The Art of Influence

Getting a line manager to buy into a corporate HR initiative is difficult and complicated, yet very do-able, given the right approach and focus.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007
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A few years ago, when Rob Rosend was director of human resources for the Mid-Atlantic region of Aetna, he noticed there was a lot of job dissatisfaction among the 2,000 phone operators in the company's customer-service call-in centers, and he decided to do something about it.

The biggest problem, Rosend soon realized by sitting in on customer-service calls and going to meetings of employees and managers in that department, was a logjam of calls caused by employees being unable to make even the most basic decisions on their own.

"So the program that we wanted to sell to the line manager in customer service was that any issue that came up that was less than $100, instead of merely $5 or $10, could be handled on the spot by the customer-service representative," says Rosend, who today is president and CEO of HRImpact, a human resource outsourcing and consulting firm based in Audubon, Pa.

All went well, Rosend recalls, until he walked into the office of the director of customer service, who almost immediately said, " 'Do you know how much that's going to cost us?' and he started these calculations in his head. He hadn't really listened to the value proposition."

From a human resource perspective, Rosend wondered how he could influence the line manager to be open-minded enough to at least consider instituting this program. What carried the day was a two-fold strategy: First, Rosend took the lead in forming a think tank of high-ranking corporate executives, such as key finance and business-development people, and they got behind the notion. Second, this group agreed to a trial period of six months in one region.

"Now, as the HR director, I was getting the business to think differently," says Rosend.

The experimental program became permanent, with customer-service reps making decisions on issues of $100 or less. Cost savings were significant. And there were other benefits as well, including the development of specialist reps and even, in some cases, the elimination of some supervisory jobs that became unnecessary because, as Rosend notes, "you didn't need five supervisors running around to all these little cubicles all day answering questions."

For senior HR executives, the art of influencing a line manager -- often a leader of equal standing on the organizational chart -- is one of the most difficult skills to master.

That art -- what veteran business consulting psychologist Richard B. Marcus calls "consultative selling" -- begins with what he characterizes as the "pre-sell."

"If you need to provide a new service to a line manager, before you can do anything [influential], you better be running a pretty good organization yourself that's already servicing them," says Wayne, Pa.-based Marcus, who has advised hundreds of clients in a 30-year career.

The key to connecting successfully with line managers, experts agree, is to speak their language -- which, as often as possible, has to do with profit-and-loss, bottom-line considerations.

"The language of the line leader is going to be about results," says Kevin Cashman, founder and CEO of Minneapolis-based LeaderSource, an executive coaching and leadership-development consulting firm recently acquired by Korn/Ferry International. "HR professionals must learn their language because we can never influence people in a different language, right?"

In Cashman's estimation, there are four domains that make up the sphere of influence a senior HR executive must have in order to speak a line manager's language and successfully achieve buy-in for a new corporate initiative: functional power, which involves the HR knowledge and expertise that supports the line manager; strategic power, the influence gained by leading talent-management initiatives; personal power, or personal coaching for the line manager; and measurement power, providing convincing metrics to bring the manager on board. Supporting each of these four domains is knowledge of the company's operation and goals.

Business leadership-development consultant David C.M. Carter, founder and chairman of Merryck & Co. of London, New York and Sydney, agrees that HR professionals "must absolutely understand the culture of the organization that they work for. And they must understand the business model, what the business drivers are.

"I think the biggest mistake HR executives make," Carter says, "is they project onto the line executives some perceived new-fangled HR invention without actually understanding the problem on the line."

Building Support

In the pre-sell realm, according to Carter, the first step senior HR executives must take to gain credibility in order to achieve buy-in from line leaders for a new initiative "is to ask lots of questions in an empathetic way to gain understanding about the challenges and issues facing the line executive."

Another high priority, he and others say, is to find some way to build in support from somebody in top management.

For T.J. Fjelseth, that support was waiting for him at the door when he joined Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania in October 2005 as director of human resources, but achieving buy-in for a corporate-wide leadership-development and hiring-improvement program was still a mountain to climb.

Almost immediately after he was hired, President and CEO Denise Cesare challenged Fjelseth to pick up the mantle to improve the company's talent-management program -- with a key part of that being the attainment of buy-in from line leaders.

But how to do that?

"The message that I reinforce within HR is that we gain influence by providing information so line leaders can do their jobs better and so they can look better in the eyes of their supervisors," says Fjelseth, now senior director of organizational effectiveness for the Wilkes-Barre, Pa.-based health insurer, which serves some 600,000 members.

"And that means making information available in business terms; for example, connecting hiring practices with actual productivity and bottom-line financial terms. If you can have that kind of conversation with an internal customer about how strengthening their hiring practices [can reduce] the cost of running the business and improve productivity, then you'll get their attention."

Another way Fjelseth, in tandem with top management, spoke softly but carried a big stick was through creating what is known throughout the company as "the talent scorecard" -- a report card on initiatives and employee performance that is reviewed at the highest level of the company.

"During the course of the last year, in focusing on influencing people through using information, the talent scorecard allowed us to sit down with the respective leaders of different parts of the company and have a conversation with them about important things such as, from a talent standpoint, what are their development needs, their strengths ... [and] where are the positions where they may be at most risk if they lose a key employee," says Fjelseth.

The ground that has been gained through using the scorecard has "really been very notable" -- especially since the final-say review "steering committee" is made up of the president and CEO, the COO, the CFO and the senior vice president of health-plan operations. "So the conversations we're now having about talent in the organization are more robust in the sense that we're looking at more data," says Fjelseth.

