Among all of the opportunities that HR leaders have, I believe that one of the most valuable is puncturing the CEO bubble by acting in a strategic advisor capacity. As I wrote some time ago, 76% of CEOs value their relationship with HR. This is because we exist outside the normal flow of business to some extent. This role as a trusted advisor is one that can, and should, be highly strategic.

HR’s History

Does this list sound familiar?

  • No
  • We can’t do that
  • That would be risky
  • What if we get sued
  • We’ve never done it that way
  • I don’t think that will work

hr ceo advisor strategicThat is my perception of HR as it has historically been carried out. For a wide variety of reasons, the HR population has become the “no” police, preventing virtually any opportunity for creativity and innovation.

Instead of focusing on excuses or reasons you can’t make something happen, keep searching for ways to do it. Look for opportunities, not limitations. There are already enough people in the world who are ready and willing to tell you how something can’t be accomplished. Let’s work on cultivating more people that look for ways you can be successful.

We often see opportunities as binary, yes/no decisions. As an example: we can either change to a new insurance provider or we can stop providing insurance to our employees and let them all die of horrible diseases before the week is over with.

The point is the person offering these options knows that offering one really great option and one really poor option is going to force the manager to choose. However, the good manager will turn it back on the employee with a response of “none of the above.”

If you want to do it right, here’s the game plan: instead of settling for two less-than-ideal options, ask for more. Push the person to give you three, four, or five options; ask for at least one more viable idea to level the playing field. Ask why they settled on offering just two. Don’t let them get away with trying to push their own agenda if there is a better option still available.

Again, this illustration is centered around asking your staff to do more than the bare minimum. Don’t let them assume something can’t be done. Don’t let them get away with listing reasons/excuses for why something isn’t possible. Ask them to go further and look at “how we can” options, even if they are a bit far-fetched. You never know when one of those ideas could fit perfectly.

If you want to be seen as a trusted advisor, a connector, and a positive force for change, this is how you do it. You don’t accomplish that by saying “No” to everything that is proposed. There are good options that don’t involve the sudden demise of your entire company–you just need to tune your risk meter and get better at predicting the future.

Remember: look for answers to how we can, not why we can’t.

CEO Influence in Action

In one of my previous roles, I reported directly to the CEO of the organization. This was a two-way street in terms of value. I received up-to-date information on business pursuits and opportunities on the horizon, and I was able to offer insights, input, and advice around how to approach those areas.

There were times that my advice was received, processed, and not followed. That is painful for some to cope with, but it’s the nature of the game. That’s why the other person is the CEO–they get to call the shots.

However, there were plenty of times that the advice was heeded, and the business and people benefited from it. At least I knew I had an open ear and could get my side of the story heard.

Another company I worked in was not quite so… positive. The CEO was unplugged from the organization emotionally and mentally. The entire staff knew it, and it didn’t exactly lead to a culture that I would be proud of. I was a layer removed from the CEO but my boss was not of the strategic mindset. We were seen as a group of HR paper-pushers with a rubber stamp ready for any idea or innovation to arise so we could put a big, fat “NO” on it. The company was eventually acquired and the entire staff laid off, and all of the talent problems that the leadership had been ignoring became someone else’s problem.

Taking Advantage of the Situation

One of the hardest things about the close nature of this relationship is the eventual requirement to compete with your own interests. There are times that you will have to put forth ideas and concepts that are counter to your own needs. Being able to distance yourself as an objective party and provide inputs without becoming entangled in the emotional red tape is difficult, but necessary.

This is also where you can forge some of the strongest bonds with your company’s leadership. If everything is going fine, nobody is surprised when you have your stuff together. But when things are hard and times are lean or challenges arise, that is when you have the best opportunity to demonstrate your competency and level-headed approach. When everyone else is flailing about, you have to be the rock that others can cling to. Not physically–that would be weird. But you get the picture.

Litmus Test for Your CEO’s HR Outlook

I have a quick test you can use to determine your CEO’s outlook on the value of HR. Does he/she see you as an administrative burden or a necessary evil, or are you seen as a value-added strategic partner that is indispensable?

This isn’t foolproof, but I have seen it play out many times and it is fairly accurate. Do a quick calculation for me: look at your ratio of employees to HR pros. This tells you how valuable your leaders think HR is. Consider these two examples:

  • A friend recently contacted me and we were discussing her company’s HR structure. They budget for one HR pro per thousand employees. She spends all day doing paperwork and has not planned for future growth needs in more than two years.
  • Another friend caught me up on her company’s strategy in the midst of explosive growth. The company had a ratio of 1:40. The firm is doing better than ever and the HR team is continuously implementing new programs and targeting strategic opportunities for improving talent acquisition, leadership development, and more.

