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Quentin Millington

Marble Brook

Consultant and Coach

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Three cornerstones for influencing peers outside HR 

HR teams face a perennial challenge: how to gain support for investments in people when the minds of peers are elsewhere. A crucial and often overlooked first step is to secure the personal cornerstones of influence.
cherry blossoms representing a blossoming workplace culture in which employees exert beneficial influence

HR directors must enable colleagues to support investments in people. A recent coaching conversation shows how one HR head positioned herself to influence peers and champion a shared agenda.

The final straw

Vicky was the last of the executives to leave the boardroom. She held the door for Joanne, the finance director’s assistant, who squeezed into the lobby with an armful of papers.

‘A long one, that, wasn’t it? Fancy a drink?’

‘Thanks, but I need to get home. It’s Freddie’s birthday and his dad’s away.’ Vicky fixed her gaze in mid-air and flattened despair from her voice.

‘Tomorrow, then,’ said Joanne. ‘Give the kid a slice of cake for me.’

Vicky’s challenge

Vicky emailed me the next morning and we met for lunch. For three years she had sought commitment to her ‘people agenda’. 

For Vicky, the aim was simple, the case clear: build a desirable workplace, promote employee wellbeing and invest in everyone’s futures.

At some board meetings, Vicky’s peers on the executive team listened and nodded. At others, the heads of Sales and Operations tapped urgent business into their phones. 

When anyone raised ‘just one minor concern’, the chief executive reminded the room they had to support their people. But the budget never came.

Vicky was striving for a fresh culture in an environment where lopsided notions of value – short-term financial gain over other goods – dictated strategy, decisions and behaviour. 

She wanted her colleagues to see the potential of the business to do more and, at the same time, to make money.

Vicky was striving for a fresh culture in an environment where lopsided notions of value…dictated strategy, decisions and behaviour

Personal cornerstones of influence

In working together, our goal was, as Vicky said, to ‘get everyone around that table to give a damn’. 

As we explored how to influence in a sustainable way, Vicky discovered what we called her ‘personal cornerstones’. These tenets of behaviour positioned her to secure attention when colleagues’ minds were elsewhere.

Every situation is different. Still, Vicky’s cornerstones, which are often overlooked in the storm of day-to-day pressures, are relevant to any HR director who aspires to champion investments in people and leadership.

1. Take care of yourself

It was clear on day one that Vicky was stressed and depleted.

Vicky saw working in HR as a vocation and had embraced her early roles with enthusiasm. A decade into her career, she was drained.

She somehow found time for her son, but had little energy for her husband. Weekends were time to catch up on email, holidays a chance to think about strategy.

Vicky knew about wellbeing at work, but failed to practise this for own benefit. Her rabbit hole seemed to her more noble than chasing deals or wooing investors, but it was nonetheless a rabbit hole. How could she influence colleagues from this unhappy place?

I noted that, given her role as facilitator of change, Vicky’s emotional burden was certainly no less than that of the peers she counseled on self care. 

The tactics were obvious: exercise more, eat well and sleep early; put down the phone. Making these happen, however, demanded groundwork.

Vicky’s commitments to self care

  • Love the woman, then admire the executive
  • Be clear on why you even go to work
  • Make time for one thing you love, every day
  • See how the office can almost always wait
  • Have faith to delegate important tasks

Vicky’s emotional burden was certainly no less than that of the peers she counseled on self care

2. Walk a mile in their shoes

Vicky’s experiences of banging her head against a wall had led to cynicism and anger. 

She had come to see her colleagues as idiots, as selfish or obsessed with money, or simply as terrible human beings. She then felt guilty for feeling this way.

In her mind, Vicky knew how the expectations of colleagues’ roles led to their different priorities. She saw how the industry left people with little room to think beyond immediate concerns. Society itself rarely promoted a people agenda.

Frustrations remained, but over time Vicky saw how her capacity to empathise had led her into HR in the first place.

As she stepped back, she discovered ways to reintroduce this powerful asset into her day-to-day work.

Vicky’s commitments to empathy

  • See how we each are a caught in a system
  • Connect with the individual behind the role
  • Seek out and listen to others’ stories
  • Talk in the language of other teams
  • Harvest frustrations for positive energy

Society itself rarely promoted a people agenda

3. Invest in relationships

Board meetings had drained her year on year. Vicky noted how she was asked constantly to defend her position, often as a postscript to another’s agenda item and with colleagues glancing at their watches. 

Decisions were made before people got into the room, especially when stakes were high or emotions at play.

I suggested that, whereas the people agenda unsettles many, her peers likely used their networks to bolster support for strategies that made them feel comfortable. 

This happens in private: few people then change their minds or commit to new action when staring at a PowerPoint slide.

The people agenda represents a shift in culture – in cherished beliefs and in valued practices. 

People do not let go easily. Attempts to influence from a stage or in meetings are futile without the trust afforded by ongoing relationships.

The people agenda represents a shift in culture – in cherished beliefs and in valued practices

Vicky’s commitments to relationships

  • Spend time in other departments, in person
  • Understand what stresses your peers
  • Co-create your agenda outside HR
  • Build a narrative around others’ priorities
  • Enable more, own less

It’s easy to jump straight to tactics. But effort invested in the foundations of one’s routines allows a more effortless and productive approach. 

Vicky’s cornerstones are a solid basis for the labour of influencing people whose minds, justifiably, are elsewhere.

If you enjoyed this article, read this next: Channelling chameleons: Why HR team’s must be agents of change in 2024

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Quentin Millington

Consultant and Coach

Read more from Quentin Millington

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