As an HR professional, I spent years working my tail off to prove my value, prove that HR was an important department, prove that HR was needed. I was probably about 10-15 years into my HR career before I had a light bulb moment that changed the way I viewed my role as an HR professional.
I was at a SHRM conference in the early 2000s and attended a session on strategic planning. I had not done a ton of formal strategic planning and left that session with an excellent model to conduct such planning, and felt a little stupid that I had not been doing it all along. I got back to my office, pulled the team together and told them we were going to work together to do a SWOT analysis, identify our primary objectives, and create a formal strategic plan for the upcoming year, and that all of our departmental goals and individuals would cascade from that plan.
As we started working through the process, it donned on me that without the strategic plan, or at least the initiatives and/or goals of operations, that we were in a difficult position to work on our strategic plan because we – and here’s the light bulb – were a support function. And to be the best support function possible, we needed to know what was important to the rest of the organization. I know many of you are saying “…really….that’s it?” But truly, that was it.
I went to my COO at the time, someone I had worked with for many years—and someone that was never really what I would call a big HR supporter—and told that person that I was working on our upcoming year’s strategic plan but couldn’t do so without his strategic plan. I believe this changed his opinion of our HR department and it changed my perspective on how to run an HR department. I tell this story because this was a huge turning point in my career where I learned instead of constantly battling, cheerleading my agenda, and trying to cram ideas down other’s throats, I learned to adapt my style, and in turn change my relationships with my CEO and the entire leadership team.
Here are some key elements that I learned along the way:
- Own being a support function: Own it! Love it, nurture it, speak to it. Your role may not be one of revenue-generation or main operations, but your role is still critical to the success of the organization. Every organization or business needs good support functions—IT, finance, HR, purchasing. Be the best damn support function you can be!
You may not make the organization money or be the primary output of whatever product or service your organization provides, but by goodness you can provide that team with what they need to succeed. Do it well and they will all love you. And when the departments love you, the CEO will love you, too.
- Know your business. Whatever business or organization that you work for, you MUST fully understand that business. Work in the departments, shadow operations, ask questions, learn how to read financial statements, understand labor and how to schedule. Whatever is important to the overall operations of your organization needs to be important to you. This will help you in so many ways—to better plan, to understand what’s going on when your employees come to you, to be a better collaborator on the leadership team. If you know your business, your CEO will love you.
- Get out of your office: HR should be the voice of the employees to the leadership team, and the voice of the leadership team to the employees. In order to do so, you need to be the one that really knows what's going on. Get out and talk to your employees, build trust, and build rapport. You’ll be the one leaders go to when they want to know what’s really going on. And your CEO will love that they can rely on you to be the voice of the employee.
- Speak their (CEO) language: I used to try to cheerlead my way into convincing others on the leadership team to do something—a new HRIS system (no, really…it’ll be great!), a new training curriculum (rah, rah, shish-koom-bah!) or creating a new position (we really, really, REALLY need it!). It took me awhile, but I figured out that wasn’t working.
So, I had to learn their language—the language of numbers, data, analysis and ROIs. Do I love doing that stuff? No. But can I? Absolutely. And it changed my HR life forever. I made huge strides when I learned to do a business case for something new instead of my old cheerleading methodology.
Ensure advice and/or feedback includes a financial risk assessment where possible. Also, figure out how someone likes to be communicated to—assessments like DiSC can be really helpful. I’m an i for influence (yes—the cheerleader) but most CEOs/CFOs are Cs (Conscientiousness) or Ds (Dominance) so I had to adapt and learn to communicate effectively in order for them to listen. People, including CEOs, love it when others speak their language.
- Stand your ground on issues: You will never earn respect if you don’t demand it yourself. If the CEO is doing something that violates a policy, you need to hold firm on that policy. Help them understand the importance of the policy and the importance of their role as a leader.
I had a CEO once that wanted to hire his daughter to work in one of our hotels. It was not a pleasant conversation and he didn’t agree with me, but we didn’t hire his daughter. Instead, she went to work for Starbucks—perfect! In doing so, I believe I earned a level of respect that wouldn’t have happened had I caved on that issue. They may not love this initially, but, trust me, they will in the end.
- Know your stuff: If you are going to be a respected support function, you’ve got to be the expert on HR-related issues. Get your certification, stay up-to-date on trends and HR happenings, attend local and regional SHRM events, network with other HR professionals so you know what’s going on in HR, network with other folks in your industry so you know what’s going on in your industry.
But if you don’t know something, don’t ever try to BS your way around it—they’ll see right through it. Say you don’t know but that you’ll get the answer. And get the answer! Your CEO will love knowing they have an expert as their HR advisor.
- Learn to love metrics and dashboards: They are the business language of the world and you need to embrace it. You can quantify the ROI of non-revenue generating roles, including HR, through the impact on quantifiable metrics. If you’re unsure in this area, attend a seminar—there are numerous available. Your CEO will love it when you share your dashboard.
Do these things and I can guarantee you, too, will have a love affair with your CEO—well, an appropriate, work-related love affair—not one that violates your policies.