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A Time for HR to Lead

HR has a permanent seat at the strategic table. Now it must hone its voice.


A group of business people sitting around a conference table.


The Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 75th anniversary is a natural time to reflect on how far the HR profession has come—and where it’s headed. 

The past few years have taught us that the future is unpredictable but one thing is certain: The visibility of the profession has skyrocketed as HR departments have gained a voice in strategic decisions. As this trend is likely to continue, HR professionals have a chance to step up as organizational leaders.

The recent State of the Workplace Report from SHRM Research indicates that HR is already playing a critical role in organizational success. Specifically, senior leaders are relying on HR expertise to help them navigate new situations and drive business success. Screen Shot 2023-03-06 at 81528 AM.png

With the crisis of the pandemic came the opportunity for HR departments to prove their value. For example, HR shouldered the burden of tracking evolving rules and regulations and supporting employees affected by the virus. Then, just as workplaces were adjusting amid the pandemic, the Great Resignation hit. Again, in the battle to attract and retain talent, HR stood at the forefront of organizational success. 

Though pandemic- and labor-related struggles have eased, the elevation of HR is likely to continue. In a 2022 SHRM Voice of Work Research Panel survey, we asked 1,516 HR professionals what the HR profession may look like in five years. Among the top themes in the responses were “increased criticality” and “having a strategic partnership” in organizations. 

We therefore expect HR to have a permanent seat at the leadership table. Mark Smith, SHRM’s director of HR thought leadership, puts it this way: “Years ago, the greatest HR lament was not having a seat at the table. Now, in the 2020s, and especially post-pandemic, that concern is largely in the rearview mirror.”

So, what does this mean for HR professionals? It means they have openings to lead in strategic decisions that critically affect employees. To do so, though, they must first invest in honing their leadership skills. 

Influencing skills are especially vital for gaining stakeholder buy-in and movement on key initiatives. Importantly, leadership happens at all levels. It is based on actions, not necessarily job title. Thus, HR professionals at all stages of their careers can benefit from strengthening these skills. 

A useful resource is the SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge (SHRM BASK), particularly the Leadership & Navigation, Business Acumen and Consultation competencies. According to the results of SHRM’s 2019-2021 international survey of more than 6,000 professionals, these are areas that increase in importance as people progress in their HR careers. 

In sum, now is the time for HR professionals to build their leadership skills so they can step into their roles as organizational leaders. In doing so, they can advance their careers, increase their contributions to their organizations’ success, and ultimately be prepared for the future of HR. 

Katrina P. Merlini, Ph.D., is a senior researcher of thought leadership for SHRM Research.

Photograph by Violeta Stoimenova/iStock.

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