HR Leadership Column

It's Lonely at the Top

Developing a trusted network of other CHROs in which participants share their knowledge and experiences -- through professional societies, trade groups or past jobs -- can provide members with insights and potential strategies for dealing with very real challenges of their day-to-day jobs.

Monday, July 9, 2012
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Over the years, I've noticed something about successful CHROs who have great working relationships with their CEOs. These HR executives intuitively understand what their CEOs will rarely acknowledge or talk about: that the CEO's job is not only hard, it's lonely. 

The role of a CEO is hard because he or she must make decisions on a daily basis that may determine the very future of the business and the lives of the people working there. Usually, it's not clear what the right and wrong decision might be. In an uncertain business climate -- where competition is global -- CEOs must often make business decisions that are really educated best guesses, based on limited information, instinct and experience.

These CHROs know that having the responsibility for making the right decisions, day in and day out, can be a lonely existence. Unlike other corporate executives, a CEO can't walk down the hall and talk to a peer about the challenges he or she is facing without the risk of sowing seeds of doubt in his or her leadership abilities. There's similar risk in talking to the CEO's board members. This is why many CEOs seek out other CEOs -- those who are similarly situated and who can best understand the challenges they face -- with whom to network.

Successful CHROs recognize this fact, and do what they can to be a confidential sounding board for their CEOs. They provide honest feedback to the CEO, even when the CEO has difficulty hearing it. They provide objective assessments of the executive team members. They work to ensure that information is not only shared across the organization, but that information and input from varying viewpoints reaches the CEO to help him or her make the most informed decision possible. 

The CEO's role, however, isn't the only one that's lonely; the same can be said of those who hold the top HR executive post. To be truly successful in that role, you have to be adept at maintain confidentiality on many subjects. Just as CEOs can't discuss many things with the people who work for them, CHROs can't discuss many things with their co-workers.

The more obvious confidentiality requirement -- and I think the easiest -- relates to managing the medical and disability information of workers. These confidentiality requirements are driven as much by the regulatory environment as they are by good HR management principles. This means there's a regulatory roadmap to guide the CHRO.


A more nuanced confidentiality requirement arises when the CHRO serves as a sounding board for the CEO as the CEO sorts through talent challenges in the leadership team. These conversations provide the CHRO with unique insight into what the CEO is thinking about team members. 

CHROs who serve as sounding boards for their CEO often have access that other executive-team members don't have. This means executives frequently appear in the CHROs office in search of insight and guidance on what the CEO is thinking. 

The challenge for CHROs: how to use the insights they've gained by this special access to influence team members to improve their performance, yet not violate confidentiality. There's no single answer to the question "How do I do this right?" beyond "Let truth be your North Star." Every organization has its own dynamics and politics, and an approach in one organization might not work in another. As a result, CHROs have the lonely task of navigating this mine field, where the misstep of sharing too much or too little information can cost them their CEO's trust. 

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Just as it takes a CEO to truly understand the challenges and loneliness facing another CEO, it takes a CHRO to truly understand the challenges and loneliness of another CHRO. 

And just as I've noticed that successful CHROs intuitively understand that the CEO job is lonely, I've noticed that successful CHROs admit this about their own jobs. They develop a trusted network of other CHROs -- through professional societies, trade groups or past jobs -- through which participants share their knowledge and experiences, and provide each other with insights and potential strategies for dealing with very real challenges of their day-to-day job. They build a "sanity network"; a network of trusted colleagues they can call to ask the question we have all grappled with in our career: "Am I crazy or are they?"

Have you built your network? More importantly, are you using it?

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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