CHRO Dinner discusses what to do with the seat at the table


So, as a CHRO, you have a seat at the executive table, now what do you do with it? This was the question posed by HR leaders at a recent CHRO Dinner, as they tried to outline how best to bring value to the profession.

Intimately seated around a fine dining table at Tryn Restaurant at the Steenburg wine estate in Cape Town, an exclusive number of HR leaders embarked on a discussion around the importance of being business-minded as HR executives.

The dinner, hosted on the evening of 2 November 2023 was hosted by CHRO South Africa in partnership with principal partner  Workday.

Almost unanimously, attendees agreed on the importance of resilience and confidence in HR transformation, citing the need for a clear strategy and value add from day one.

According to one dinner guest, the conversation around HR fighting for a seat or to be heard at the exco table is long gone and no longer relevant. “For me, the seat has always been there. Working in multinational companies, I can safely say HR has - by a long shot - earned its seat at the table. What is more important now, is how we utilise that seat for the betterment of the business. As HR leaders we need to be able to talk business to get the buy-in of our colleagues.”

The guest had a great example on how CHROs can create lasting impact in the boardroom. “When I started I had an innate fear of accounting, figures and such. I sat through my first exco clueless and dumbfounded. It was after that very first meeting that I decided to get over my fear and learn more about the financial aspect of the business and also understand the hows and whys. Moreover, I went on to strategically align the HR function to the goals and that is what turned the tide for me.”

In agreement, another HR executive said it was more of a matter of making the HR agenda make business sense. “HR people need business training. You cannot be sitting in this position and not be able to have a basic conversation with the organisation. How do you expect that that seat will be looked at differently? So it's also important to show up for your role in terms of what you bring.”

Another guest emphasised the challenge of shifting executive thinking and building confidence in HR's ability to deliver results, rather than simply pressing the "play button" on HR processes. “We need to use the HR seat for business continuity. How do we do that? By backing our people's agenda with figures and data, with information that makes sense and resonates with the exco. When we learn more and become more strategic business partners then we can easily advance issues such as retention, wellness, transformation, etc.”

Leading business with heart

That being said, a guest raised the concern of psychological safety of employees. “We need to not underplay the power of human connection. Empathy, the ability to be vulnerable, and leading with care have the potential to transform workplaces, enhance collaboration, and drive extraordinary results.”

All the above can be accomplished without instilling fear or detriment in our people, said another. “I believe clear, consistent and fair communication is key to managing expectations from both the employer and employee. As a country, we are facing one of our most challenging economic times and we, unfortunately, do not have the luxury to idle and not be productive. Businesses are going under and work has to be done to keep them afloat.”

One can create a good marriage between business and people, added the executive, “It can get tiring but clear communication on all levels, no diluted messages, and fairness are key to making this a success. We also need to equip our HR teams to know how to adequately manage these challenges.”

Developing the skill

The question of whether these these skills were transferable to HR teams then arose.

“We need to be realistic, most of these skills are nowhere in the curriculum in higher learning institutions. What you learn in theory is nowhere near what you experience in the workplace - so where will the younger team members learn this?” an executive asked.

It is important that we build good quality in-house training because the future HR leaders are looking to learn from that, said one guest, who simultaneously alluded that it is equally important for younger leaders to have a sense of self-accomplishment. “They too should also want to learn and be better. “

After a great night of shared insights, experiences, and practical strategies, the HR leaders thanked CHRO South Africa for creating a great safe space where colleagues can pick each other's brains.

Those who attended:

Rob Williamson, Business Development Leader, Workday
Annalize Van Der Waal, vice president of human resources, PepsiCo South Africa
Bronwynne Bester, Chief People Officer, Oceana
Diana Johnson, Chief People Officer, BAT
Eswhin Booysen, CHRO, In2Food
Kgaogelo Letsebe, Senior Writer, CHRO South Africa
Sana-Ullah Bray, CHRO, Sanlam
Shelagh Goodwin, Head of HR, Media24
Shireen Johnson, People Director, Virgin Active
Sungula Nkabinde, Community Manager, CHRO South Africa


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