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Hilary McGuire

Tyler Mangan


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How to work effectively with the C-suite


Many HR directors are continuing on their mission to look for ways to demonstrate to other executive leaders that they can make a strategic contribution to the business.

But while such efforts are well-intentioned, it appears that they are having a limited impact.
Recent figures show that only four FTSE 50 companies have board members with an HR background. This would imply that there is still a long way to go before members of the profession are seen as valued strategic partners. 
A critical means of doing this, however, is to build trust with the C-suite by helping to boost organisational performance. In reality, this means that HR directors should be making the most of any opportunities to generate tangible business results rather than focus on increasingly sophisticated but technical HR solutions. 
But doing this effectively will require you to have a solid operational track record in delivering the basics well.
For example, conversations about the critical leadership skills required to handle strategic change in a growth part of the organisation can all too often be undermined by more operational matters such as a new hire not being given the right security access from day one.
Fit for purpose
While this may be an extreme example, it highlights the need for you to keep an eye on the detail as success or failure at either the strategic or operational level will have an impact on how your performance is viewed. 
Executive leaders need to trust that HR can deliver core services consistently before they will entertain the notion that the function can be involved in dealing with broader business challenges, let alone strategic priorities. 
While this does not mean that minor service issues will never arise, it does mean dealing with them effectively when they occur.
But another important thing to bear in mind is that C-suite leaders frequently highlight the desire for business operations to be ‘fit for purpose’ operations rather than ‘best in class’. The idea here is that you do not necessarily need to show dazzling technical expertise. You also do not need to work harder, but rather smarter.
The starting point is focusing on understanding the specific requirements of the business within its broader operational context and learning to talk about it using appropriate terminology rather than HR jargon.
It is also important to concentrate on those activities that will have a demonstrable impact in helping to move the organisation forward.
Focusing on the core issues
While it is tempting to take a given business requirement and come up with a technical HR solution, the problem is that such an approach is likely to be both inappropriate and dis-engage the very business customers that you are trying to support. 
For instance, if revenues are below expectations because too many key sales staff are leaving and feedback from exit interviews suggests that they are unhappy over a perceived lack of fairness in compensation terms, the chief executive is not going to be impressed if you push for the introduction of a sparkly new remuneration system that will cost a lot to implement in time and money terms.
Focusing on the core issue of how to retain key talent by offering fair compensation and coming up with a workable solution to do so will create a more trusting relationship with executive leaders, however. Their confidence that HR really does have the best interests of the organisation at heart will inevitably increase.
What this means is that a key challenge for HR directors is to demonstrate that they are leaders and decision-makers as well as technical experts. This involves balancing their technical expertise with a range of leadership competencies more often visible in other senior executives. 
It is not so much that HR directors do not possess such competencies (indeed there are a number of former heads of HR who have become successful business leaders and so can act as role models).
It is more that they tend to rely on their technical skills to try and demonstrate credibility and are inconsistent in showing their leadership qualities. Such qualities include:
1. Understanding the external market
It is important to demonstrate extensive knowledge of industry sector trends and developments in addition to HR-specific knowledge. Such knowledge is often gained by networking both within and outside the organisation and by contributing to discussions within that network.
2. Instilling a customer-oriented mindset
You need to assess and meet the needs of your internal and external customers. HR is uniquely positioned to instil this kind of customer-oriented mindset in the workforce in order to boost performance. Failure to do so will result in the department being viewed purely as a transactional support function with limited relevance to the core business.
3. Being at the heart of core business initiatives
It is vital that you understand the organisation’s business drivers and ensure that employees and key contacts are aware of all important initiatives within the organisation as well as the role that they play in implementing them. If you fail to get this right, HR will appear out-of-touch with the business, will not be in a position to provide relevant input and will be side-lined.
4. Being commercially switched on
Understanding how the organisation generates revenues is critical to developing appropriate HR strategies that align with overall business objectives. Failure to do so is likely to mean that HR’s priorities move further and further from the firm’s core priorities.
5. Encouraging staff buy-in
Because of their links with people across a number of business units and geographies as well as their involvement in internal communication activities, HR directors are often in a good position to persuade employees to buy into a range of company initiatives. If they are not, the danger is that strategic priorities will be communicated inconsistently and staff will be resistant to new approaches as no one bothered to involve them.
6. Making timely strategic decisions
HR directors need to work with other executives to anticipate the organisation’s future needs and ensure that they are in a position to make timely strategic decisions, which are based on sound data. Otherwise other executive leaders will end up asking why they are doing the HR director’s thinking for them and telling them what is required.
A key challenge for HR directors is to focus on developing these competencies with the same passion as their technical HR skills and to seize opportunities to demonstrate them in front of other senior executives. 
By adopting this kind of balanced approach, they will create a more effective basis from which to apply their technical expertise and ensure that they have a greater impact in boosting organisational performance.
They will also help the C-suite to see that the HR function understands the organisation’s core business drivers and supports them with ‘fit for purpose’ HR services that are consistently applied, proving that it truly is a strategic business partner.

Hilary McGuire is a director at leadership consultancy, Tyler Mangan.

One Response

  1. HR Directors and the C Suite

     Hilary, good article.   Having served on the Executive Committees of two public companies and one private company I would endorse your comments around commercial awareness, interpersonal and organisational awareness and leadership.  Understand the business, focus on the needs of the business as they relate to people, work closely with your executive colleagues and focus on leading your own team with authentic leadership.  Think strategically, but pay attention to detail and back this with a strong work ethic and you are in with a chance, Chris

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