CEOs don't care about HR

Written by
Professor Nick Holley

21 Sep 2015

21 Sep 2015 • by Professor Nick Holley

Why don't they care?

I often hear HR professionals complain that their CEOs aren't good customers of HR, that they don’t get HR or that they don’t give them a seat at the table. In my recent research I interviewed a number of CEOs and it was clear that the vast majority want to be good customers of HR and they do get HR, but they want HR to take on a more strategic role beyond doing what HR has traditionally done. 

If this is the case how can I say that CEOs don't care about HR? The core message is they don't care about the function or an HR centric view. They expect the core HR processes are done really well, but they don't care about these processes beyond the fact they are done. They expect HR to be getting on with the HR basics in the background but they don't want to be bothered by unnecessary detail. The only time they’ll care is if there is noise in the system. If they are hearing from the business that they aren't being done, or doing these HR basics is getting in the way of people fulfilling their core roles, then they will become interested. So HR had better focus on doing them simply and non-bureaucratically, focusing on enabling the business not enabling HR.  Later in the year I will be contributing an article about performance management and this is a case in point.  CEOs see it as a critical element to strategy enablement that CEOs want done well but when it’s a bureaucratic HR process that helps HR with its agenda but demotivates most managers and employees then they don't care about it!

What do CEOs care about?

What they really want from the function and care about is HR’s support in enabling the business strategy; building the people and organisational capability to deliver the business strategy.  Indeed what they value most as an HR Director is the Director bit, less the HR bit. They expect HR to bring its HR functional expertise but above all they expect their HR Director to be a ‘corporate director’ like any of their other direct reports. They expect a contribution beyond the functional role. They don’t want silence until a people related issue is raised. They want HR to be an active player counterbalancing the other players around ethical and long-term sustainability issues. They expect the HRD to:

  • Lead the leadership team through the people and organisational elements of the business strategy.
  • Shape the leadership team’s views so everyone on it recognises the centrality of people and organisation in achieving organisational objectives.
  • Ensure the leadership team doesn’t see people and organisational issues as a bolt on or something that HR handles.  
  • Keep the leadership team honest around these issues. 
  • Bring a challenging, professional viewpoint.

They care about integrity.

They also expect a more personal element.They are under huge pressure in what is often a lonely role.  They need someone they can trust, whom they can turn to for confidential advice or just to be a sounding board. This wasn’t always part of the job description or something CEOs asked for but it was something that many HRDs had stepped into. Once a CEO had experienced it, it became an expectation, so it is critical to step into the space and earn the role even if it isn't formally articulated or asked for. This brings us to the most important finding of our study, the most consistent theme.  For HR to fulfill this personal role integrity is the key. In this case it means honesty, confidentiality, discretion and trust, but also a lack of ego where it’s never about the HR function or me it’s about doing what’s right for the organisation.  Of course technical expertise, strategic thinking and commercial awareness matter but the absolute is integrity. Technical expertise, strategic thinking and commercial awareness give you the right to play as HR Director, but it’s integrity that defines if you’ll win the gold medal. 

So what?

 If we ask the “so what?’ question there are clear implications for enhancing HR talent and capability, who we recruit into the function (and who we don't) and how we develop them to be the credible HR directors of the future. Credibility isn't something you can develop it’s about understanding what makes us credible in our CEO’s eyes and developing these elements.
Having said that there are clearly some common elements that drive credibility:  

  • Integrity.  I am not sure it can be taught but it is critical that we look for it when we recruit and then constantly reinforce it in every conversation we have with every HR professional in our teams. 
  • HR skills. 
  • Key personal qualities: courage, curiosity, collaboration, confidence and communication.
  • Intellect: IQ and EQ.
  • Commerciality: applying all these elements in the context of the business’s needs, to make a difference to performance and sustainability.  
  • CEOs don't care about HR per se. They care about HR playing a key business role.  It’s up to us to recruit and train our people and ourselves so we can play it.