Learning ‘CEO-speak’ key for HR departments

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series looking at why CEOs often can’t get along with their human resources departments. This column examines what communication skills and traits HR leaders need to be influential agents of change for their organizations.

Human resource leaders who learn “CEO-speak” are the ones who enjoy more one-on-one time with their CEOs and meetings with senior leadership. They gain respect and credibility. And they may even get a foot in the CEO’s door before other key executives. (Did you just remember the time you nearly ran to the CEO’s office to beat another executive there? It’s OK; we’ve all done it.)

So what is this elusive presidential dialect? Is it a tightly held secret? For starters, remember CEOs must pay close attention to their agenda, not HR’s. Every CEO has a lot on their plate. Style varies from CEO to CEO, but at any organization HR must learn upfront how the CEO wants to receive information (regular bulleted updates in an email, only on certain days, printed information in a folder?). Then it’s up to HR to not only learn but also initiate the right communication style for their CEO’s needs.

Here are four key techniques that successful HR leaders use to communicate with their CEO:

Communicate in a non-emotive fashion. It doesn’t matter if the issue is a highly flammable employment matter or something that just gets under the HR director’s skin, communicate the facts. Make sure the message is in the best interests of the organization, and spoken without rancor or pointed remarks toward other employees.

This is easier said than done. Restating the emotional noise just prolongs a meeting, makes you feel angry and lessens your credibility. You come off in a weakened light to the CEO. The successful HR business partners present their material factually, to the point and — this is important — also offer several solutions (nearly always available) to problems. With credibility established, a smart CEO generally asks HR’s best recommendation for optimal resolution.

Ensure no surprises. Catching the CEO in an employee break room or surprising him or her in a hallway with news of employee discontent or disgruntled fellow employees is a mistake, plain and simple. Don’t do it. There will be times when you do need to dash off the quick email that “Bob is on his way to your office” to alert a CEO that a difficult meeting may be heading his way.

It’s HR’s job to stay on top of hiring (and firing) situations, employees’ concerns, changing benefits, etc. throughout the company. CEOs appreciate a summarized, bulleted list emailed at the close of each week to keep him or her apprised of recent events. Good CEOs want to be informed regularly. Too many surprises reflect poorly on the HR staff.

Have the pulse of the employees. CEOs like to know what is going on, but the demand on their time is high. They must fit frequent travel in with board meetings, executive strategy sessions, customers and even suppliers. It’s not a surprise that CEOs often appear far removed from the daily rank and file employees. Having a 30,000-foot view of the company might be an understatement. Good CEOs know the dangers of that high-altitude view, and they count on HR not only for up-to-date news but practical advice on how they can stay more approachable to employees at all levels.

Effectively articulate the company mission. Understand the business and the CEO’s vision. Develop strategic relationships with other C-level team members. They’re advising the CEO and will have his or her ear. HR is the champion of the CEO’s views, mission and business agenda. That’s not to say that HR cannot have and promote their individual viewpoints. Good business teams are exactly that – teams.

Effective HR leaders will provide regular company communiques, strategic “company direction/update” PowerPoint presentations and facilitate “town hall” company meetings. HR communicates to the CEO that they get the “big” picture and can make sure they can be counted on to facilitate the message companywide.

Jean Imbler-Jansen, SPHR, is president of Strategic HR Solutions, an executive search firm and HR consultancy in Boulder. Reach her at 303-247-9500 or jimbler@sHRsrecruiting.com.

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