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Do you want to be the HR Leader or the “Payroll Lady”?

Do you want to be the HR leader?

Do you want to be the HR Leader or the “Payroll Lady”? That is the question I ask HR professionals during our executive coaching sessions. When I facilitate Strategic Planning sessions for community banks or credit unions, I wonder why many exclude the HR Director. I found out why.

When I inquire about it, the responses are typically similar. “Because one of the senior executives oversees HR” or “We don’t really have an HR leader, she processes payroll and benefits and handles the hiring and onboarding of new employees.” So, I dig in deeper and find out what exactly the “HR person” does for the organization. I find the majority of HR Directors are overwhelmed with the administrative tasks and don’t have time for anything else.

Employees are your most valuable asset.

Many (if not all) community banks and credit unions claim their employees are their biggest and most important asset. Yet their HR Director does not have a seat at the leadership table. I understand that not everybody can be part of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT). However, if institutions consider their employees to be their top priority, then the head of HR should be part of the SLT. In fact, some organizations recognize the need for the HR leader to report directly to the President or CEO. For some organizations, one of the SLT members also carries the title of HR Director. Then, in that case there is true representation of HR at the senior leadership level.

One of many hats I wore as the CFO/COO of the community bank I co-founded, was the HR Director. And before I hired an HR Assistant, I only had time to perform the administrative tasks. They included processing payroll, handling the benefits enrollment, and the hiring/firing, and onboarding functions. There was no time to do the “soft side” of HR which is my favorite—to develop our employees. We had no resources to implement a full Talent Management Program. However, I represented HR at the executive table and eventually, as the bank grew, the HR department grew as well.

Below are three key reasons HR professionals are not invited to the leadership table:

They don’t want to let go of the administrative tasks.

A great majority of HR Directors are women. It could be because they possess the nurturing talent that is needed in HR plus they have great administrative skills. They enjoy helping the employees and feel needed by them in various respects. Some may enjoy the control they have over the confidential knowledge and information they guard so closely. And although many of them are overwhelmed, when offered help by outsourcing HR they get defensive and say they can handle it.

They are not perceived as leaders.

Even though employees respect and value HR Directors, some may not be perceived as “leaderships material” by top leadership. Why? Because they continually focus on the day-to-day administrative tasks. They don’t have time to, or choose not to, focus on the long-term strategy of the institution. They need to demonstrate leadership ability and strategic thinking skills by asking the senior leaders questions such as:

  1. What are the long-term strategic objectives of the organization?
  2. What are your growth plans in your department for the next year?
  3. Are you in need of additional FTEs (Full-Time Equivalents)?
  4. Will you need my help in developing new job descriptions for new positions we don’t currently have?
  5. What challenges are you experiencing in your departments?
  6. How can I (or “we” if you have an HR department of more than one) help you develop your employees?

So, whether by choice or by circumstances which I understand, HR Directors get pigeon-holed in a job and don’t get promoted to senior leadership.

Do you want to be the HR Leader or the “Payroll Lady”?

I then go back to the original question to ask the HR Director. Do you want to be the HR Leader or the “Payroll Lady”? If you want to be an executive leader of the institution, then you will need to change your approach. If you don’t want to stop doing the everyday administrative activities, then that’s okay too. But don’t expect to be invited to the senior leadership team because they see you as the “payroll lady.” And let me clarify that there is nothing wrong with wanting to do the administrative side of HR. However, when you don’t let go of the administrative functions yet resent that you’re not included in leadership, then it creates an internal conflict you must address.

Once you make the choice to continue your HR career in the administrative side, then enjoy it fully and thrive doing so. You will need to be okay with the company hiring an HR Director who will oversee you as the leader of the department.

If you choose the leadership path, then here are some tips that will help you get there:

  • Communicate your desire to “lead HR” to your immediate manager and, if possible, to the President of the institution. You must be prepared to answer the questions: Why do you want to lead HR and what skills and leadership experience do you bring to the table?
  • Communicate that as the HR leader (the title does not matter as much as your actual role) you want to be part of the senior leadership team.
  • Create a plan to delegate the administrative functions by either outsourcing to an HR firm or by hiring an HR Assistant and other positions to grow the HR department. The size of your department will depend on how many employees you support.
  • Get an executive coach to help you transition from a support role to a leadership role. Sometimes, it may be hard to do so in an organization where you’ve been in the support role for a long time. You may have to make a move to a new company where everyone will see you as the HR leader from the start.
  • Develop your management skills and your leadership talent. Remember, managing is different than leading. Leaders share the vision and provide direction. Managers execute the vision and mission of the organization. The challenge is that you must be good at both.

Concluding Thoughts.

If you are reading this blog and you are part of the senior leadership team, I encourage you to invite your HR leader to the team. Give them a seat at the table. After all, your employees are your biggest asset. If you are reading this blog and you are the “HR person,” then I encourage you to first figure out which path you want to take in HR: the administrative/support path or the leadership path.

Once you’ve made the decision, then go for it. In either path you choose, you will be serving the employees of your company and both paths are honorable and fulfilling. Good luck on your journey!

Books by Marcia Malzahn