Need C-Suite Buy In? Here’s How to Get It

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Mar 19, 2018

Imagine a world where every great HR initiative gets properly funded: Retention programs are fully backed by the C-suite, recruitment snafus are nipped in the bud before they become big problems, and even the CFO meets employee engagement initiatives with near-giddy enthusiasm.

Sound like some kind of far-fetched utopian vision? Maybe, but there are practices your HR team can put in place today that will bring you closer to making this fantasy a reality.

It all boils down to getting busy leaders to understand the important implications of people issues and what needs to be done. When this is missing, all the necessary hard work you may already be doing — like gathering the hard facts to report on turnover or recruitment trends — will be for naught.

The key is to combine a razor sharp focus on the business with strong visual storytelling elements. Follow these 12 suggestions to get the C-suite to hear you out:

1. Talk about revenue and growth

What is guaranteed to instantly get the attention of a CEO? Demonstrating the large dollar impact of a problem. “CEOs think of everything in terms of dollars because dollars are literally ‘the language of business,’” writes HR expert Dr. John Sullivan in this blog post on influencing CEOs. This means HR needs to be continually demonstrating how people issues relate to areas such as revenue, profit, and shareholder value.

Instead of saying turnover is at 19%, demonstrate that the upcoming increase in turnover will likely impact 3% of revenue or $3 million. If you lead with that kind of information, you will have a captive audience that is more receptive to hearing about your proposed solution.

2. Translate headcount into dollars

One of the most requested measures in HR is simply headcount. This is often reported as the number of people, when it really needs to be converted into how much the organization is spending on people. When you communicate the bottom line impact of changes, you can better demonstrate how driving talent outcomes will support business success (for example, how the retention of critical staff and high performers impacts revenue).

If continually assigning dollar values to your people makes you squirm, you are not alone. But a shift in mindset is imperative if you are going to get the resources you need to have a positive impact on your people through effective HR programs.

3. Use simple graphs

This may go without saying, but executives are busy people (“prioritize ruthlessly” is Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra). If your CEO can’t discern what you are trying to say with a visual in 10 seconds or less, then it’s too complex. As Visier’s resident UX expert, Max Bitel, writes, “Sometimes the most effective visualization is a simple bar chart; don’t opt for more complex visualizations unless they help reveal useful patterns.”

All employees

4. Filter out the noise

Sometimes you do need more than just a bar chart. Let’s say your organization is really concerned about succession planning. You need to trace the career paths for critical roles, uncover the lineage of leaders, and see how departments have developed over time. But if you include every employee in your visual, it’s going to be a bit of a mess, like this:

Instead, filter the visualization to just critical employees. Rather than flooding the visual with noise and hiding the insight, this will help you focus on the relevant career paths.


5. Display past, present, and future

CEOs are future-focused. “They want to hear about what will happen ‘next year’ when there is time to do something about it,” explains Dr Sullivan in his article on influencing CEOs. A visual trend line reveals the historical direction, the current direction, and how the metric will shift up or down in the future.

6. Include “So That” in your statements

During one of Visier’s user conferences, Dave Ulrich (widely known as the father of modern HR) shared a little trick to get business leaders to pay attention: Include the phrase “so that” in every conversation with business leaders. When you do this, your statements look something like this:

  • We want to reduce resignations of pivotal employees in product design so that we can meet our product innovation goals.
  • We have developed a plan to improve employee sentiment in our retail outlets by 10% so that we can improve customer satisfaction, which will increase profits by 2%.

At the end of the day, HR leaders who can succinctly demonstrate the connections between talent and business success are more likely to play a strategic role within the organization.

7. Present with headlines vs. topic areas

What grabs your attention more?


North Korean official: Take hydrogen bomb threat “literally”

Or this?

North Korean/American Relations

It’s likely that you opted for the first headline. In the same way that journalists focus on facts that will help the public answer the question “Are we safe?” HR must focus on facts that will help the CEO answer the question “Is our business safe?”

When the situation warrants it, focus on the most startling facts first. For example, instead of labeling a slide “Turnover Rates,” instead use: “Impact of Turnover is $20 Million.”

8. Consider your timing

Instead of asking “What’s on fire today?” your business leaders want to proactively manage risks and seek out blind spots. As I wrote in this article, the best time to find out if there is a shortage of key roles is long before a factory fails to meet production or when an ER wait time has entered its fourth hour. Is your recruitment pipeline full enough to meet your hiring plan? Your CEO probably wants to know now if revenues will be impacted by a talent shortfall, not whenever the monthly report comes out.

9. Include red indicators to flag potential issues

It’s no accident that the “check engine” light on your car is red, yellow, or amber. In fact, researchers have found that red can cause “a higher level of brain activity in the areas of perception and attention.” By using indicators equivalent to traffic lights (green = no issue, yellow = watch, and red = action required), you can help executives focus quickly on the metrics that indicate a problem.

10. Include a question in the metric

The best way to create a clean and effective visual is to include a question in the metric. For example, learning and development can address retention problems because when employees perceive that their organizations encourage career development, they feel more confident about their long-term career path. By asking, “How does learning impact resignation rate?” you are showing how the data relates to a specific problem, not just a fluffy HR solution.

11. Make benchmarks actionable

Executives are action-oriented: problems need to be presented with a recommended set of next steps. While benchmarks will demonstrate where you stand in relation to your industry peers and where you could improve, they won’t help your audience understand what needs to be done.

To get to the bottom of the issue, link benchmarks to other data. (You could say, for example: “we have one of the highest turnover rates in the industry, and our top performers who drive customer satisfaction are leaving due to work-life balance issues.”) When you uncover the “why” of the problem, you are in a better position to demonstrate which levers you need to pull to address the issue.

12. Provide a data-backed solution

When proposing a solution, your CEO will want to know whether it will work. This will require evidence. Obviously, pilot programs and their data-backed outcomes provide the best kind of evidence. If there is no historical evidence, however, the next best thing is to rigorously demonstrate how you are targeting the “why” of the problem and back it up by any available research. Without data of your own, this is the best fallback option, and it may be good enough to demonstrate how the proposed solution has a good chance of succeeding.

Visual storytelling for HR

People come to data rarely looking for data. A CEO is never going to say: “I need to see turnover broken down by tenure.” In all likelihood, he is asking: “How are people issues impacting our shareholder value? Is it going to get worse in six months?”

Indeed, data accuracy is important. But once you have done your due diligence with the individual trees, you need to present the shape of the forest and what that forest is going to look like six months from now once the drought has hit.

It’s up to HR — as the people experts — to lead the C-suite through the maze of workforce data and connect plans to specific business issues or goals. When this is combined with great visual storytelling, strong HR leaders will gain support so they can be drivers of change within the organization.

This article originally appeared on the Visier blog.

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