HR executives need to master the art of getting people to buy-in to their ideas and initiatives, and there are a number of important steps they can take in the process, writes Simon Dowling
If you are like most HR executives, there’s never a shortage of great people-related initiatives just waiting to get off the ground. Ideas to improve engagement, increase talent attraction, lift capability, raise the leadership bar … the list goes on.
But all of those ideas will stay just that – ideas – unless you are able to win the support of key stakeholders throughout your organisation. The challenge for any HR executive is to convert “HR ideas” into valuable business initiatives that people can buy into. Without that, you not only risk a failed initiative, but you put your own credibility at stake – and that’s one of your most important assets. As Ellie McBride, GM of people & purpose at Ricoh Australia, recently shared with me, “The ability to build trust and influence is critical to be able to win support and earn the investment required to deliver much of what we do in the HR space.” Perhaps the worst thing an enterprising HR exec can do is get key stakeholders offside by showing themselves to have a tin ear to the reality of their organisation.
To put it simply, you can’t afford to have an “HR agenda”. Instead, senior HR practitioners must quickly learn how to play the role of a business leader.
This means taking the time to build strong alliances with other leaders in the business – which are instrumental to building confidence and buy-in across the broader organisation. According to former group HR director at SEEK and founder of BoB Group, Meahan Callaghan, “All people related initiatives and strategies require a level of change management if they’re to achieve maximum benefit. Employees need to believe that the activity will be of benefit to them and their organisation. This cannot be done by the HR team alone, it requires buy-in from the leadership team to be authentic and cohesive.”
While the challenge of building this kind of support is not unique to HR executives, there are some important principles that underpin an effective approach.
1. Step away from the TED talk – find the real “so what”
The risk for many HR executives is getting swept up in an idea, and then failing to work out how to sell it to the business. McBride explained to me that this is something she had to learn early on in her career if she was going to earn a seat at the executive table. “Theoretical arguments about why we need to or should do something are mute if you can’t demonstrate to your stakeholders how your idea will help them with their goals and gain their buy-in from the beginning.”
This is an observation shared by Callaghan, who says “the most common mistake is failing to put the potential benefits of an initiative – and the problem it solves – in truly commercial terms. Yes the HR executive may be trying to lift employee engagement or leadership capability but an executive team is looking for return on investment in financial terms before they can 100 per cent support something.”
A powerful way to make sure you’re focusing on the right things for your audience is to first of all step back and ask yourself (and your team) a very important question: “So what?” In fact, I find it’s helpful to imagine one of your most difficult stakeholders sitting across the table from you with their arms crossed, a big frown on their face, as they ask that same question. Don’t just ask “So what?” once, but over and over again until you come up with a compelling “Big So What” – one that you’re convinced will fly with the business.
2. Read the play
In the sporting world, there’s a concept called “reading the play”. This refers to the way some players read the game as it’s unfolding and make judgments about how to best adapt to the game.
In much the same way, the best HR executives are good at reading the play in their own organisation and adjusting their strategies and their approach. No matter how ready you might feel to get moving on an idea, if the prevailing conditions aren’t in your favour, you might well be sending the idea to its early death. Consider things such as the current mood of your organisation; whether are there are major distractions or competing priorities vying for people’s attention right now; and how the current social landscape (read: organisational politics) might impact your ability to get things off the ground.
3. Adopt a “what’s possible?” stance
HR leaders need to balance their passion and desire to launch an idea with a willingness to listen and be open to suggestions. Often the desire to drive a particular agenda can cause executives to become single-minded (or worse, over-zealous), which can lead stakeholders to switch off.
Your ability to successfully “sell” an idea paradoxically requires you to let go of the reins in a conversation. To lean into people’s concerns and reluctance to embrace an idea, and to whole-heartedly welcome pushback into the conversation. This is what I call a what’s possible? stance: an attitude of curiosity, creativity and commitment to the best possible outcome – not simply the outcome you already have in mind. This helps you to remain flexible, adaptive, and responsive as you enter the unpredictable terrain of building people’s support and cooperation around an idea.
