My coaching client sat across from me, exasperated as she asked this question, which really was a statement because she fundamentally believed their firm would be doomed with this new CEO.
I asked her, an HR leader of a mid-sized engineering firm, to help me understand why she felt this way.
She responded that their new CEO had already arranged meetings with the engineering and IT departments, but hadn’t invested any time in HR. She felt like HR was seen as an afterthought, and was concerned he didn’t find it a valuable use of company energy. As someone who handles staff relationships (among other things), she didn’t know how to reconcile this treatment of her department with her strong need for teamwork and employee validation.
As we discussed, we agreed she should address her concerns with the new CEO. The issue, however, would be helping a logic-focused leader see the value in a relationship-focused department. Using this as our jumping-off point, I developed five strategies for her to implement in her conversation:
- Focus on Strategic Alignment: The data she provided needed to clearly articulate and refer to strategic objectives that the organization has, and how the workforce and it’s data related to it align with those goals. For example, if a strategic objective is to “present our company to the market as having the smartest engineers” a report from HR that gave the percentage of engineers in the firm with advanced degrees and those in progress through tuition reimbursement would be a great way to demonstrate the supportive efforts of HR to ensure the company strategic goal in that area.
- Bring Valid Data: The information provided to the CEO could not be based on “experience” or “estimates”. A logical leader needs to be able to trust the data source to provide correct information. In this case, my coachee described how the personnel database is populated using a specific form that employees enter upon hire and at each performance review cycle. She also shared the verification process from inside HR on any degrees or certifications.
- Demonstrate the Problems Solved: when presenting information to executives, it is always a good idea to show how your team helped close any gaps. In other words, don’t just present a problem, but demonstrate how you solved it. In this case, the HR team worked with the marketing team to understand the reported percentages of advanced degrees in their industry and competitors. It happened that their firm was below industry average. To close the gap and truthfully report to the market the HR team spearheaded an engineering cohort at the company through a top engineering university program.
- Avoid Focusing on Feelings: A logical leader does not typically process information with emotion. Therefore whenever possible, provide emotional types of feedback with a strategic spin. For example, if 23% of employees in the last engagement survey reported that they are unhappy with the overall culture, do not share the information by stating “many are unhappy here”. Rather, provide trend data that shows that over the last 3 years the organization has seen a steady decline in this particular question/response and that the free form data and interviews conducted indicated that there were 2 primary reasons for this response (note the word response resonates better than the word “feelings”). In this case the reasons could be traced to the lack of collaboration and time for socializing, as well as low morale since the old CEO left. Keep in the mind the reasons in this example aren’t as important as how they are presented to ensure understanding.
- Close with Questions: A productive way to ensure that information is received from a senior leader is to end the report with some specific questions. In this case the HR leader asked the CEO if the following:
- Would he like to address the Engineering cohort at their next meeting?
- Did he have past experiences and therefore suggestions for creating more collaborative environments?
- Is there other data on the workforce you would like as you get acclimated?
Asking two to three questions is a great way to defer to the leader’s expertise while maintaining a dialogue about the issue at hand.
As aforementioned, there are likely several valid reasons why the new CEO had not yet approached HR, not necessarily because he didn’t feel it was valuable. However, getting in front of the problem by creating a data-driven presentation helped our HR director to address her concerns and make the CEO aware of them. As leaders and consultants, we often are expected to provide data to leaders of different personality and processing ways. Understanding your audience and how to make your information align to their way of thinking ensures your message is heard, and closes gaps in miscommunication.