• Rita Trehan brings her hard-hitting business transformation message back to the UK

  • 22 Aug 2014
  • Comments 3 comments

“If you have to ask for a seat at the table, you don’t deserve one”

“I want to be provocative,” says Rita Trehan, as she contemplates her appearance at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition (ACE) in Manchester in November. It looks likely she will get her wish.

Challenging the assumptions of HR leaders has rapidly become a stock in trade for the “transformational expert”. A former HR director who began her career in her native London with Honeywell, Trehan moved to the US with energy giant AES in 2006 and overhauled its people practices (“it was like a $16bn start-up… there was absolutely no HR”) before becoming a consultant and speaker. At ACE, she will lead what is likely to be a hot-ticket session on “Reframing HR”. People Management heard her uncompromising thoughts first hand.

What’s your central message for HR professionals?

We’re at a point in time, because of emerging disruptive technology and the speed of business change, where HR within organisations needs to change. We’re seeing frustration from business leaders with where HR is today compared to where they want us to be. Executives aren’t saying they don’t want HR, they’re saying ‘when are you going to step up?’ You need to take a look at your organisation from a business perspective and challenge the model of HR as we know it, not tweak around the edges any more.

What are the root causes of that disconnect?

We think we’re business-aligned, but there’s a difference between scanning the business and really being immersed in it. Think about how we teach HR. I look at the functions of HR – recruitment, talent management, leadership development, reward – as business verticals, but we teach them as functional disciplines. So when we say we understand the business, if we’re truly honest we understand it on a very superficial level.

Can better metrics help raise HR’s voice? 

We get hung up on process metrics. If a CEO says to me ‘tell me how many people we managed to retain and how many have left’ I say ‘what is it you really want to know, because it doesn’t tell you anything?’ I’d rather be looking at who we’re giving our big investment budgets to and asking whether they are showing the right revenue growth. We don’t need to be putting together nice dashboards – we need the two or three things that are critical to helping the business perform. 

What’s the answer, in your view?

Some of it is about having an intellectual curiosity that pushes you to keep on asking why. But it’s also having the confidence and credibility to stand your ground. I think it’s very arrogant that HR says we should have a seat at the table. What other senior businessperson do you ever hear saying that? They expect to perform and if they do well, they will get a say. HR comes at from a function-centric view that says we can’t contribute unless we get a seat at the table. I say you don’t deserve a seat at the table unless you perform.

What’s the good news?

The good news is that HR is the best job in the world. There’s no other role that gives you access to every part of the business. My vision is that HR becomes one of the top five careers people want in the future. It’s up to us as HR professionals to help shape that. We’ve had a lot of academics, consultants and organisations tell us what HR should look like. They’ve added a great perspective, but we’re the ones in the role and why let someone else shape our future when we’ve got the chance to get in there and lead?

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Comments (3)
  • HR must not be a box ticking function but a part of the business that drives staff performance and profit.

  • Mick, I agree that it is a tough call and the real job, we have a great opportunity to play at the executive level and we can but does require us to think differently about our role and where we can add the most value

  • I became a member at the age of 40 after a thorough grounding as a manager with extensive line and staff experience. If I cast my mind back over the topics in the IPD magazine the hardy perennial was why haven't we more influence. Why? Because the board is a place for people who can contribute to the business not functional specialists. The opportunities provided by the insights from behavioural thinkers were squandered. And as far as I can see HR has been engaged in a shameful abandonment of people and allowed gross excesses of employment practices to flourish.

    It's a tough call to stand for success as a business and be the one who stands for treating employees decently but that's the real job.