Helping the CEO love HR

by 19 Oct 2009

There are some CEOs who think business is all about finance and see the human element as an annoyance. There are also CEOs who deeply value people and it shows up in their every action. While your CEO may fit one of these extremes, it is more likely they are somewhere in the middle. More importantly, they may appear to you to lean more towards the finance side of the spectrum than they really do. HR should not assume that the CEO is stuck with some fixed attitude; one of your roles is to help the CEO love HR.

Why CEOs appear to be financially driven

Consultant Patricia Seemann of Sphere Advisors tells a great story about a CEO who insisted that next year, people would be his top priority. He went away to a retreat to come up with his personal agenda. When Patricia looked at his top ten priorities people were last!

The CEO was shocked when Seemann pointed this out. The force of habit, the pressures of investors and the urgency of other issues had derailed his sincere intent to focus on people issues. Once he was aware of what happened he went back to rethink his list. CEOs need someone to help them get past the pressure of all the other issues they face and get people on the agenda. That’s the job of HR.

Shifting behaviour

If your CEO does value people but fails to show it, then your job is not to shift attitude but merely to shift behaviour. In Seemann’s story, all that was needed was for someone to point out the lack of attention people issues were getting and the CEO responded. HR can play the same role by gently asking where the CEO thinks people issues should be on the agenda and then checking to see if it is really happening. The CEO of one large mining company specifically told his VP HR: “Your job is to let me know if I’m not walking the talk.”

One of the best ways to help the CEO is to show the connection between people issues and other high-priority items. If dealing with regulators is a pressing issue then discuss whether the organisation has the talent to deal with regulators, if the right skills are being developed and if people are rewarded to behave in the right way. All issues are people issues; it’s the job of HR to point that out.

Shifting attitude

The tougher sell is changing the attitude of a CEO who really does not love HR. What you have working against you is that human beliefs are tough to change. What you have in your favour is the reality that people genuinely do matter. Reality is a potent weapon to use.

This gets us to the issue of how to convince people. There are three tactics: influential others; anecdote; and fact

Notice that “fact” is at the bottom of the list. You do need to marshal factual evidence that human capital has a big impact on business outcomes (see chapter 2 in Jeff Pfeffer’s excellent book The Human Equation or the work done by Gallup or Watson Wyatt.) However, facts are what seal the deal, not what gets people on your side.

The best way to get people to shift attitude is through “influential others”. If you find there are people the CEO listens to who support your message, then you have a potent tool to shift attitude. You need to do some networking to find out who your allies might be and then get them to push the case of a focus on people.

By anecdote, I mean the fact that managers tend to draw conclusions based on specific situations they can see and hear. If the CEO loses a key player and you can show that was a result of underinvestment in HR, then the CEO will pay attention. If the CEO participates in a leadership workshop and they can feel the impact it is having, then they are much more likely to support investment in people.


Part of the role of the HR leader is to manage the public relations of their own function. Don’t assume that your CEO’s attitude is. He or she may already be more supportive of HR than you have realised. So make the effort in shifting attitudes and behaviours, because, until you have the CEO’s support, you won’t be fully effective in your job.