sugar coat it. These invitations have come with very low expectations placed on that seat.

Historically, the biggest People & Culture seat has NOT been as valuable as other C-Suite roles. Lower salaries compared to C-Suite peers, perhaps an indirect reporting line to the Chief Operating Officer, not the Chief Executive Officer, and almost certainly no recognition as a Key Management Personnel.

This is pretty wild when you consider that people drive everything in your business. Sure, us humans are voluntary, we impact each other in many ways, we are often irrational, and emotional. When faced with grief, loss, uncertainty, societal issues, racial injustice – we’ll act in a deeply human way. Having People know-how at the table is deeply important to navigate through those waters and build forward momentum too.

These same people can and will collectively create your success – they are only uncapped, unlimited part of your business. And these humans can and will grow, morph, evolve, solve, create – if you give them the right culture and support to do so.

Perhaps the issue before 2020 has been an inability for us to consistently articulate the value of our seat at the table. We’ve all seen it, felt it. That role that pops up outside of HR in the business that’s notoriously like an Organisational Design role you’ve been trying to get over the line. The learning budget hidden in a finance line item run by the Head of Sales to get people the capability they need for the future. And more.

So, here are a few of our observations on what great People & Culture folks did in 2020 (and have been doing long before that too).

How did the best of People & Culture shine in 2020?

They didn’t pretend or profess to know everything.

It pains us to say it, but People & Culture (well, especially Human Resources) has a very mixed reputation. We’ve seen so many examples, across organisations, industries and people – where HR takes a holier-than-thou approach. HR has arrived to rescue leaders, to lift really low capability, to be sticklers on performance review completion rates, to police the rules. This often comes from People & Culture representatives that haven’t led themselves or have no capability in a particular area.

The true heart of the problem isn’t actually that lack of experience – the problem is mindset. A ‘holier than thou’ approach is professionally and organisationally damaging. People are genuinely receptive to leadership development, to growing their people and teams, to learning and growth, to supporting great contribution, but not if that comes via a know-it-all.

The best People & Culture in 2020 didn’t know it all.

Very few were an expert on pandemics, safety, grief, mental health, shifting societal expectations across Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging – racial injustice, social inequality, politics. They couldn’t cover all that and more single-handedly.

Not knowing it all was okay. Actually, it was a good thing. As long as they appreciated that societal expectations could never be decoupled from work again. To move forward, the best made space to learn with others. Focus came by bringing together disparate research, ideas, case studies and connected experiences to help navigate the people-side of COVID. They were thoughtful, deliberate, practical and ready to listen, yet unafraid to admit they don’t know it all.

They used their ears, more than their mouths.

When people dealt with loss and grief, work patterns changing (or furlough/stand-down or even redundancy), or big societal issues at the front of our collective minds, the best HR folks did one thing. They listened.

Well, okay they did a little bit more. They got a conversation going in the moment (not after people moved past the moment themselves), they asked questions as and only if needed, and they used their ears.

And this fed into part one – not professing to know everything. This meant, they showed a willingness to learn, they listened, they acted.

They role modelled flexibility – not just flexible work patterns, in approaching everything. They balanced democracy with leadership.

When the best People & Culture professionals acted, they went beyond flexible work patterns, to apply pragmatism to everything. They deeply understood the criticality of business continuity plans, and they knew that this was a black swan event. The best laid plans for the worst situations were actually a little too rosy for the reality we were now faced with.

In banking and finance, models are made with assumptions and are stress tested. They predict, more data is added, and then the model evolves.

That is similar to what great People & Culture professionals did. Where are we at, what is the new data, what are the various interests, risks, assumptions – and how do we  refine the model. To shift how we work,  keep people safe, keep the operation running, contain costs, to pivot.

They worked hard to connect with people in their organisation at all levels – for any and no reason at all.

Sure, People & Culture helped think about whether it should be Zoom or Teams or Slack or Hangouts or another platform to get things done along with others.

More importantly though, irrespective of job title, level, or pay grade, nothing in 2020 echoed great People & Culture like an HR person calling anyone in the organisation just chat. No agenda. Not fishing for information. Without causing the other person angst. Just connecting and listening to individuals, human to human. And connecting them with others. Ultimately, that connector role is so inherently valuable, but is often overlooked and unseen. Too often unplayed. But that connectivity is a big part of Culture, as is facilitating the belonging of others.

The best could read what’s happening. A new hire settling in during a really tough period.  An experienced person being drawn on more than ever before. A young employee getting a new lesson on resilience. All valid, all worthy of time.

Take 2021 with both hands. Always forward.

So, the advice we have for 2021 is so simple. This article is written with a People & Culture lens, but it could just say Humans. Whatever 2021 holds, we’ve been given a new opportunity to shine, and a new expectation to do so.

That doesn’t mean just showing up, putting our feet under the desk (whether it’s in an office, a factory, at home, on the road) and just focusing on our role, it is about actually turning up. For each person. The purpose. For the organisation.

The role of People & Culture has earned a seat at the table – it is essential, and we must start sharing its significance more effectively. Not better marketing, but through continuously better action.

To end, we know that every member of the mwah. community reading this, whatever their job title, has a deep interest in People & Culture, and the impact of both. To organisations, the economy, community, society. We know each of you will continue to take 2021 with both hands, and we look forward to doing that together.

Let’s go.