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Dave Millner

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How HR can sell itself to top management


Struggling to be strategic? Dave Millner offers his top tips to help HR directors to win friends and influence people.

Many HR functions have been downsized, not because HR provides a lack of strategic value but because of the lack of effective marketing. Too often, HR simply fails to provide quantifiable proof of its strategic value in a manner that top managers understand.
What is or is not strategic is determined by senior managers outside of HR. They judge strategic actions or programmes not by the words that describe them but by their actual impact on business results – and this tends to be measured in financial terms.
In today’s business climate, it’s more important then ever for HR practitioners to market the HR function so that the rest of the business fully understands what you do. Rather than just working harder, agreeing to unreasonable requests or focusing on delivering operational changes, a particular series of actions is needed that will win the attention of the CEO and the top management team.
Impressing the CEO and influencing his/her way of thinking is not easy, especially if your function is often incorrectly considered administrative or an overhead.
The first step in influencing the CEO is to understand him. The best way to do this is to identify the hot-button issues that get his attention and also what frustrates him. Business performance is the best place to start.

Performance speak

CEOs and top managers are always impressed by people who understand what is important to them. Hot-button issues are likely to be: share price and shareholder value; customer satisfaction; bottom-line profit; output (volume and quality); business and revenue growth; customer attraction and retention; gross, net and product profit margins and anything that offers a competitive advantage to the organisation.
Find out the top five problems that your top managers face. These will somehow involve people. You can develop a plan to market HR’s capability.

Marketing HR

It’s key to be seen as someone who offers credible advice and solutions to business problems. Seek out opportunities to:
  • Understand what crucial information top managers need to know. Is it a competitor’s activity? If so, talk to former employees that now work for competitors or see if suppliers or other HR professionals can find out for you. Because CEOs and top managers focus on commercial imperatives, HR needs to learn how to look beyond people issues
  • Identify the top three future problems that your CEO will face and the possible impact upon people and the business. Think outside the box by considering environmental, political or economic factors and reading articles and reports written by industry analysts and reporters
  • Find out what top managers want from you. Create a ‘more of/less of’ list, which lets you know what they want and don’t want. Try to talk to people or advisers top managers have used, as this should help you to understand how to gain their confidence.

Set the standard for new ideas

HR must become the function in which new solutions are created and the standard against which others benchmark the quality of their ideas. The overall objective is to make the CEO and the top team believe that whenever any outstanding people idea or innovation is implemented, the source of that solution was the HR function. This means spending time and effort focusing on the future rather than being immersed in operational day-to-day challenges.
Endeavour to:
  • Find out what information the CEO wants but can’t get (or doesn’t have time to get). Focus on how key competitors address people issues and summarise your findings. Concentrate on the business learning you have established. Be proactive and send the CEO relevant information and answers before he asks for them
  • Anticipate the needs of the top team by developing forecasts and ‘what if’ scenarios. Ensure that you have a team of trusted HR experts that you can call upon to act quickly and address any sudden crisis that may occur. Whenever a new problem arises, step forward with a pre-prepared plan before others have time to react, thereby showing your proactive and commercial perspective
  • Look at issues from the external customers’ perspective and use your own knowledge or internal networks to ascertain any changing needs or trends. Then, generate ideas for sales, customer service and product development considering the impact on people, jobs and organisational changes. CEOs and top managers know that customers determine the profit of the company. Again, it is about being credible from a commercial perspective
  • Ensure that you establish an approach in which you have to work more closely with your CEO and top managers. This will help them to gain respect for you as an adviser on people-related and business matters.

Market yourself

To ensure that you and the HR function become noticed for the things you do, you should:
  • Manage your ‘internal image’. People often perceive that HR is about routine and less challenging issues. Show how your function focuses on performance metrics and that you can demonstrate how tangible return on investment is possible
  • Become more visible by volunteering to give results presentations to key managers, to staff forums and in front of the board. Show examples of work or projects, such as case studies. This will ensure that everyone sees your results and business impact
  • Build your ‘external brand’ by getting articles into the press, technical journals and websites. Promote the CEO’s role in driving the people agenda
  • Focus on quality. Build a reputation for quality in everything the HR function does. Double check any papers that are going to the top team. All your good work and relationship-building will be wasted if the CEO spots a glaring mistake
  • Talk in the financially-oriented language of the CEO and the top team by using numbers and data in all your conversations. HR has to quantify its accomplishments in terms of output, competitive advantage, performance metrics and return on investment with emphasis on the future rather than the past.

Exceed expectations

  • Show, by using data, what value HR adds either through savings, income generation or other measurable items
  • Make the CEO and the top team look good because of their commitment to people in the organisation.
  • Demonstrate a passion and enthusiasm for what you do. Even if they are not interested in your subject matter, make them interested in you
  • Know the business, and the impact of possible commercial challenges, as well as top managers do.
The key is that whatever is sought from you or the HR function, do not simply satisfy the CEO or top managers, exceed their expectations. Following these tips should help you to become more influential.
Dave Millner is director of consulting at Kenexa and head of Kenexa’s HR Institute, which helps HR functions to become more commercially-driven.

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