Chief Talent Officer Michelle Leighton on how HR can get a seat at the table

Jan 02, 2020 - Joe Matar

Here's what you can expect in the inaugural episode of Talent On The Rise:

  • Joe and Ryan spoke to Michelle Leighton, Chief Talent Officer at Lifebanc, about the importance of strong HR representation at the top of the organizational chart. 


  • One of the benefits of working in HR is that it offers a unique view into many aspects of an organization — providing skills that can transfer to other fields. Michelle explains why HR might be a great place to start your career.


  • Don’t avoid jobs that might look like a career detour on first glance. Every job is an opportunity to add new skills to your tool belt.



Many companies claim people are their greatest asset. But the serious ones show it by elevating HR heads to the level of other key leaders, giving their people a voice in the core operations of a company.

This is a cornerstone value for Michelle Leighton, Chief Talent Officer at Cleveland, Ohio-based nonprofit Lifebanc, an organ and tissue recovery organization.

Michelle is one of those rare people who developed a passion for HR early. With a mother in leadership development and an uncle in accounting, she majored in both in college. Michelle knew by the time she graduated that she wanted her career to focus on the people, rather than the numbers, side of the business. 

Throughout her career, Michelle’s been able to work in every aspect of HR, and worked her way up to a chief officer position by ensuring at every opportunity that HR kept that crucial “seat at the table.”

Check out the full episode on your favorite podcast app:

“I find it ironic that organizations say their people are their greatest asset, but yet the person who really can make the difference — from your employee's perspective — doesn't have a seat at the table,” Michelle ponders during her interview for Talent on the Rise, Brazen’s podcast about transformative leaders and how they got a seat at the table.

Here are some of Michelle’s key insights about developing a career in HR and becoming that crucial voice for a company’s human resources.

Ask for a seat at the table

For Michelle, there’s no debate about where HR should sit within an organization. 

“HR does have to have a seat at the table to make a true impact within an organization,” she says.

In a practical sense, a “seat at the table” means that the head of HR reports directly to the CEO or is part of the leadership team overseeing the entire organization, she explains.

Michelle has that voice in her current position, but has also had it as a VP and director in previous jobs.

Throughout her career, she has asked “what does meaningful work mean to me?” to ensure she found companies where she could stand behind the mission and have the tools she needed to focus on employee engagement and retention.

It’s always been important to her that an HR leader is included in the core decision-making at a company. Before landing in her current position, she even challenged one company in an interview, asking why the high-level HR position they were interviewing her for didn’t have a seat at the table. She ultimately took herself out of the running for that job.

HR is more than benefits and comp

“If you really love people, you may not want to go into HR,” Michelle says. While she mentioned this half-jokingly, she does have a serious point to make.  

“I always say HR deals with the 10 percent of the population who typically don't do things right,” she explains, noting that some of the work in HR includes leading hard conversations and delivering bad news. These elements can quickly take a toll if you’re a people pleaser. 

But the field also has more variety than many realize.

“I don't think people really understand that there are so many different sectors of HR,” Michelle points out for prospective future human resources specialists.

From talent acquisition to handling benefits and compensation to accounting to employee relations, engagement and retention, Michelle says a career in HR can be a lot of things. 

This variety means you get a unique view into the workings of an entire organization.

This could benefit your career in unexpected ways. “You hear of a lot of HR people who then will end up in specialties outside of HR because it kind of opens you up to everything,” she says.

The field makes room for people with a variety of strengths, but its history of payroll-focused responsibilities and restrictive titles with terms like “personnel” and “human resources” don’t speak to that.

Michelle notes the field is evolving to include words like “people” and “culture” in job titles. New titles help to empower employees about the importance of their roles — signaling that they’re responsible for tasks like employee development, not just paycheck processing. 

Learn from wherever you are

Not many people choose HR from the beginning of their career like Michelle did. You may grab any job you can find after college, and through experience gravitate toward employee relations or organizational development. In those instances, Michelle says you have something to gain, even from jobs that seem like a detour on your journey.

In every job she’s had across industries, Michelle says, “I gleaned something and put that in my tool belt.”

Michelle put this idea into practice before she even graduated from college. In an early job with Charter One Bank in Cleveland, she paid close attention to and got to know the employees in the HR department, which helped her land a job as an employment specialist with the company after graduation.

She’s continued to be proactive throughout her career. She’ll make it known early in the interview process that her career development is important to her and asks how a company can help her focus on growing. If they won’t, it’s not a good fit.

She points out that you can’t wait for someone to offer you new opportunities. You have to know your values and let bosses and colleagues know your career intentions so they can support you in getting there.

“I don't want to be a passenger on my career journey,” she says. “I want to be the driver.” 

This article is based on an episode of Talent on the Rise, Brazen’s podcast about transformative leaders and how they got a seat at the table. Subscribe in your preferred podcast app or click here to sign up to be notified of each new episode.