Tag Archives: Leadership

HR: The CEO’s Most Trusted Advisor

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? 

Intelligent Leadership (Book Review)

When it comes to leadership, we hear the word on a fairly consistent basis. But what does it really mean, and how do people “get” it? Awhile back I reviewed the book Talent Leadership by John Mattone and really liked it. I was able to get a copy of the author’s latest book, Intelligent Leadership: What You Need to Know to Unlock Your Full Potential, and enjoyed it as well. Here are a few of the key points that stuck out to me.

  • leadership bookWe all have mentors of varying shapes and sizes, and yet when we think about them, they are often people outside the business world that we claim as mentors: friends, family, clergy, etc. There is a definite need for more mentoring within our organizations, and we need to be growing leaders to take those roles. When you think about your managers, you can usually bring to mind a bad boss fairly quickly. What if the mentors we immediately thought of were those people closest to us in our working lives instead?
  • Speaking of growing, Mattone uses a phrase early in the book that sticks out to me. Here’s the quote: “I have come to believe that organizations that do not compulsively develop leaders and future leaders… unknowingly grow and multiply leadership with a high probability of derailment and failure.” Think about it–we’re all being developed and shaped on a daily basis. The question is whether it’s in a positive way or a negative one.
  • The 3 C’s of foundational leadership are capability, commitment, and connectedness. Capability is the set of skills and competencies available for development and enhancement. Commitment is the set of motivational factors that drive people to higher levels of achievement (passion, zeal, etc.) Connectedness involves the alignment with personal values and organizational goals.

The bottom line

As I’ve said before, I really like reading leadership books, because every one is different and I always pick up some new insights. This one was no exception. Mattone brings some great stories and data together to paint a picture of organizations that truly need a strong crop of leaders while demonstrating how you can make strides toward becoming one of those individuals. Get your copy here.

Like this? Check out other book reviews here.

Innovation Judo (Book Review)

innovation judo book reviewI’ve been reading like crazy lately and have had trouble keeping up with my reviews. Usually it’s even worse: I have no time to read all the books and they just pile up around me. This time around I picked up Innovation Judo: Disarming Roadblocks and Blockheads on the Path to Creativity by Neal Thornberry, PhD (Amazon). I’m a sucker for innovation-focused stuff, and this was definitely a great read on that front. A few good pieces I pulled from the book:

  • Incentives: Want to encourage innovation? Make sure your incentive pay aligns with what you’re trying to promote. Rewarding someone with a movie ticket when they saved the company $10,000 isn’t going to promote additional innovations (or it better be the most awesome movie ever).
  • NIH is poisonous: The “not invented here” mentality that many organizations espouse is a dangerous one. It ultimately leads to more silos and less innovation. Procter & Gamble used to be very closed off, and the book talks about how the business was losing millions of dollars annually due to that sentiment. Now it requires 50% of new ideas to come from outside the company, and it wants to increase it to 80%. That’s a powerful shift and a reason why the company still stands strong year after year.
  • Wackiness: We run into this all the time. People make decisions that make no rational sense and ultimately end up breaking something or causing more work. That can even be the CEO in some cases. Thornberry talks about how nobody wants to tell CEO they are making bad decisions. The good thing is that in the end it usually falls to HR, which can be an opportunity to improve the value of the CEO-HR relationship.

Bottom line

Innovation is about more than sitting in a room “brainstorming” ideas like “we should use less paper in our new hire applications” or “maybe we could print front and back to save money on costs.” It can be a serious differentiator between you and the competition. If you are looking to improve the quality and quantity of innovation your organization is producing, I’d encourage you to check out Innovation Judo by Neal Thornberry, PhD. Get your copy here.

See other book reviews about HR, leadership, and more.

Leadership in the Crucible of Work (Book Review)

Last week I took a vacation with my family to enjoy the lovely beaches of south Alabama. I was able to squeeze in a little reading, and here are the fruits of that labor. Today we have book review on Leadership in the Crucible of Work: Discovering the Interior Life of an Authentic Leader by Sandy Shugart, PhD (Amazon).

leadership crucible work sandy shugartThe book was interesting, and I read it like I mentioned in my previous post on reading for leaders. Here are a few insights from the book:

  • Sometimes followers are as important as the leaders. The author talks about the importance of having a clear, strong leader in musical ensembles–an example I’ve never considered previously. Leaders jumping up to “take the reins” in those situations would hamper performance, not improve it.
  • I think I wrote about this another time, but it bears repeating: leaders should ask themselves “Am I seeking genuine commitment from my associates, or deep down do I only want compliance?” There is a major difference in the two, and it would do us all well to think about the people we lead. How can we best garner commitment from them without forcing them into a mindset where they must comply blindly?
  • Bouncing off the previous comment, if you truly want commitment, are you willing to give it yourself? Like so many things (respect, attention, value) when you want something, you have to offer it to others before it can be returned to you.
  • Do you truly believe in the talent of those you lead? Do you believe they are great at what they do? Because if you spend all of your time thinking, “I could do that job better than them if I had time,” then you’ll never have a great team. And if they truly are not that great, consider replacing them. It’s not worth it to walk around all the time second guessing people.
  • This quote:

The most dangerous thing about communication is the illusion it occurred.

