This week I’m in Atlanta for the Microsoft Ignite event. Yes, I see the puzzled expressions. Microsoft? IT? What am I thinking?

conferenceNo, I’m not making a career change. I’m perfectly happy where I am.

Here’s the deal. I have been to tons of events over the years, and what always surprises me is the fact that I get something out of the most unlikely places. A stray comment from a 7:00am 401k administration session at SHRM 2013 still rings in my ears when I talk about workplace retirement plans. Yes, there is something of value in pretty much every interaction, and getting outside of the normal routine is a valuable practice in general.

This week I’m going to be talking with some of the team at Microsoft, but I’m also going to be seeing sessions and exploring concepts that relate to the HR world. I’m looking for the perspective from IT leaders and one of the world’s biggest technology firms around concepts such as collaboration, productivity, and delivering business results. Hopefully all three of those ring a bell for you, since they are key pieces of creating a valuable HR function.

Now, I’m not saying you need to pack up and join me, but this ties in with a valuable concept that I’ve been advocating for quite some time. HR needs allies in the workplace. Here’s a tip for you if you’re new:

If it’s only an HR initiative, it will die.

It might seem a bit cynical, but it’s true. People have had enough of the HR programs and fads. The needs of the business rule. And HR is often seen as a blockade. A problem without a solution. A challenge or hurdle to progress.

What to Do

So you need to find some allies. Create some influence. Network a little within your organization’s walls.

One great way to get started is to find some time together with other key people in the company, and that includes people leading your technology team, your accounting/finance team, etc. Those individuals can be your most vocal detractors or your most staunch allies, depending on the time and effort you have taken to understand their needs, support their goals, and deliver high value service.

Take these people to lunch. Find out what their challenges are. Learn about their best plans and their worst fears.

This is an investment in your own influence within the organization as well. Just to clarify, this isn’t sleazy-car-salesman influence. It’s the ability to speak in a language that matters to the audience you’re with. It’s the knowledge of key issues going on that currently or will eventually have an impact on the people side of the business. It’s in your best interests to be on top of these relationships and to make them a priority.

Now, as I said, I don’t expect you to head to an IT conference or jump on a plane for the next whatever-the-heck-it-is that accounting folks go to. But you can walk down the hall and start a conversation today. Here are a few quick and easy ones:

  • I’m facing some challenges with xyz. What sort of things are keeping you up at night?
  • How are you handling xyz? It seems like it would be challenging and I want to understand your strategy.
  • What is the biggest people-related challenge you see in the next 12 months? Hiring? Development? Retention?

Everyone’s situation, company, and relationships are different, but these are just as blunt as I would put them in a forthright conversation with a peer. In fact, I’ve used several of these to create those conversational opportunities to understand the other functions within the business, what their priorities were, and how I could align the HR practices to support them.

Funny enough, that’s what we call strategic HR. I wrote a while back about one of the best leaders I ever worked for and how that relationship helped to truly clarify what the HR strategy had to look like in that organization. Remember, if it’s an HR initiative, it will die.

What relationships are valuable to you in the workplace? What do you do to offer value in return? 

Want to be a true HR leader within your business? Learn to influence others. When you think about it, there are few decisions that HR makes with ultimate authority. A significant portion of what we accomplish comes through the influence, coaching, and guidance of our peers, executives, and staff.

I’d even go so far as saying that the majority of what we are proud of as HR leaders comes from what we accomplish without making the final decision ourselves. I can think of dozens of instances throughout my career where I was able to encourage and shape decisions that were good for the company and employees–but they otherwise wouldn’t have occurred without some outside influence. This can include anything from coaching an employee on how to communicate with his boss to helping the CEO understand the need to support a culture initiative.

One of the books I’ve long appreciated is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The concepts in the book can help anyone in any role, but I’ve always felt they are particularly appealing to HR because of our need to drive performance and action through those around us. Check out this list of tactics, characteristics, and methods for winning friends and influencing people: While some of them are simple (smile, make the other person feel important, etc.), they also have the power to change your approach and your results.

The book was published in 1936. Do you think these tenets still hold true today? 

Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

  1. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.
  2. Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Six ways to make people like you

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile.
  3. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  6. Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

Win people to your way of thinking

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  4. Begin in a friendly way.
  5. Get the other person saying “yes, yes” immediately.
  6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  7. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
  10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
  11. Dramatize your ideas.
  12. Throw down a challenge.

Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

A leader’s job often includes changing your people’s attitudes and behavior. Some suggestions to accomplish this:

  1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  2. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.
  3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  5. Let the other person save face.
  6. Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”
  7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  9. Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.

Which of these pieces of advice has been most valuable for you during your career journey? Do you have anything to add? 

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? 

Business communication writing skills are incredibly powerful and effective, if used correctly. I’ve talked previously about my communication style at the office (Better Communication at Work). I think that only scratched the surface of my thoughts about the importance of written communication in the workplace, and I’d like to delve deeper into that today.

business communication writing skillsOver the course of the past several years, I’ve used persuasive writing on numerous occasions to encourage candidates to accept job offers, defuse tetchy situations, encourage managers, etc. It’s one of the tools that I use quite often in both my HR and recruiting roles, and it’s one that I would argue is critical for sustained success. Let’s backtrack and set a foundation for business communication writing skills:

Persuasive writing, also known as creative writing or an argument, is a piece of writing in which the writer uses words to convince the reader of his/her view regarding an issue. Persuasive writing sometimes involves convincing the reader to perform an action, or it may simply consist of an argument(s) convincing the reader of the writer’s point of view. Persuasive writing is one of the most used writing types in the world. via Wikipedia

How to use persuasive writing at work

Here are ten quick ways you might need to use some persuasive writing in the workplace. Over time, you can build your business communication writing skills through each of these scenarios. If you have more, please share in the comments below!

  1. Converting a candidate to a hire
  2. Getting a manager to see your point of view
  3. Influencing a policy change
  4. Getting your manager to give you a raise
  5. Helping your staff to step up to your expectations
  6. Increasing your initial offer acceptance rate
  7. Making new hires excited about their first day of work
  8. Reducing resistance to change initiatives
  9. Encouraging meetings to flow smoother/faster
  10. Negotiating with vendors for increased services or reduced costs

Essential elements of business communication writing skills

Now that you have an idea of how to use persuasive writing, what are the key elements to making it work?

  1. Passion-You need to believe in what you’re sharing, or others won’t want to believe it, either.
  2. Perspective-Write from the reader’s perspective. Understand what their ideal outcome is and try to align with that if at all possible. This is the most important of all. If you can do this well and understand your reader’s needs, fears, etc. as well as they do, you’ll have amazing success with these techniques.
  3. Explain-This is not the time to take the “I’m an expert, just trust me” stance. Instead, try to explain the situation as simply as possible.
  4. Emotions-Try to appeal to emotions, but try to stay away from fear if you can. Fear is a powerful emotion, but too many pushes on that button yield decreasing and unpredictable results.
  5. Logic-Use logic as well. Using all logic or all emotion in your writing will eliminage a large portion of your audience. Tying the two together with facts will help to reach the largest number of people.

Business communication writing skills exercises

This is where the rubber meets the road. Let’s look at a few examples. Feel free to write your responses below or somewhere private. Just think through the elements I mentioned and how you can incorporate them to influence the outcome in the direction you choose.

  1. Getting a raise: You’ve been going above and beyond your normal workload for several months, and it’s resulted in some key wins for your organization. You have the data to back up how you specifically contributed to the bottom line. You’ve decided to write a short exploratory email to you manager to discuss a raise in preparation for a face-to-face meeting. What do you write in order to sway the decision in your favor?
  2. Influencing a policy change: Your leadership team has been discussing a key policy change that will require all staff to be at work for “core hours” from 8am to 3pm Monday through Friday. You believe that there is a better way to ensure full coverage for customer issues while not forcing every staff member to physically be in the building for that period of time. You have indicated that you would like to challenge the policy change, and the leadership team requested a response in writing. What do you write in order to explain the significance of the change’s long-term impacts to the organization? 
  3. Reducing change resistance: Your organization has decided to change insurance providers in order to save money. There are no immediate benefits to the employees, and many are happy with the current provider. The leadership team has tasked you with explaining the change to all staff. What do you write in your company-wide message to minimize negative responses and encourage support for the change initiative?

Wrapping up

I hope I’ve convinced you that persuasive writing, if done correctly, can be an amazing skill to develop and hone. I’ve seen great success with it, and I try to get better every single day through practice and learning from my mistakes. Building business communication writing skills takes time and effort, but it’s wroth it in the long run!

I’d love to hear from some of you who have used this technique in your own career. How did it work out for you?