Another big-picture strategy that is often effective in building support among line managers for new initiatives is to use what Ronald S. Burt, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business Hobart W. Williams professor of sociology and strategy, calls social mapping -- or organizational mapping. "In organizational mapping," he says, "a variety of measurement tools are used to chart the intersections between departments and individuals to identify areas of overlap and other forms of inefficiency."

But before all else, says Burt, senior HR professionals trying to put over a new initiative must ask the qualifier question: "Is it real?"

"I've seen a lot of human resource initiatives that are obedience charts that don't warrant a senior, serious person paying attention," according to Burt.

"HR people are in a tough spot: They've got a CEO telling them, 'I want you to do this' and it isn't quite clear how to do it, and so it comes into reality as a series of obedience charts that don't have much logic or substance," he says. "The company is better off if people don't buy into that. There should be a little pushback."

When it comes to organizational mapping, his forte, Burt says: "Finding places of inefficiency and then helping line managers get around it is best served by running an organizational network mapping analysis and then holding it up in front of them like a social mirror.

"They will see situations they've never seen before," Burt adds. "Smart people can figure their way out of a problem better than an interloper. You rely on their brains to show them the course they're on and how to improve their situation."

Oftentimes, finding and strengthening support from somewhere in top management that allows for the development of social mapping or talent-scorecard tools does not happen overnight, according to Marcus.

"Developing this support is a process," he says. "In one case, I knew of a woman at one of the big pharmaceutical companies who took two or three years to find a champion in management to help her build a women's leadership initiative within the company. She finally got it done because she was very gracious and very patient and she stuck with it."

Who Really Cares?

Another notable campaign that achieved a high rate of line manager buy-in was accomplished several years ago at General Electric Financial Services under the initial guidance of leading executive coach and prolific business books author Marshall Goldsmith, co-founder of San Diego-based Marshall Goldsmith Partners.

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Goldsmith and GE executive Linda Sharkey (now with Hewlett Packard) made the decision to rely solely on in-house HR executives to drive an ambitious in-house leadership-development program.

"Who better to be coaches than HR professionals?" wrote Sharkey at a later point. "Who better to get coaching from than those who see you in your daily work context? This is precisely what GE Financial Services decided to do!"

But Sharkey, Goldsmith and human resource professionals in the group also made a fateful -- and ultimately hugely successful -- decision: They decided to focus the maximum amount of attention on those program participants they judged to be the ones who most genuinely wanted both the program and results for themselves to succeed.

"The key thing that they did that was different," says Goldsmith, "is that they refused to work with people who didn't care. They said, 'We will work with you if, and only if, you do the following: You're going to get feedback from everybody all around you; you're going to pick something important to work on; you're going to follow up on a regular basis and if you don't do this stuff, we're not going to waste our time working with you because you're not going to get any better anyway.'

"They only worked with line managers who cared," says Goldsmith. "And guess what? The results were spectacular. The lesson for HR here is: If people don't care, don't waste your money on training and development. Put your money with the people who care.

"The ones who cared were the ones who would openly discuss what they wanted to improve," says Goldsmith. "They would involve their co-workers, follow up on a regular basis and get re-measured. And the ones who didn't want to do that, 'Good-bye.' "

Once a line manager has thoroughly and enthusiastically bought into a new initiative, and once they have gone through any and all training available, all experts interviewed for this article agree that ultimate success will still rise and fall on one key ingredient: follow-up.

Says Goldsmith: "Just because a line manager thinks it's a great idea doesn't mean [he or she is] going to do it. You need to build an ongoing follow-up and reinforcement program."

"For example, one company developed a peer-coaching follow-up process so that each manager who received feedback had a peer coach who reviewed progress with the manager's co-workers on an ongoing basis and did follow-up measurements; the company achieved outstanding results," says Goldsmith.

Then there's the mechanized, or electronic, follow-up processes. "The electronic processes are probably not as effective as human ones, yet they have done much better than no follow-up," Goldsmith says. "And most training, development and feedback have no follow-up built in. Usually you go to a class, you hear things, you applaud at the end, you leave and that's it. My point is that the more you build in ongoing follow-up, the more people [you have] who get better."

And, importantly, he adds, "the more the impetus for change comes from the line manager, and the less from the HR person, the more likely the line manager is to do it." (Goldsmith writes about ways to effectively influence "up" here.)

Another great truth, the experts agree, is that line managers do not become converts by "going to class."

They learn by doing. "One of the great fallacies HR people have is that people get better because they go to classes," says Goldsmith. "The reality is, if you just go to classes and you don't talk to people and you don't get involved with them and you don't follow up, according to our research, you might as well not even go."

One of the chief conclusions of an ambitious leadership-development program Burt led at Raytheon in the early 2000s was that active participation turned out to be critical to program effectiveness -- both during and after the program.

"The subsequent careers of executives who were quiet spectators in the program cannot be distinguished from careers of people in the control group -- people who never attended the program," an evaluation report noted.

Finally, for a new initiative with line leaders to be stamped "successful," experts and practitioners alike agree, it must be measured a success.

Says Cashman, who regularly works with senior executives at a wide cross-section of companies: "This is really where you can demonstrate return-on-investment. This is not only about measuring your own initiatives or connecting them to the line manager's objectives, it's also about making use of the research data -- and there's so much of it now -- to justify an investment in an undertaking."

For HR executives bent on most effectively dealing with line managers, perhaps the most important reminder is to never miss a chance to line up top management support, while at the same time always looking for ways to build a rapport with their own line manager peers in the company.

"What everyone is saying these days is true: Senior HR executives must insert themselves at the top management table," says Marcus.

Cashman agrees, and adds that "if you are a HR professional and you get pigeon-holed as providing only functions and services, you're dead."

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