What is HR’s Most Powerful Influence Lever?

By: | January 30, 2019 • 3 min read
Martha Finney is HRE’s Advice from the Top columnist. She is a lifelong HR career trends watcher and best-selling author or co-author of 26 books on HR career management, leadership and employee engagement. Her passion for the HR profession has given her unique access to CHROs, current and past, who trust her with their most powerful insights into what it takes to build a world-class HR career destined for the C-suite. She can be contacted via LinkedIn or at http://marthafinney.global/lets-get-started.

Seasoned HR professionals roll their eyes when they hear the term “seat at the table.” The very act of wondering aloud, “How can I get a seat at the table?” sounds so powerless, pitiful, low-potential, maybe even a little whiny. Fair enough. Can you really blame top-rung HR leaders for getting impatient with that question, which they’ve been hearing since the 1980s?

Still, the high-potential up-and-comers can’t be criticized for asking where the hidden treasure of career and professional power and influence might be buried. They’re just starting out in this whole people-profession thing. They’re discovering through real-life experiences that it’s not always so easy making a business case for the HR profession. And when they ask about that seemingly elusive seat, the snarkiest of mentors and role models are likely to say something like, “If you have to ask … .” Not helpful.

The most observant of HR careerists realizes that the power of HR ultimately lies in the ability to influence through building a trusted and respected reputation of discretion, discernment, judgment and business acumen over time. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. But neither does that coveted invitation to the table.

So, you might as well start now. These are the powerful levers you need no one’s permission to start using.

Richard Deal, executive vice president and chief HR officer, FICO

“Be able to combine essential data with strategic-alignment narratives to effectively argue for initiatives coming out of HR.”

HR and other support professionals struggle with the challenge of how to present a compelling business case for an investment. The answer lies in data, even if they’re data and research from other comparable organizations that can tell a compelling story, which would then help you justify the investment decision, because “it’s been shown to work in other organizations.”

Or you might be asking for a little bit of investment now because you want to demonstrate the ROI of a new idea. Then once you’ve proven your case, you will be in a stronger position to ask for more. How you tell that story is critically important.

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You’re not the only one pitching your case for investment or justifying an existing program investment. You’re up against the other functions competing for investment dollars. So the real question you must answer is, “Why is your investment more worthy than the others?’” Your ability to present data and the analysis of that data will make your argument lucid and compelling.

Respect the power of data to demonstrate the HR service to your organization. And then be able to analyze that data and present them in the context of the organization’s best interests. If you’re a young HR professional looking to make a name for yourself, the more you’re in touch with the data that underly organizational effectiveness, the more you can articulate those data to the right senior leaders in the right context, the more you will be able to add value to your organization.

When you’re able to combine data into your presentation, that’s when you will be viewed as a trusted business partner, where you’ve got the CFO sitting across the board table nodding and saying, “I get it. I understand why we’re going to spend several-hundred thousand dollars. It’s not just what our peers are doing. It’s what our people are saying. And I see how it links to our core values. I get it.”

If you think of yourself as the People CFO, you will come to every meeting with the data and supporting analysis in the same way the CFO would.

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Kelley Steven-Waiss, executive vice president and CHRO, HERE Technologies

“The power of your influence lies in your willingness to look at yourself as an idea broker among all your constituents.”

Think about an orchestra. Your job as the conductor is to bring out the best in all the players, supporting each one’s purpose to play each individual part with excellence. You’re not only concerned with the excellence of each player, as your job is also to ensure that the outcome of the group effort is the best one possible. To achieve that goal, you are the broker of all the interactions of all the performances. You’re the one who brings all the relationships together.

For instance, as the CHRO, your job is to make sure that the CEO is equipped with the knowledge and understanding necessary to get the best out of every single person on the team, including the board members. I often feel like Cyrano de Bergerac, coaching the CEO: “OK, now you need to have this conversation, and say this in exactly these words.”

But don’t wait to be the CHRO before you activate this lever. Every functional leader has an “orchestra” to coordinate so that the group effort executes to their goals. You start where you are and build that skill now. Then as your career progresses, you will be equipped to serve your group as your “orchestra” gets bigger and more complex over time.

No matter where we are in our careers, we have access to a variety of essential stakeholder relationships. And our influence grows as we help each stakeholder see others’ points of view. The result is that we foster balanced relationships among all the peers, who learn to respect our judgment, trust our discretion and take our guidance.

If your objective is to build your influence, ask yourself, “How am I adding value in my relationships with my clients and stakeholders? How can I seize the opportunity to understand the situation from each one’s perspective and frame of mind? What are they each trying to accomplish? How can I help them work with each other so that I’m in a better position to help them all moving forward?”

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Dan Phelan, former chief of staff, Glaxo SmithKline

“Make it your mission to give your leader what is necessary to be successful.”

Take the leadership role in making sure your business leader has the necessary blueprint for being personally and functionally successful. If you’re the CHRO, this is especially powerful when helping to onboard a new CEO. But you can take on that responsibility no matter where you are in the organization or your career. I think many HR professionals either don’t believe they have that kind of influence, or they’re simply not aggressive enough in putting themselves forward to provide that nature of support.

Some HR professionals express concern that taking on this role might politicize the HR function, potentially putting the HR influencer in an awkward position of having to take sides in a power struggle between two constituents. That doesn’t have to happen. There should be an objective process already in place where the HR professional takes on the responsibility of onboarding new leaders and getting them up and running, giving them all the best possible chance of being successful in their new roles. If that responsibility is institutionalized within the company, you, as the HR leader, have what you need to serve that need correctly.

That trusted relationship can continue over time beyond the roles that brought you two together in the first place. One of the highest compliments I have ever received was from a CEO, who sent me a note along with my bonus award saying, “What I really value is that you’re my consigliere.” (Not in the Godfather version of the term, however.)

This is the kind of relationship that I think is ideal for any HR leader to have with the person that her or she is supporting. But I’m not sure that many people in HR really succeed in building that kind of influence. Learn to regard the people you’re working for as more than just your boss or supervisor. They are your client. And the question to ask yourself is, “How am I going to help my client be more effective?”

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Here we have three distinct pieces of advice for building power and influence among your clients and colleagues.

Will they ultimately net you the proverbial seat at the proverbial table where no business decision is made without all the powerful people turning their faces collectively to you and saying, “What do you think?” That’s the dream of the seat, right?

Maybe these answers will get you that coveted position. Or maybe they won’t. But you don’t have to wait for that pinnacle moment for the power of your influence to be formally acknowledged. You have all this power within your reach right now, no matter where you are in your career progression.

The only permission you need to leverage these levers is the permission you give yourself.