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HR Leadership Column

When ROI Means Return on Influence

To make a meaningful impact in an organization, HR leaders need to be able to successfully influence senior leadership. Here are some proven tips on how to gain credibility and, in turn, get other business leaders to listen to your perspective.

Monday, November 28, 2011
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When I was growing up, my family had dinner together most nights. My parents both worked, and my mother tried to use the time to find out what had happened to everyone that day, while my father read the newspaper.

With four kids, there was a lot to talk about (except during the sulking teen years) and, of course, debates/fights were part of the ritual. While I only generally recall the details of those dinners, one stands out clearly in my memory.

It was one at which my father, having finished his newspaper, joined the conversation. I don't remember the topic, but I do remember really disagreeing with him on something, and calmly and clearly explaining to him why he was wrong.

Dad wasn't the most flexible guy, so I didn't really think it would work.

He listened, then nodded his head and simply said. "I see your point. You're right."

What a gift he gave me! I learned that day that it was possible to influence someone very important in my life and actually change his mind.

Dictionary.com defines influence as "the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others."

For HR executives, the ability to influence others is surely a key competency. While it's required of all leaders, I think it's more critical for HR. After all, much of what HR can get done in any organization is dependent on working through others.

A performance-management system requires managers to provide regular, useful feedback to employees. A compensation system that's linked to the strategy of the enterprise requires managers to accurately explain compensation decisions to their direct reports. And building a culture of mutual respect requires leaders throughout the organization to model respectful behaviors.

I've spoken to HR executives who previously led operating units and -- without exception -- all have commented on how much more difficult the HR role was than they had expected. The reason: They couldn't operationally control desired outcomes. Instead, they had to use their influence and work through others, which was more time-consuming and difficult.

The ability to influence -- having effective written and oral communication skills and effective interpersonal skills -- is part of being a "credible activist." That's one of the HR competencies put forth by Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank, and I'm sure it will be part of their updated HR model, which is scheduled to be released shortly.

Their opinion is not an isolated one.

Influence was also determined to be one of the most important competencies for leaders with multi-country responsibilities, according to the 2011 Global Leadership Survey by the Corporate Leadership Council and, according to the 2011 book, What is Global Leadership?, researchers Ernest Gundling, Terry Hogan and Karen Cvitkovich identified "influencing across boundaries" as one of the 10 key traits of successful global leaders.

So how does an HR executive gain influence?

First, make sure to take care of the transactional pieces of your HR responsibilities. If employees aren't paid correctly and on time, or don't receive their benefits accurately and without hassle, it's going to be difficult to be influential.

Why would another executive be influenced to take some action when HR hasn't taken action to correct its own problems?

Second -- and this is one of my recurring points -- invest the time and study necessary to have a deep knowledge of financial and other non-HR-related issues confronting the business. It's difficult to be persuasive and argue for a position or outcome if you can't also fully articulate the impact of the position or outcome on the business.

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Third, realize that every communication can impact HR's ability to exert influence within an organization. As executive coach Marshall Goldsmith advises, when presenting ideas to upper management, realize that it is your responsibility to sell -- not their responsibility to buy.

HR executives need to communicate information clearly and concisely, and with appropriate analytics to help make a point. Since most non-HR executives don't understand what HR does beyond performance management and compensation, this can be a challenge for some HR executives.

They fail to communicate in the language of business, instead using HR-ese. When they do this, non-HR executives just hear "blah, blah, blah, blah ... " and will never be influenced. HR leaders need to put themselves in their listeners' shoes when crafting messages.

Fourth, take the time to listen. Visit the people whose buy-in is needed. Network within the organization to seek out opinions about ideas or efforts you're championing. This isn't being "political," it's pragmatic. Consider the input you get, and reflect it as the effort moves forward. Not only does this have the benefit of improving buy-in with the initiative's launch, but it has the added virtue of improving on the effort or idea.

Fifth, demonstrate your courage. Most people hate confrontations, but if you are able and willing to hold yourself and others accountable, and confront problems head-on, you will gain respect and influence within the organization.

I never told my father how much that dinner conversation meant to me, but I'd like to think that he knew as he watched my career unfold.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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