There isn’t a hard number, but hopefully these examples give you a better idea of where you stand. HR can be strategic or tactical, but strategy is where the true business value comes in.

While Very Personal, the Relationship is also Strategic

Some of the ways I have seen this HR advisory relationship/role play out beyond simple business transactions:

  • Informal coach: In terms of feedback, HR takes on the role of informal executive coach to the CEO. They will provide input on things that might not be at the forefront of the CEO’s thoughts and help them to get their message across in a way that is “comfortable” for the parties involved.
  • “Safe” performance improvement feedback: In cases where critical feedback might be necessary, the HR person might have to provide “safe” performance feedback to the executive. In this context, “safe” means direct, private, and confidential. The advice is provided directly to the CEO, it’s in a private location, and the feedback is confidential and will not be repeated.
  • Personal touch: The one that I’ve seen more of is what my friend likes to call “the office spouse.” I liken it to my relationship with my wife in that when we go somewhere, I look at her helplessly and say, “Who is that guy’s wife again?” and “What did you say happened to their son?” She has those minor details all memorized. Same relationship at work: the CEO expects the HR professional to have the staff information on a personal level close at hand, among other things. In addition, HR acts as a representative of the staff. The CEO can also ask (this ties back in with the two points above) how staff will receive/comprehend an announcement about upcoming changes, whether good or bad.

Not Just Problems: Offer Solutions, Too

“I don’t like going to HR meetings. They are always about problems, not solutions.”

I heard that comment at a SHRM conference once, and it’s stuck with me ever since. There is nothing quite like having to sit in front of your CEO and tell them about some problem that is coming at you like a freight train. There are two parts to doing this the right way that will help diminish the perception above.

#1-Offer solutions, too

It may sound simple, but when you come to the meeting with a problem, bring two or more solutions with you as well. Don’t feel helpless or powerless. You are the person with the most in-depth information about the issue so far, and it’s your responsibility to take that information and turn it into a potential resolution.

That saying we explored above? It’s a saying that I always repeat whenever I’m faced with a tough decision:

Tell me how we can, not why we can’t.

#2-Be proactive

So you’re sitting there thinking, “Huh, he must be talking to someone else. I don’t have any big problems that I have to share with our leadership at this point.”

No, I’m talking to you, too! You just have a different action. It’s time to be proactive. Start looking for ways you can cut costs, streamline your functions, save time for managers, etc. Look for some solutions to age-old problems, not just new ones. Not sure where to start? Ask some of your managers what their biggest pain points are with regard to the HR or recruiting processes. Ask your senior leaders what their biggest concerns are at a corporate level. Then take that information and use it.

Want to know the fastest, easiest way to prove the value of the HR department? Solve a problem that plagues the management team. Yes, it seems simple, but it is often overlooked because HR tends to exist in its own little “bubble” and never takes the time to actually find out what the business needs are from the HR function.

Then take the time to communicate what you’ve found in the way of solutions to current problems.

Pretty soon your managers will be saying, “I am looking forward to the next HR meeting to see what they have come up with this time.” Then ask for a raise. You deserve it. :-)

What are your thoughts on this relationship? Is it valued at your company? What has been your experience? 

You know I’m a big fan of Freakonomics. I talk about them fairly often. This is due in part to the nature of the content–it’s not explicitly about HR, recruiting, or business. It just ties in nicely with what we do, as you’ll see in this post.

During a recent episode, the host talked with a professional economic forecaster about what it takes to be great at forecasting. The gentleman talked through several points, but the one that was most pertinent to today’s discussion was the ability to make judgment calls with some measure of certainty attached.

Most of us have had to terminate someone at some point, and there is always that sense, no matter how airtight the decision, that something could come back to bite us. Consider the following two examples and think about which one would make you seem like you have a good handle on the situation.

  • The guy seems really angry about the possible termination. I think he could sue us if we’re not careful. What do you want to do?

I don’t want to point any fingers, but that is a fairly common response. You might have said that very statement yourself (I know I probably have!) But I think we can do better. What about this?

  • The guy seems really angry about the possible termination. However, I think there’s just a ten percent chance that he would take legal action, based on the specifics of his case. How do you want to proceed?

That second statement is pretty good, right? It gives some measure of probability that helps to assess the situation appropriately. Without it, the statement is vague and could really go either way. It could be 10% or it could be 70%.

Now, if you’re like me, you would probably hear that second response and wonder “Where did the 10% figure come from?” It can’t be arbitrary. It needs to be grounded in some sort of facts and experience. It can emerge from historical data, judgment, and other factors specific to the situation (disability, minority, supervisor, etc.)

