Building Better Relationships with Your C-Suite Colleagues

This article accompanies Trust at the Top

Tuesday, November 1, 2011
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When I first received the request to contribute some thoughts related to how HR leaders can build effective relationships with their C-suite colleagues, my first reaction was, "Hmmm! I think I've heard that question before."

In an attempt to try to get my head around the subject, I did what I am sure you would have done. I Googled it. Which is how, in an unintentional act of "double-loop" Googling, I learned that a researcher before me had found 630,000+ hits on the phrase HR+Leader+Seat+Table.

Clearly, a lot has been written on the subject, let alone searched for. So if the question in front of me really is related to this larger seat at the table issue, why does this topic keep coming up and what can I do to help the cause?

I propose to accomplish two things in this article. First, to show you some research about how highly effective HR leaders behave. Second, to offer some questions to ponder and ideas that may be of value as you continue to develop as an effective partner to your business leaders.

The framework and research come from my friends at Management Research Group, a world-recognized leader in leadership and sales-effectiveness assessment, and one of the best-kept secrets in the industry. If you haven't heard of them, you have now been advised.

Plainly put, MRG conducted research on what it actually looks like when you see an HR leader being effective. Many of the findings are what we have come to expect, but there are a few interesting ones that may give you reason to pause and reflect.

A study of 1,770 HR leaders revealed that the following behavioral sets were the ones that were most closely related to effectiveness within the group:

* Focusing on the long-term impact of decisions throughout the organization. In other words, thinking and acting strategically.

* Being "technically" up-to-date and even ahead of the learning curve as an HR leader. It's just not enough if you don't know your stuff.

* As perhaps expected, we do need to demonstrate empathy. Given the old perception of HR leaders as the company's designated Chief Empathizers, research indicates that it is actually an asset for a leader to have more than an average amount of empathy. This is actually the case in just about every leadership role. It is how we connect with others to form the basis of effective relationships.

* Demonstrating excitement, including passion for the mission and goals, as well as clarity in articulating these to others. This may seem like an obvious statement; however, in my experience many mid-level HR leaders fall short in these areas.

* Being persuasive and also willing to challenge the perceptions and mandates of their leaders. Establishing a point of view and not being afraid of pushing back on authority are hallmarks of effective leaders.

These are all noble behaviors, and, having applied this model and research for more than 20 years, I think they are absolutely correct.

What I also found interesting in the study is what is not showing up at the very top of the list. Being consensual, cooperative and outgoing -- behaviors we have often equated with HR roles -- have less impact on overall effectiveness.

This doesn't mean that they are not important in certain times and places, but that they are statistically much less closely related to overall effectiveness among HR leaders. Where would you rate yourself?

Here's something else that I found really interesting. In another MRG study of leadership effectiveness, including more than 2,000 senior executive leaders across North America, the results are almost identical to those from the HR study.

Of eight top attributes (out of a total of 22 in the model), seven of them showed up on both lists. Acting strategically was seen to be the most important behavioral set, while demonstrating empathy was ranked third in both studies.

The similarities between HR and senior leaders are stronger than most other roles are to "the top". Hmmmm.

To bring us back to here and now, I offer the following thoughts about how to best create and nurture effective relationships with your senior colleagues:

* Be strategic. Without a doubt, the most important leadership attribute to embody. I agree with Ram Charan that it's all about execution, but if you haven't kept your initiatives aligned with those of the business as it evolves, that is Step One.

This doesn't mean you have to co-create the organization's goals and objectives, although that would be wonderful, but it should mean that your group's contributions align strategically with the longer-range operational goals.

Behaviorally, it could include engaging your fellow senior executives in discussions about their long-term challenges and opportunities. Even the act of asking questions that address a strategic challenge can influence the perception of your being a strategically focused leader.

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* Show you know your stuff. Articulate and prove your value proposition as the forward-thinking senior leader you are. Establish your brand and your point of view.

* Be passionate. Going hand-in-hand with keeping up-to-date on HR theory and practice is demonstrating that you are passionate about your role and the point of view you bring to the party. Research shows that HR leaders are more effective when they express somewhat higher than average degrees of excitement and enthusiasm. Of course, not so high as to turn others away!

* Focus on leading. You should also make it clear that you value and appreciate the opportunity to serve in a leadership role, that you know full well the opportunities it provides as well as the challenges and risks it entails. My own coaching of high-potential HR leaders often involves helping them delegate more and refocus their energies on leading, rather than on doing and managing.

* Show empathy. Be a coach and confidant to your boss and colleagues. Serve as a "human voice" at the table, even if few others will. After all, if you work for an effective CEO, he or she will be behaving the same way. If not, someone needs to lead and why not you?

* Hold true to your values. Part of taking risks as a leader is to be willing and able to push back on your boss. What are your non-negotiables? As the chief people officer, you are likely to be seen by others as the model for how all leaders are expected to act in the organization. Are you up to this?

Like a coaching session, if you got one good learning nugget from this, hopefully it was worth taking time to read it.


Alan Abeles is a founding partner of the Balance Point Group, a leadership-consulting and executive-coaching partnership. His background includes managing the corporate succession-planning program for a Fortune 25 financial-services company, serving as a founding member of a now-global leadership consulting start-up, and providing executive coaching to C-level executives. Alan is based in the San Francisco Bay area, but on any given day he might be found searching for a Peet's Coffee kiosk in an airport somewhere across the country, often to no avail.

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