Influencing the C-Suite: Advice for HR Leaders

Hugh MacDonald

I had just finished delivering a workshop in Hong Kong and was at a dinner with local HR executives. We were talking about my recent book, The Arts of Influence. One executive asked what advice I had for HR leaders managing business partners working with the C-suite, the group of chief officers within a business. It was a great question. I thought about it for a few moments and made four suggestions.

Picking the Right HR Leaders

Pick the right people. This is a hard lesson. But, not everyone is cut out to be a trusted advisor. Twice in my career I have lead a transition from a traditional HR department to one organized around teams of HR consultants or business partners. On each occasion, up to one-third of the former HR managers didn't make the transition. They were good people, smart and well intended. They just didn't have the business acumen and organization savvy needed to work with senior HR leaders.

One of the dinner guests asked what makes a good HR business partner. "I've managed more than two hundred HR consultants and I’ve found the most important, and common, attribute is curiosity," I said. "Curiosity and courage."

It goes without saying that an HR business partner needs to have mastered the HR body of knowledge—or most of it. What they need, as well, is business acumen and the personal attribute of being curious. If they are curious they will ask questions, they will learn. They will learn the business, they will learn the culture of the organization and they will learn "how" things work. They also need to have courage. If they are intimidated by their client, if they can't say "no" or if they can't "speak truth to power" they will not be good business partners. It's the lack of personal attributes, more than any HR expertise, that prevents people from being a good partner.

HR Leaders Are Not "Yes" Men

Your HR business partners need to negotiate their role with the client. The client needs to understand that it is the job of their HR business partner to provide sober second thought. They will, therefore, hear a "no" from time to time. It serves their interests to have an HR leader on the team whose job it is to ensure that ideas are looked at from other perspectives.

I don't know many leaders, and I don't know any good leaders, that like to be surrounded by people who say "yes" all the time. The client, and the business, is better served by HR advisors and partners who ensure that decisions are reviewed and that in the rush to get things done, important steps are not missed. The focus must be on the business, but, in doing this, we must also consider the impact on people. Ensuring the business thinks about these things and about change management is one of the jobs of a good HR business partner.

Key Roles of the HR Leader

I like my HR consultants to let their clients know that they have four key roles: 1) Adding value to the business and focus on business objectives always comes first. 2) Being a strategic thinker often means being a critical thinker. HR leaders need to say, "I'm not being negative, I'm helping the business make better decisions. I'm the devil's advocate in your council and I'm loyal to your needs and objectives outside of it." 3) Act as a role model. We can't expect clients to do the right thing if we don't. HR teams are expected to model work and life balance and demonstrate the respect, and adherence to values, that we expect from all leaders in the organization. 4) Act as an employee advocate. Give a voice to the people not on the management team. Simply put, the question I ask my HR leaders, and my clients, is: Are you designing jobs, making decisions and creating a working environment that you would want your son or daughter to experience? If not, you're doing something wrong.

HR leaders must understand up front that these roles are not being taken by to put up obstacles. Instead they are deliberately adopted to make a valuable contribution to the HR leadership team and to produce better business results.

HR Leaders and Problem Solving

The HR leader has to be good at solving problems. Here is where the rubber meets the road. Can the HR leader improve performance, cut costs, keep the head office from doing stupid things to the local business units and keep the local business unit from doing stupid things that destroy the firm? Can the HR leader keep costs down and sales up? I say to my team, "You can influence the C-suite if you can do these things. Why would they listen to you if you can't?"

HR Leaders Going the Extra Mile

Finally, HR leaders must do more than solve problems. Can HR leaders avoid them? Solving problems is great. Even better is not having any. The C-suite doesn't like surprises. Therefore, what can be done to reduce risk of all types? Does the business have needed contingency plans?

The sad reality is that the C-suite is unlikely to pay attention to you, or your consultants, if the HR leaders don’t have its act together. It's hard to be a trusted advisor if all you ever seem to talk about is the latest payroll problem. Is the HR back office well run? If not, then as and HR leader, that should be one of your priorities. Outsource it, if it makes sense, but get it off the table.

As for the business, do you do disaster simulations? If something like SARS or another pandemic hit your head office or workforce tomorrow are you prepared? Do you have options is place for your payroll and benefits administration? Is the rest of your client’s business prepared for power failures, natural disasters and other challenges?

Influence the C-suite

  • Hire the right people
  • Negotiate their role with the client
  • Ensure that candidates add value to the business by solving problems
  • Add even more value by working with clients to avoid problems

If you do these things the C-suite will listen to you and to the HR business partners reporting to you. If you can't, they won't.

Assuming you have something worthwhile to say, the secret of being a trusted advisor is simply that—getting people to listen to you.