HR Roundtable: How HR Can Engage Executives

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Jan 5, 2017

The December HR Roundtable (in Cincinnati) discussed a topic that is often overlooked in general, but gossiped about often. We don’t know how to communicate effectively with the executive leadership of our companies. In the hallways conversations occur with little context and extreme bravado assured that “we know” what they talk about.

The attendees gathered this month to take the conversation out of the hallway and into the open. Here were the three conversation starters that they took on to get things going:

  1. What do executives talk about?
  2. Why don’t executives connect well with others?
  3. How can HR bridge the gap?

The conversations were more intense and less lighthearted than usual, and that was a great sign. People dug in and the answers that came back were solid.

1. What do executives talk about?

  • HR (and how evil it is) — Okay, that was a sarcastic answer to get the room warmed up. It should be noted though that a large majority of conversations at the executive level are HR related. Topics such as: Individual performance, leadership capabilities, compensation and benefits, organizational design, etc. are just a few that will be a regular part of the work they oversee.
  • Market trends — There is a hope that this is true. This may be an expectation of staff who aren’t executives because they want the comfort of knowing that the people “at the top” are looking at the economy as whole. Executives who perform know their industry/company inside and out as well as looking out to see what is happening in the region, nation and across the globe.
  • Vision/mission/strategic planning —You can find few companies that haven’t made this trio of phrases an annual reality. Executives regularly tweak and review these organizational facets, and they should. Having these be clear and communicated amongst themselves and throughout an organization is critical for a company to succeed.
  • Meetings —There tends to still be a mechanism that executives cling to called meetings. At times, it seems that there are meetings to plan or conduct meetings. Getting together is needed at any level of an organization, but most execs run from one gathering to the next. There is a question about the effectiveness of these types of gatherings all the time because they often turn into habit. Meetings aren’t “wrong,” but you do need to evaluate whether they continue to be effective.
  • Business performance and results — This better be taking place!! At the executive level of a company, you not only need to know how to communicate in business terms, you need to show how the performance indicators are shaping your company’s output. There can be specialists within this realm of communication who lend their expertise, but effective executives can speak to results from a generalists perspective as well.
  • People — The majority of conversations as executives is the same as the what happens at all levels of a company. We talk about people. Now, those conversations tend to be about the people who aren’t pulling their weight, or who may be a true pain. (This can be changed by HR and will be covered later.) People are the topic as well when executives take note of people who are excelling and thriving. It’s just hard to break through the negative noise.

2. Why don’t executives connect well with others?

  • They deal in information that can’t be shared at other levels — People think they are mature enough and capable to handle all types of information within an organization. This is an aspirational sentiment vs. a reality. There are many things that occur within the regular interactions of a company that people can’t handle when they hear the whole story. Executives are tasked with being able to handle even the most delicate and confidential information as part of their normal job. They can’t just blurt those items out because it would be detrimental to do so.
  • They swim at the top — Please understand that this is not meant to be critical. The reality of organizational communication is that people tend to interact and communicate most at the level of the organization where they work. There is a desire for execs to be comfortable with staff from all levels of the company. It should be noted that some executives do this very well and naturally. It was shared that the size of an organization has a direct impact as to whether execs tend to swim at the top of the company, or if they’re willing to dive deep to meet people at all levels.
  • It’s not always their “fault” — As much as we may think executives operate at an arm’s length from others, we have to admit that people also keep them away at least an arm’s length. The interaction between staff who have roles below executives is often awkward and forced when they are asked to work with those above them. It may not be ideal, but is the dynamic which occurs in most companies.

3. How can HR bridge the gap?

  • Show people their blind spots — Everyone has blind spots. Everyone. HR needs to understand this and be the bridge for executives between their peers and with staff who are at other levels. This shouldn’t be a giant hammer approach either. Coach executives to make them more observant of others and share feedback with them on how others view them as leaders. Be intentional with a mix of tact.
  • Teach them how to acknowledge people on purpose — We tend to take all employees for granted within our companies. The expectation is that people show up, more than it is that they perform. So, start with that reality. Teach executives how to see their staff, acknowledge them and their good work and encourage them to take the next step to thank others for coming in. It sounds silly, but you need to build a base to grow from. This isn’t happening in companies. Try it and see how positively people respond.
  • Have a people first perspective and approach — This answer isn’t for the executives, it’s for HR. When we lead from a transactional approach, don’t expect a relational response. HR needs to take the lead as being “human” themselves and then set the tone for how others should be approached. Being a model for executives in your own behavior is more powerful than just telling them how to do it.
  • Assessment and development — We often think that once a person becomes an executive, they’re done learning and developing. This just isn’t the case. HR needs to step in and make sure people are assessed for their strengths and make sure those are being fully utilized. Development is needed because of the pace of change in business as a whole. Don’t allow your execs to stay put and get stuck. Keep pushing them to add value as much as they expect others to add value.
  • Don’t be shy — This Roundtable had the assumption that HR is not in an executive capacity. That is thankfully changing and shifting. Companies are seeing that HR can, and should be, in executive roles. The key to HR overall is that we can’t be shy in interacting with executives. They are employees just like all staff are. Treat them with the same grace, respect and dignity you would if someone is in a frontline role. Don’t wait for execs to come to you in HR. Take the relationship and regular interaction to them.

This Roundtable was a great way to wrap up the year. I hope you take the time to read through the sessions coming up in 2017 because they are sure to be solid in content, interactive in nature — and fun!!  If you happen to be in Cincinnati, please join us. See you then.