  • A note on the price of experience: “We run to the familiar. This is the price of expertise, the loss of the innocence of a beginner for whom nothing is familiar and so all choices are still possible.
  • And finally, a note on collaboration. We hear the word often and are expected to just “know” what it means. But it doesn’t have the same definition in the mind of each person (hint: for some it looks like an opportunity for micromanagement under the veil of collaborative working). The author’s comment on it made me stop and consider my own method of defining what collaboration looks like: collaboration enlarges leaders and those being led; micromanagement diminishes both.

So, if you’re looking for a book on leadership with some good, thought-provoking takeaways, you might consider checking out Leadership in the Crucible of Work: Discovering the Interior Life of an Authentic Leader by Sandy Shugart, PhD (Amazon link).

Leadership Wisdom from Dr. Ben Carson

dr ben carson leadership wisdomLast week I had the chance to see Dr. Ben Carson speak at an event. For clarity, this was a faith-based event, not a political one. I have seen the movie Gifted Hands twice (highly recommended!), and I was excited to hear some of his story in his own words. I picked up four pieces of wisdom on leading people and wanted to share those insights here.

Defining Diversity

Diversity is not a unanimity of speech or thought. It’s a respect for the differences around us.

We don’t all have to believe and say the same things to be diverse. What we must do, though, is respect others. Everyone is different from you in some way, even if it’s in terms of what music they listen to, what foods they like, etc. Respect those differences and the larger ones that still can permeate workplace decisions (color, gender, etc.)

Leading Technical People

Sometimes when leading technical people you won’t understand 100% of what they do. What is important, however, is to make them realize you appreciate and support them anyway. Carson’s mother made him read books and write reports for her to critique. The kicker? She couldn’t read.

She knew the importance of reading for learning growth and knew the skill was important enough to emphasize. She would highlight the papers and ask questions to help them realize that she cared about the assignments.

Motivating Others

At one point early in his career Carson was appointed supervisor of a road cleanup crew. The problem, he said, was that the crew wasn’t interested in doing any work! They were paid by the hour with a goal of 100 bags per day, so he negotiated with the team to pick up 100 bags for eight hours of pay plus any time saved. For instance, if they picked up the 100 bags of trash in six hours, they were paid for eight hours of work and got to go home early.

He said that his crew quickly became the most productive and others couldn’t understand how his team was doing more work than the others in less time.

How to Be Successful

Mr. Carson finished his remarks with this powerful quote:

Success is using your God-given talents to elevate other people.

I firmly agree. We all have unique skills, abilities, and talents. We should look for opportunities where our greatest passion meets our greatest strength and make the world better. It wouldn’t make much sense for me to try to build homes for people–that’s not my skill set. But planning a charity race? I am all over it. What’s your talent and how can you use it to elevate others?

The Front Line Leader (Video Book Review)

the front line leaderRecently I read The Front Line Leader by Chris Van Gorder while I was on a flight. Usually when I’m flying I take something fun/entertaining to keep my attention, but I needed to knock down my review pile so I grabbed this one.

I’m so glad I did.

I read it from cover to cover and made dozens of notes as I did. In short: this book is one of the best and most interesting that I have read in several years. It highlights Chris’ role as the CEO of Scripps Health Network and how he leads the organization, some of the practices they use, and loads of other interesting things about this innovative organization. Get your own copy.

The Front Line Leader Video Review

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Leadership Reading List-Why Every Book is Different

What’s on your leadership reading list?

No thanks, I read a book on leadership already. What else do you recommend?

Someone dropped that comment in a conversation recently, and I wanted to take some time today to dispel this notion about leadership books, courses, content, etc. The concept?

Once you’ve learned about leadership, you don’t need to know any more.

leadership book reading listIf it sounds silly to you to see it spelled out like that, I’d have to agree. Learning about this stuff isn’t a one-time thing. It’s like the great Zig always said: People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.

Different Readers and Different Leaders

Last year I put together a book club to help some local HR leaders by exposing them to good resources and adding in a networking opportunity. One of the neat things I learned was that even if ten of us read the same book, everyone walks away with different ideas that speak to them and their own situations.

In a similar vein, every leadership book is different, because they are all authored by leaders with different experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs. A book on my leadership reading list this month was authored by a former police officer who is now the CEO of a health organization. The insights and ideas I get from his writing are different from those that I get from John Maxwell, Napoleon Hill, and other authors.

Those two perspectives (both the reader and the leader) offer an exciting opportunity: virtually unlimited options for learning and growing as leaders! Continue reading