Over half a century ago, Rosa Parks knew she was not allowed to sit at the front of a bus. So when she boarded one in 1955, she knew better than to ask the driver for permission. Nor did she seek the blessing of fellow passengers. Instead, in a simple act of bold bravery, she took a stand by taking a seat — not just at the front of the bus, but at the forefront of an entire movement.
Of course, you already knew all that. But what does any of this have to do with you, or with HR? A lot.
As an HR leader, you also want a seat that may seem elusive. Perhaps you’ve even Googled “HR” and “seat at the table” and then plowed through all 239,000 links that offer pretty much the same information and advice. And yet still — no seat.
This blog post is not meant to be the 239,001st piece of advice. I’m not going to tell you what everyone else is already telling you. In fact, I’m not going to give you any practical advice. It’s already out there — know the business, build relationships, use technology in ways that position you beyond administration and operations, analyze data, etc. All good advice that’s steeped in logic and process and numbers and strategy.
But when Parks took her seat on that pivotal December day, I bet she wasn’t thinking about strategy. Which isn’t to imply that she wasn’t acting strategically. A common myth about Parks is that she took her seat merely because she was tired and fed up. The reality is that Parks had been a civil-rights activist for years. Her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger was a strategic, calculated, planned act of disobedience that aligned with an ongoing mission.
At that moment, though, Parks was likely not given extensive thought to her grand plan for equality. Instead, I suspect she was probably nervous and frightened. Yet those feelings took a back seat (pun not intended, but not bad, right?) to a greater sense of confidence and courage.
Courage and confidence. The truth is, those qualities are usually much harder to build and demonstrate that business knowledge and strategic thinking. Yet those are precisely the traits you need to gain greater respect and influence.
Armed with the right data, all you need next is some moxie to lead not just with your head but with your heart. That might mean advocating for more humane bereavement policies. Or pushing for greater internal and external pay equity. Or changing hiring practices to ensure greater inclusion. Or creating more transparency around compensation. Ultimately, it means not removing or suppressing emotions from a business but harnessing your feelings to champion what you know is right for your business.
That cliche about telling leaders what they need, not necessarily want, to hear? It’s true.
But I know, I know, it’s also easier said than done. Organizations don’t always look favorably upon people who challenge the status quo, but a key way of demonstrating value rests not on cowering in the face of leadership but challenging it by bringing something bold and valuable to the table.
As Parks said, “Knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
All of which is to say, if you want to be the Rosa Parks of HR and get the seat you deserve, be sure to always act in the best interest of your people and your company. And don’t wait for someone to give you a seat on the bus. Drive it!*
* Why the asterisk? Because it’s also worth keeping in mind that if you are only reactive and feed drama, then the bus is full!
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