The bottom line is this–we need to get better at using probability and other more concrete statements to evaluate effectiveness. When someone asks marketing about its latest campaign, they don’t say “We think it’s working.” Instead, they pull out data, share information, and give concrete examples of how the initiative is driving results. We need to do the same. Just like HR leaders can specifically learn some lessons from marketing leaders, we all can pick up a few ideas on how to measure and communicate effectiveness.

Do you make a common practice of measuring and communicating the probability of high-risk actions occurring? What has been the result? 

One of the things that I have grown to appreciate over the past few years is marketing. One of the first things I wrote on the topic was actually around what Chief Marketing Officers can teach Chief HR Officers. There is quite a bit of activity that goes on in the marketing department that we should all appreciate. From tailoring your approach to your audience to relentlessly testing your campaigns, there are some great insights in how they operate. Today we’re going to specifically talk about split testing.

The easiest way to explain split testing is this:

split testingLet’s say I walk up to you and hold out a piece of cake wordlessly. When the next person comes by, I hold out the same type of cake in the same way, but I smile and say, “Hello!” cheerfully.

That’s a split test, or A/B test. The point is to make every element of the scenario the same except for a single item that you’re explicitly testing—in this case, the greeting. Over the course of multiple tests (dozens or more, not just two or three apiece) you learn how that item affects the outcome of the experiment. Then you do it again but with another element being the item tested. Continue reading

credibility integrityRecently someone asked this question on Quora, a site that I sometimes drop by to help shed some light on the world of HR:

If I lie about a past felony on job applications, will the California FCRA keep background checks from finding out?

The first two responses to the question were focused on what the law covers and how the person might hide their information–interestingly enough I don’t see their answers on the site anymore, so I’m not sure what to think on that. However, here’s what I offered as advice:

Since the others didn’t address it in their answer, I’ll go ahead and say it: you don’t want to start your career off with a lie. There are studies that show the number one predictor of long term success is integrity–if you’re willing to sacrifice yours now, well…

If I was the HR director at the organization and found out later that you had lied about something like that, we would terminate. If you lie to me once there’s a good chance you’ll do it again.

This isn’t a dig at you or your history–this is a plea to maintain your honesty, especially when it gets hard. There are careers that don’t require you to pass background checks (small employers and startups rarely use them).

Continue reading

I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m a nerd of many facets. Recently I listened to an episode of Freakonomics on behavioral science and really enjoyed it, so I listened to it all over again, took notes, and created lessons for you guys from them since it was just that good. Enjoy!

  1. We need to make it safe to have conversations others won’t naturally have. That’s how you make innovation an integral part of what you do, not an after the fact, bolt-on, clunky process. The more comfortable people are in making innovative comments, the more innovation you’ll have. The more “danger” people face in making innovative comments, the less you’ll have.
  2. Economics focuses on a perfect world. Behavioral economics focuses on real behaviors from real people in an imperfect world. Don’t assume all else will remain the same when you make a change in the workplace. There will be some unintended consequence, either for good or ill.
  3. Don’t assume cash is the answer to motivating people. They highlight a newspaper losing customers that brought in an agency to help them use non-cash incentives to retain subscribers, and they were incredibly effective (see #6).
  4. Use role playing to demonstrate new techniques. Don’t rely on PowerPoint or even something as interactive as employee video communicatins just to get the point across, especially when the interaction requires dialogue. Role playing might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but it’s better than facing a new situation unprepared.
  5. Behavior trick #1 to get what you want: get some background on the “why” when you get a question/complaint. Use that in your counter. For example, “I want to cancel this subscription because I’m busy, have a full time job, and my kids are growing up so they need my attention” would warrant a response such as “Oh! Did you realize you could get reduced price movie tickets for you and your children with this subscription?”
  6. Behavior trick #2 to get what you want: using social norming (peer pressure) to help drive behaviors. “Many people in similar situations do xyz.” That pressures us to follow the norm and not take our own path, even if the norm seems to be against our own best interests at the time. “Most people choose x, but you can choose y or z” led to triple the conversion rate.
  7. Behavior trick #3 to get what you want: loss aversion is powerful. Basically, this means that it hurts us more to lose something than the pleasure of gaining something of equal value, even if we don’t particularly like what we have! Script: “I’d hate to see you miss out on that…”
  8. Reframe statements to be positive. Calls using positivity and the techniques above were 3x more successful with an 80% save customer/avert loss metric. Wow!
  9. More on social norming: we feel a sense of comfort doing what others do and mild anxiety of doing what others don’t. It’s the “herd mentality” at work.
  10. Human beings survive on inference (guessing about a situation based on known facts), so copying others is a fairly safe bet. people pay for big brands because they think there’s less chance of it being catastrophically awful.
  11. If you can play these emotions in other people you can get them to do what you want. In a position with a lot of influence opportunity but little hierarchical position power, this is a big deal. We are extremely irrational creatures, even though we like to think we are good at rationalizing things. Newsflash: we’re not. (click to tweet)
  12. The funny part is that these ideas aren’t new, they’re just being rediscovered and proven with empirical data. Shakespeare, Solomon, and others throughout history have used ideas like these to get their points across.
  13. Plus, advertising firms have been using these techniques for years–now they are gaining exposure elsewhere and for other types of situations.
  14. Moment of joy! They turn to HR/employment and bring on the Chief Analytics Officer from Cornerstone OnDemand, Michael Houseman. He talks about his mission to help companies hire and keep the best employees by analyzing all the potential factors of employment:  prehire assessment results, when the person was hired (or left), supervisor, shift, wages, overtime, etc.
  15. There is some correlation of pay vs longevity: pay enables people to stay longer. Data shows that a 10% increase in pay delivers a 5% decrease in quitting behavior.
  16. You know that “warm fuzzy” feeling someone gets from a raise? Research shows that feeling only lasts 1-4 weeks. (click to tweet)
  17. Wages are a lever you can use to drive behaviors, but other things keep your turnover low, and are less costly. For instance, finding better supervisor fit is a great opportunity.
  18. But seriously, how important is a supervisor in the employment relationship? The supervisor accounts for about as much reason someone will stay as all other factors (culture, job, wages, etc.) combined. Huge.
  19. Research shows that raw talent only predicts about 10-15% of success. This is the myth of “A players.”
  20. Measuring honesty in employment–people claiming honest were 33% more likely to be fired for policy violations. (click to tweet)
  21. The issue is in asking people if they are honest. Dishonest people are likely to answer falsely, and honest people are more likely to admit when they have faults here, skewing the numbers.
  22. The real way to measure honesty: applicants were asked about computer skills and level of tech savvy, then a couple screens later they were tested. Researchers compared the results of both data sets. In the end two groups emerged: one was honest and one was “creative” in their responses (cheating/lying, in other words).
  23. Honest employees tested better on virtually every performance metric, except for one: sales.
  24. And my personal favorite: employee web browser choice can indicate job proficiency. In their studies Chrome/Firefox users are better employees on every metric. They can’t speak to why that is or what the cause is, but the simple answer is they suspect users that are informed about technology and concerned with productivity will actively choose another browser and not rely on the built in (and poor overall choice) of Internet Explorer.

