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Psychology At Work

Psychology At Work

To Align With the Business, Think Like a CEO

October 19, 2011
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
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In Frank Kalman’s blog last week in TM he provided highlights from the 2011 SHRM conference. It’s a good overview for those of us who didn’t get to go, and I recommend it to all.

On the opening day HR legend Bill Conaty keynoted. Conaty is the well-known, longtime HR chief for GE, who had his heyday in the Jack Welch era. Not surprisingly, he filled the hall with top HR executives and covered a wide variety of issues, which Frank ably recounts in his blog.

One thing that jumped out at me was where Conaty spoke of “creating an enduring HR vision,” one that strives to align HR with an organization’s overall business goals. He told the audience creating this enduring vision must start at the executive level; it must start with the CEO.

“If the CEO doesn’t have high expectations for the HR function, then you could be the brightest light in the company, but you’re still probably going nowhere,” he said.

I agree, but just in part. The problem with Conaty’s formulation is that it abdicates the HR person’s responsibility to create those expectations. Plus, it is unrealistic. What do you do - sit around and hope your CEO, or business unit head, has an epiphany and starts including you in all major business decisions? Do you call the board and tell them to find a CEO who will take you and the rest of HR seriously? Unlikely. Let me suggest something different, since you can’t change the CEO  - change yourself. Change the way you think. Start thinking like a CEO, and I predict you will find yourself drawn more and more into the mainstream of the business.

I have worked with HR and talent management executives for most of my life, and the struggle to find the proverbial “seat at the table” has been the most-cited complaint throughout. By thinking like a CEO, and changing your approach to issues from subject matter expert to how your work drives results in the organization, you will find yourself closer to that table than ever.

This is not some sort of self-help, psycho-babble like “if you think it, you can be it.” Take real steps to develop what psychologist Anthony Bandura calls “self-efficacy,” or the realistic belief one can accomplish goals based upon past experiences. And the best way to develop those experiences is to get out of the office and focus on understanding the business at the most granular level possible. Spend as much time as you can with sales, marketing and finance personnel, not other HR and staff people. Talk to them about talent development. Ask them if your review process is helpful and drives performance, or is just a pain in the rear. Think like they do.

Does your HR team have a business plan? Does it look and feel like the sales and marketing plans? Does it show bottom-line financials in the same format as the other functions? Is it in the same “language?” Do you build it on the same schedule, in concert with other functions, and present it alongside them at your annual review?

At Coca-Cola Enterprises we insisted upon our HR teams at all levels developing business plans on the same cycle, using the same format and financial analysis, as the business units. It was amazing how quickly, during those long days of planning, HR goals became one with business goals. There is no cleansing tonic quite as powerful as having your latest talent development initiative (that seemed brilliant in the HR conference room) exposed to the business teams who are going to have to incorporate it.

I spend a lot of time coaching corporate lawyers these days, and their complaints are similar to the HR community’s: we want to be mainstreamed with the business. My advice to them is the same as it is here - get out of the office, walk through production plants, make friends with persons up and down the management chain outside your function and learn everything you can about the business you are in.

Think like a CEO. And get ready for your seat at the table.

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