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See the world as your CEO sees it if you want HR to have more influence

By Neil Hayward, WorkBuzz Customer Advisory Board Chair

It’s relatively easy for HR practitioners to believe they know what the people issues facing their businesses are. There is a global skills shortage, there are employees with heightened expectations about what the world of work should be, and those employees are bargaining more and choosing where they want to work (and for how long) much more carefully whilst leveraging their relative scarcity to the fullest possible extent which is one reason why wage rises in the UK are now outstripping inflation. Meanwhile, everyone is reading about how AI will impact jobs, performance and productivity in future without knowing how. HR finds itself in the middle of all these issues. Day to day ‘culture wars’ and generational tussles evidenced by endless debates about office versus remote working are also taking up a lot of time and possibly preventing a clearer future focus. It’s been like this for a couple of years now.

But what if HR were to step back a bit and look at things differently and also through a different lens? Only by better understanding what is really bothering the CEO can HR actually frame the right people agenda for the business. And some of those CEO worries are more obvious than others. Is it time to look at things a bit differently? I think so.

At WorkBuzz we believe that employees are your ‘Everyday Heroes’. They need to be listened to and understood if you want their best possible contribution to your business’ performance. It is possible to link this belief to what is worrying the CEO right now. You just have to see the business world through their eyes first. By doing this you can get a CEO to look at employee engagement quite differently, take it much more seriously, and thereby also increase HR’s influence over key decisions. You can help allay the CEO’s personal fears and be a huge part of how your business philosophically deals with the myriad number of stakeholders in front of it.

Here are the main issues for CEO’s as I see them along with how this links to employee engagement:

Leadership as performance art

The personal and professional insecurity of the CEO is rarely discussed. To the outside world the leader of a business is the person always able to find inspiration when ideas seem thin on the ground, and who effortlessly demonstrates that they have things all under control when talking to customers, shareholders, employees, and the media. It is something of a conjurer’s trick when a CEO pulls this off successfully though. Concealing their own entirely natural questions and concerns about strategy, people and what the future holds, and projecting confidence into the future whilst dealing with lots of uncertainties, and sometimes personal worries too, is to say the least very hard work.

All CEOs really do worry whether they have defined and communicated a strong vision and mission for the business, whether performance of the business is good enough, and whether they are being personally trusted and believed (they are no different to any of us and this is a human need) as a leader. Those that aren’t strong communicators naturally also tend to worry a lot about whether they are personally getting their message across too. They know the substance of being a CEO matters but that’s no good unless the performance art of communicating it matches it.

Here’s where an employee engagement survey can provide the CEO with valuable insights on what is working for them and what isn’t. The right feedback from employees enables them to change their messaging, change the tone, change channels, and provide more or less focus onto certain subjects.  Survey results over time also track the impact they are having in winning the hearts and minds of their employees. There isn’t a leader alive who doesn’t what to know how they are doing in this respect. Providing them with this evidence reassures them that they are saying and doing the right things and plays into what worries them the most on a personal level. Understanding the CEO’s psyche properly can help push employee engagement up the business agenda.

Going with gut feel

For every CEO there is also the dilemma of looking at what the data from the business is saying versus going with gut instinct whenever they make a decision.

All businesses are overwhelmed with management information and a blizzard of statistics such that sometimes it’s almost impossible to see the wood from the trees. But it isn’t a binary choice. As CEO’s develop in post it becomes ever more important that they can prove their gut feel for a situation is right because they have to be able explain and justify important decisions to their stakeholders, and they sometimes have to do that very quickly as well. Taking too long to make a decision particularly on people issues is often a mistake. CEO’s can wait too long or look for too much evidence to prove that their instincts are right. Sometimes ‘quick and dirty’ information is good enough to back an instinct.

The halfway house here is to use rapid pulse engagement surveys for parts of the business or on issues to support rapidly taking the right decisions. Here’s where HR can provide CEOs with the supporting evidence they need to quickly make the right call on people issues and to back their hunches. They can ‘nudge’ the timing of decisions and help prioritise the issues that need deciding upon.

A state of flux

High growth markets, recessionary risks, changing regulations, innovation, AI and technology, rebuilding trust post pandemic, an ageing population – these are just some of the things on the agenda of both seasoned and new CEOs. It is a broad agenda.

From the external perspective, the expectations of society on businesses have changed quite rapidly and dramatically. Keeping up with those expectations is becoming more and more important whether you define ‘society’ as employees, customers, prospects, regulators, media, the government or all of them getting the purpose of your company out there, and how it is making a difference to society at large, is becoming a far more important part of what every CEO does. Reputation is now everything. That reputation externally starts with what employees inside the business think and feel. And those views can’t be hidden or suppressed any more either as social media makes everything visible.

Given this, success is about getting customers, advisors, regulators, employees and shareholders all into a place where they feel they are taking something out of the relationship. They are all commentating on it anyway, so a CEO can only try and define this narrative by ensuring that the dialogue with each (give and take) is constant. Silence is no longer an option if it ever was. It’s not possible to do that without starting with employee engagement as a fundamental core philosophy and to an extent “you said/we did’ is in fact how every one of these stakeholders now has to be managed.

It’s not unusual for CEOs to talk up having good people around them but I really do sense now that they are appreciating the combined effort it takes to navigate all the strategic and operational uncertainties all around them. The need to be surrounded by the brightest and most diverse talent is more important than ever. This starts at the top table, but it is true at every other level of a business as well. Insights from employees inform a CEO on how well they are doing, and employee engagement is itself a lead indicator of lots of the business issues that will follow.

Pragmatism, decisiveness, and a keen eye for risk will always stand a CEO in good stead along with an appetite to keep learning and discovering new ways to overcome the countless challenges out there. The worst thing a CEO can do is allow themselves to get bent out of shape about the things they cant control. The best thing they can do is to keep up a constant dialogue with the stakeholders all around them and within the business, and make sure they are listening very carefully to what employees across the business believe, rather than what they are being told by the smaller (and often narrower minority) around the top table.

Ultimately both the CEO and HR have to deal with world the way it actually is rather than how they would like it to be. But, by understanding what the CEO is worrying about, HR can make employee engagement a much bigger issue, get the CEO to focus on the right areas and issues, and have more influence as a consequence. See the world as your CEO sees it and that prize will be yours.

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