Partnering the CEO: 5 essential steps for HR leaders

The approach of the CEO is the single most important influencer of an organisation's culture and approach to people leadership

Only through earning trust and respect are HR directors likely to create a relationship that allows them to influence the CEO and impact culture, capability, spirit and performance, writes Karen Gately

As any experienced HR leader knows the approach of the CEO is the single most important influencer of an organisation’s culture and approach to people leadership. The decisions they make, priorities they set and actions they take influence what is considered important or valued. How the CEO leads the senior team and what they believe about the link between culture, engagement and results ultimately determines the energy and resources invested in building and leveraging the full potential of the team.

To have any real impact on the approach and effectiveness of a CEO, the HR director needs to work in close partnership with them. That is to operate as a trusted advisor who shares ownership for what the organisation is able to achieve through the talent and energy of its people. It’s the HR director’s role to guide and influence the CEO’s thinking and commitment to important priorities; to support their decision-making and develop both their awareness and understanding of the role they need to play in inspiring, engaging and leading the team.

It all begins with trust
Reflect on the strength of relationship you have with the CEO of your organisation. Whether you report directly to them or not, contemplate the extent to which you are able to pursued the CEO to your way of thinking. Are you able to gain their confidence and win their support for an initiative or strategy you are eager to implement? Acting as a trusted adviser to a CEO, or any other leader for that matter, requires trust. That is trust in your character and competence. Persuading anyone to adopt any particular approach will only happen when they respect you and trust the advice you offer.

“It’s the HR director’s role to guide and influence the CEOs thinking and commitment to important priorities”

Building trust and strong working relationships with a CEO requires that you demonstrate competence and earn their confidence in your capabilities. Every interaction presents the opportunity to influence the CEOs belief in your knowledge, skills, experience and ultimately ability to influence business outcomes. Critically most CEOs need to know they can trust the HR director to act as their confidant in matters that relate to senior executive performance, board relations and at times their own confidence, engagement or performance.

Five essential steps you can take to optimise the strength of your partnership with your CEO include:

1. Be commercial and focus on business outcomes. Align your focus with the vision and strategic objectives of the organisation. In other words speak the language other business leaders speak and focus on how people leadership drive business results. Demonstrate well-developed understanding of the organisation’s products, services and operational processes through the advice you offer and priorities you set. Balance focus on internal performance and the competitive landscape in which your business operate.

2. Step into the role of coach and advisor. It’s common for the CEOs I work with to come up through the ranks in most part due to the strength of their technical expertise. Many greatly benefit from an HR director who is able to coach them to further develop their understanding and people leadership capabilities. Never assume the CEO has full appreciation of the purpose of particular initiatives or the role they need to play.

“Balance focus on internal performance and the competitive landscape in which your business operate”

Spend time discussing ways in which your CEO can deliberately influence the success of HR strategies. Focusing on the successful outcome of initiatives provides a non-confronting platform for honest conversations about the approach needed from the CEO, and every other leader across the business. Reach agreements about how the CEO will go about influencing particular executives and addressing obstacles to progress.

3. Support effective execution. While strategy is essential, success is ultimately determined by how well your plans are implemented. If not already, aim to work closely with the CEO to support their efforts to communicate with the team, manage the performance of their direct reports and influence engagement and confidence of the board. Act as a sounding board when they are faced with complex challenges and invite open conversation about the struggles they face and frustrations they are at times likely to feel.

4. Be prepared to challenge. Among the most important roles an HR director can play is to help the CEO see when the approaches they are taking aren’t working. While it can take courage to challenge a strong-minded CEO, its essential to have the tough conversations needed to build awareness and shift the thoughts and actions undermining their success. Understand that at times you will be in a position to observe mistakes been made that they deserve to be made aware of. Its your duty as a trusted advisor to speak honestly about what is working well and what isn’t.

5. Share ownership of the outcome. Sharing accountability for what is achieved is essential to the success of any partnership. Both the HR Director and CEO have an important role to play to ensure HR strategies are effectively applied to realise tangible benefits for the organisation. Engage in regular dialogue about the progress, success or otherwise of agreed strategies and initiatives. Focus your assessment of success on the impact HR strategies have on business performance and potential.

While of course it takes commitment and desire on the part of the CEO to build a strong partnership, the most important role rests with you. The credibility you earn through your approach and success plays a critical role in determining the influence you are able to have. Only through earning trust and respect are you likely to create a relationship that allows you to influence the CEO and in turn have significant impact on the culture, capability, spirit and performance of your organisation.

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