Ask yourself, “I wonder what people in the business would need in order for this to work?” Or, “I wonder what the best outcome would actually look like for others in the business?”. Or, “I wonder what might make this seem like a bad idea to some people.”
Adopting a what’s possible? stance takes courage, because it asks you to let go of control of the conversation. But doing so is often the very thing that creates space for others to become part of a decision and, ultimately, buy into it.
Why would they listen to you?
When others see your name pop up on their phones, or in their inbox, do they feel inclined to help, or to run in the opposite direction? The way your stakeholders feel about you will shape the way they respond to your ideas and proposals – or whether they’re willing to listen in the first place. This creates a ‘bias to yes’ or a ‘bias to no’.
So how do you create a bias to yes in the way your own stakeholders experience you?
Get intentional. How do you want others to experience you? What are the two or three words you’d like them to use to describe you if I bumped into them in the street? Do those intended perceptions support your ability to influence and generate buy-in? Then consider how well the things you do and say align with that intent. Are there things you are doing – perhaps with the best of intentions – that risk undermining your desired perception? This question may push you to the boundaries of your own self-awareness, so it can be valuable to enlist the help of a trusted colleague or coach. Look for one or two things you can do to create greater alignment.
Listen and learn. In the desire to impress, many HR executives forget to listen. Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” There’s an important distinction between clinical listening – which is transactional in nature and focused on getting to a solution as quickly as possible – and engaged listening which is aimed at building connection and rapport. The best HR leaders make time to sit with their key stakeholders and develop a better understanding of their world – without feeling the immediate need to offer solutions and advice.
Make them look good. Reflecting on my own days as a performer in improvised comedy, one of the principles we lived by was make your partner look good. I think there’s gold in this for anyone who wants to build a strong bias to yes. And it’s a good test to apply to every interaction you have. It’s pretty simple: if you don’t make your stakeholder look good, they probably won’t want to work with you.
Getting the balance right
The path to buy-in can be an unpredictable one, so it’s critical for HR executives to balance their approach across three dimensions – the 3 ‘M’s of buy-in – adjusting where needed to suit the needs of their audience:
Mood: Make them feel it. It’s the heart that tells the head where to focus its attention. So how do you create the kind of feeling that will fuel your stakeholders’ willingness to listen and to act on your ideas? This starts with projecting the right mood yourself – through the way you introduce your ideas, the language you use and the energy you exude as you enter the room. But one of the most effective ways to create the right feeling is through the use of strategically chosen stories and evoking a mental picture for your audience that will help them to feel a problem or an opportunity.
Mind: Give them a reason. Plato described emotion and reason as two horses trying to pull a chariot in opposite directions. While that’s how it can sometimes feel, neuroscientists tell us that the two sides of our brain act in elegant concert with one another. The challenge when building buy-in is to align your stakeholders’ logical thinking with the way they feel about your idea. This is particularly important in the business world, which places an enormous premium on logic and sound decision making. HR executives must be masters at creating a strong business case that demonstrates the real (and perceived) value of a proposal to their stakeholders, and the proof that it can work – as well as listening to any cause for reluctance and willingly negotiating with stakeholders to overcome fears and concerns.
Movement: Convert to sustained action. It may be one thing to have your stakeholders say ‘yes’, but it’s quite another for them to act on it, even with the best intentions. True buy-in requires more than enthusiastic agreement; it must lead to action. Every HR executive needs to be a master of making movement happen – overcoming the human tendency to dwell in delay. One way to do this is to make it very easy for your stakeholders to take the first critical steps – breaking your task or project down into ‘tiny chunks’. HR executives can easily fall into the trap of asking stakeholders to buy into big initiatives and ideas that are hard to take action on right now. Ask yourself: “What’s the first, most simple step, my stakeholder can take to put this idea into practice?”
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