 So, what was most interesting for you? Anything truly surprising? 

employee communicationsEmployee communications are dominated by email

According to a recent survey, up to 28% of our time is spent creating, reading, and replying to emails at work. In the average workweek that’s about 11 hours of time that you won’t get back, and we do that every single week.

There’s something else I’d like you to consider trying this week: video.

I am a firm believer in the power of video for learning and for communication purposes.

  • It’s personal.
  • It’s easy to create.
  • It conveys emotion and meaning.
  • It helps to explore complex topics.
  • And so much more!

While I know we can’t completely get away from sending emails to our employees, I think we could do a better job of incorporating video into the overall communications we use to increase opens, clicks, and overall understanding. And no, you don’t have to be a 10,000-employee organization with a dedicated video team on staff. This is incredibly simple.

And if you happen to be one of those people who think video isn’t going to “catch on,” you should take a second and recall those individuals that printed emails because they knew that that whole “email thing” was just a fad.

So, why use video for employee communications?

In the comment above, you can easily swap out “marketers” and put your own name in there. People are used to seeing and interacting with video content online. Some studies show that up to 75% of executives watch business-related videos online each week. This isn’t just for your front line employees–it can be a valuable tool for your C-suite as well.

I shared a case study of how ADP used video for their open enrollment communications (not only to share information, but to actually drive specific behaviors). Check out How to Increase Benefits at No Cost for more info.

Try it for just 30 seconds

One of my friends used to walk around with a small handheld camera (and now we all have phones that can do this just as well). He would grab a manager and ask them to talk for 30 seconds about how they help to manage career development for their employees, and then he would post those on the internal network so that employees could see and learn from those little clips. What was the impact?

  • The managers weren’t out more than one or two minutes of time.
  • He could get them talking on things they might not normally bring up with employees.
  • And he (HR) was seen as bringing value to the employee/employer relationship through facilitating these discussions.

Explainer videos

As far as the type of video that we’d use, the “explainer” type is probably most common. Here’s a simple way to start: think about the top three questions you receive from employees that you have a hard time responding to via email due to the complexity or sensitivity. Here are a few examples:

  • How does our FSA work?
  • What will our tuition reimbursement plan cover?
  • What are the career development options available for my position?

Then, take 30-60 seconds to create a short video explaining how that works in plain language your employees can understand.

Seriously, it’s as simple as that!

If you’d like some more research and ideas on video and how it can be used, check out the infographic below. Continue reading