The Titleless Leader: How to Get Things Done When You’re Not in Charge by Nan Russell

I’m in a unique position. Due to the importance of my role (hey, HR is important, right?), I’m a member of the leadership team where I work; however, I don’t have anyone who directly reports to me, which makes some requests a little difficult. I can’t tell or force someone to do something for me, and even if someone did listen, the diminishing returns of playing the boss card are always out there. If anything is going to get done, it will have to be through gentle persuasion and steady leadership. So when I saw this book by Nan Russell, I knew I had to check it out (it’s on my list of leadership reading recommendations). It was a huge hit, and I have some phenomenal tips and ideas to share with you today. Let’s jump in.

the-titleless-leader-nan-russell

What I liked

  • The book starts early with this great quote: “Discretionary efforts are tamed, ideas are shelved in heads, and interest in work has waned at a time when intellectual property and initiative are competitive necessities leaders can’t buy with a paycheck.” Paying for physical effort is vastly different from paying for intellectual effort, though many managers still cling to the ideas that worked 60 years ago when manual labor made up the lionshare of the workforce.
  • Titleless Leadership is common sense, but uncommonly displayed behaviors that, when practiced, create trust, positive influence, exemplary results, and natural followership. For a titleless leader, it’s not rank that gets results, it’s actions. Wow.
  • Leadership is a choice. You don’t become a leader by taking a class or reading a book. You become a leader by making “leader decisions” time and time again.
  • How do you get trust? By giving it first. Assume the best. The trust “calculator” on page 29 is an intriguing idea. It looks at what levels of trust you can delegate to people and when to give more or rein it in based on the results you’re getting.
  • The chapter on teaming with others starts with this phenomenal proverb: If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. A strong team can take the business farther than the sum of its parts.
  • Want to draw people to you? Practice self-accountability, and practice it well. When you hold yourself up to a high standard, others will want to achieve that same standard. Be accountable for keeping your own tasks on target, and others will want to follow that success.
  • Rankism sucks. If you don’t know what rankism is, it’s basically treating others differently based on their rank or status. And it’s a terrible practice. And that leads us to…
  • Don’t look for special treatment. Give it instead. Yeah, you heard me. Instead of expecting someone to treat you with kid gloves or offer you something special, you should be practicing that for others, especially those who wouldn’t expect it.
  • One more for this review since it’s getting pretty long. A little later in the book the author brings up an example of an organization that had some public fallout due to 10% of their staff using the government web servers to view pornography and other illicit content. It’s a quick and easy illustration for how we all too quickly focus on the negative and ignore the fact that 90% of the staff are doing the right things. I see this as especially valuable for HR pros. Too often we get bogged down in the negative and lose focus on the great work the rest of the staff is accomplishing. Don’t let the negativity take over!

Wrap up

I would highly recommend this book as a resource for anyone who wants to have more influence within their organization.  Just a word of warning: you will be ready to take over the world when you pick up some of these contagious ideas. Some of the concepts are very “common sense,” but even those are presented in a way that is fresh and invigorating. I’m going to be recommending this to friends and coworkers, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for you as well. Click here to get your copy of the book.

Click here for other book reviews.

The Titleless Leader
Reviewed by Ben Eubanks on
.
Leadership from the bottom up!
This book focuses on leadership and how to do it when you don’t have a fancy title or manager responsibilities. Highly recommended for those looking to advance their career and grow their leadership influence.
Rating: 5

As I’ve been pulled into more meetings and face-to-face interactions with our leadership team, I’ve noticed two things.

  1. Some of our leaders are very, very good at thinking on their feet.
  2. Me? Not so much.

Okay, I get that perspective is a big part of this discussion, but it’s really been interesting to observe some people taking on tough questions without flinching. Is it competency? Seniority? Age? Job function? What’s the secret?

If I had to say, it’s probably a good mix of all those, plus a dozen other intricate details (personality, familiarity with the group, etc.). So what’s a person to do if they are not very good at it to start with?

Lessons from improv

I did a little research to get some ideas on how to respond more naturally to those types of questions, and the “Yes, and…” tool is one that I’ve started implementing already. Continue reading

handful of cashEveryone in the audience watched expectantly.

The speaker had just challenged someone from the audience to come up on stage and try to get him to let go of a $20 bill from his clenched fist. The first lady steps up and pries on his fingers, but doesn’t have any luck. The next guy is bigger, stronger. He gives it a little more effort, but he isn’t able to force the man to let it go. Continue reading