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.
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.
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.