As an HR leader, your job involves building strong relationships with your team. But if you want Human Resources to have a meaningful impact on your organization, there’s one relationship you really need to strengthen: the relationship with your CEO.
When there’s a strong relationship between Human Resources and the CEO, People leaders are given the same opportunity, authority, and input as other senior leaders, putting HR in a position to inspire real change.
“If a company actually believes that its greatest resource is its people, then people need to be at the center of strategic and financial decisions,” said organizational psychologist and leadership coach Carylynn Larson, PhD. “The only way for this to happen is for the CEO to treat the senior HR officer as equivalent to that of CFO or CTO — peers and partners in decision-making.”
As an HR leader, strengthening the relationship between your team and your CEO is a must. Below, experts shared why it’s so important — and the significant benefits of doing so.
Without a strong relationship with your CEO, you run the risk of HR being relegated to the “paper pusher” role in your organization, where your team is responsible for executing initiatives (for example, enrolling employees in a healthcare plan or hiring for new roles), without the opportunity to be a part of the decision-making process around those initiatives.
“In order for HR to be true business partners, they can’t be put in the role of simply executing on initiatives,” cautioned Patricia Thompson, PhD, corporate psychologist, executive coach, and President of consultancy Silver Lining Psychology. “Instead, they can help to inform those decisions, by bringing their expertise on such topics as workforce planning, talent management, and employee engagement to the fore.”
When your CEO values the relationship with HR — and HR has the opportunity to be a part of the planning, strategy, and development of organizational initiatives — the partnership can lead to organizational transformation.
Involving HR in high-level strategy conversations is a win-win. From the CEO’s perspective, they get HR’s insights and expertise; from HR’s perspective, they can get insights on the broader business strategy and goals. Together, they can develop programs, initiatives, and strategies that best serve the employees and the business.
“If the CEO sets the stage that the HR team is there to be a strategic partner to the leaders in the business — and that the team should be in the room when high-level, high-stakes decisions are being made — then you are going to have an HR organization that truly designs programs and services with the entire business model in mind,” said AJ Mizes, former HR leader at Facebook and founder of HR and executive coaching consultancy The Human Reach.
CEOs bear much of the responsibility for the success of a company. It’s a lot to manage, and often, the challenges and demands of running the entire organization can lead to a disconnect with its employees.
“Through no fault of [their] own, the CEO tends to be distanced from knowing the specifics of what’s going on with the organization’s employees,” noted Thompson.
But it’s HR’s job to stay connected to employees. According to Larson, “HR is responsible for keeping a pulse on the people, the heartbeat of the organization,” making Human Resources an invaluable resource to the CEO.
“HR can be the eyes and ears of the organization and help the CEO strategically understand the pulse of what is going on through the employees’ experiences,” said Matt Kerzner, PhD, Director at the Center for Individual and Organizational Performance, a strategic HR consultancy within EisnerAmper, one of the country’s largest accounting and advisory firms.
When the CEO sees HR as a trusted advisor, it helps to mend any potential disconnects between the CEO and the staff: The CEO gains deeper insights into what employees are experiencing, what they need to be successful, and how to best support them. This can then guide the CEO’s decision-making process and ensure that the decisions they make for the company are in the best interest of its employees.
“HR professionals tend to be the voice of the employee,” Thompson said. “Without this voice, CEOs could run the risk of making decisions that might look good on paper, but would be very poorly received by the workforce.”
Company culture plays a role in everything from employee retention to employee engagement to employee performance, and if you want your employees (and your organization) to thrive, building a strong company culture is crucial. A strong relationship between your CEO and HR is an integral part of building that culture.
“Companies with a strong relationship between HR and the CEO have a better handle on their culture — [and] culture is an important lever in attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent,” said John Philbin, founder of management consulting and executive coaching company Spectacular at Work.
As with organizational transformation, a strong partnership between the CEO and HR is mutually beneficial here as well. From the CEO’s perspective, partnering with HR to build a strong corporate culture can help attract top talent, which can give your organization an edge in the market.
“If the CEO utilizes Human Resources to help develop strategic initiatives to maintain and develop the culture of the organization, this can help sustain or increase the competitive advantage of the organization,” Kerzner said.
From HR’s perspective, working with the CEO and having an influence on driving company culture gives you the ability to build a culture that supports your employees and their growth over the long term.
“HR leaders are...likely to embrace a growth mindset, believing in the potential of people to learn, grow, and succeed when given the right opportunities and resources,” Larson said. “When these HR leaders have a strong relationship with their CEO, they can build learning and growth mindsets into the corporate culture.”
All organizations have problems. But if, as an HR leader, you don’t have a strong relationship with your CEO, when the time comes to address those problems and have the necessary candid, honest conversations, it can be difficult, if not impossible.
“If there is not a strong relationship between HR and the CEO, you tend to have very surface level, facade-like conversations,” Mizes cautioned.
But tip-toeing around issues doesn’t get them resolved. In order to successfully resolve issues within your organization, you need to be able to be open and honest with your CEO, even when it’s hard. This is only possible when there’s the foundation of a strong relationship in place.
For example, let’s say you get feedback from your employees that they find your senior leadership unapproachable, which is causing communication issues within your organization. If you don’t have a strong relationship with your CEO, you might not feel comfortable delivering that feedback — and communication between employees and leadership will continue to suffer.
But if you have the kind of relationship with your CEO that allows you to speak openly and honestly, you can tell them directly that they (and the rest of the senior leadership team) need to find a new way to connect and communicate with employees. Even though sharing that information might be tough, you can get to the root of the problem and find a solution together.
“If you can create a space where you can have honest and real conversations...you can get to the root of problems much faster,” Mizes said. “You can say what you mean without fear of judgment,” ultimately leading to more expeditious and effective solutions.
Clearly, there are many benefits of building a strong relationship with your CEO. Here are steps that you, as an HR leader, can take to strengthen that relationship so you can collaborate on the most effective HR initiatives and better support your team in the process.
CEOs generally think about things differently than HR, and if you want to get things done, you’ll need to speak their language.
“HR needs to see themselves as business people who work in HR rather than HR practitioners who happen to work at this particular company right now,” Philbin said. “This means knowing about the business [and] its strategy, and speaking the company language.”
Speaking your CEO’s language is the first step to aligning and building a strong relationship with them. But if you want them to prioritize your HR initiatives, you need to make sure that your initiatives speak to their priorities.
“To build a strong relationship with your CEO, try to assess [their] drivers and then craft your communication with [them] to resonate with those needs,” advised Thompson. “If your CEO is focused on growth, describe how an initiative will help that aim. On the flip side, if your CEO is more motivated by mitigating risk, communicate how an HR strategy can accomplish that.”
It’s impossible to get on the same page and build a strong relationship with your CEO if they don’t see the value of HR. If you find yourself in that situation, it’s your job to demonstrate your value, and show your CEO that HR needs to be a part of strategy and decision-making within your organization.
“Take the initiative to show the value that HR can bring,” Thompson said. “To build a strong relationship with the CEO, HR leaders need to demonstrate that they are more than ‘order-takers’ who merely attend to administrative tasks. By diagnosing problems, presenting metrics to build a case, and making suggestions, [HR can help the CEO understand] the necessity of giving HR a seat at the table.”
A strong relationship between HR and the CEO is an invaluable asset for any company. Not only will both the CEO and HR experience the benefits, but it will also positively impact employees. Start taking these steps today to develop, strengthen, and nurture this important relationship, and your entire organization will reap the rewards.