Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with over 1,000 HR leaders. Time and time again, their stories have sounded the same: They got into HR because they genuinely wanted to improve the lives of employees and make work better. When they got into HR, their dreams of doing high-impact, culture-shifting work were quickly squashed with low-level administrative work, being disrespected and dismissed by executives and bouncing from fire to thankless fire without being adequately appreciated.
It’s no wonder HR leaders are experiencing the highest levels of burnout among all working professionals, according to a recent study by Executive Networks. They are exhausted and aren’t doing the work they dreamed of.
Yet, in the midst of this, I’ve talked to a handful of HR leaders who have decidedly different experiences than the majority. They’ve gained executive respect, don’t get blocked very often, are more proactive than reactive and are doing the work they dreamed of doing when they got into HR.
What makes this 5% of HR leaders different from everyone else?
I’ve discovered five secrets that each of these top HR leaders share. In this five-part series, I’ll demystify these secrets so you can take a page from their playbook to transform your career and begin doing the work you dreamed of when you got into HR.
Secret 1: They speak the language of the business
There is a reason that many of the top, progressive HR leaders today came from other functions of the business, such as operations, sales and customer success. These “HR transfers” in their previous roles would build their strategy and focus areas, starting with the top business challenges, and once those were fully understood, they would create their own strategy in alignment.
Whatever language the business is using, the best HR leaders incorporate that language into their strategy. They get blocked much less than their counterparts because their initiatives and strategies feel like a logical extension of the broader company strategy.
And that’s exactly how it should be. An innovative HR initiative should feel like a logical strategy for the business. It can still be bold; it can still be surprising to executives when they hear it, but it must be wrapped in a meaningful business context that matters to the other executives.
When you speak the language of the business to other executives and clearly demonstrate how your work impacts them, you transition the relationship of HR from administrative to strategic. Other executives now have clarity on how the HR function is serving their function, unlocking their growth or unblocking their challenges.
Too often, HR leaders get stuck in a silo because they fail to follow this process. They either use HR-specific language or create an HR strategy that feels detached from the top priorities in the business. Then, when a new idea catches their attention, it catches the other executives off guard, and flags immediately go up. In this scenario, executives still view the siloed HR department as either a cost center or extra work that is distracting, so the inclination is always to resist.
The best HR leaders, when pitching a new or innovative idea, share it in the context of the business and tie it directly to the current reality of business, wrapped in the business context and strategy that all of the other executives are aligned with.
What does this look like in practice?
Imagine your company has decided that reducing customer churn is among its top priorities.
Here is how a strategic HR leader would sound when communicating their HR strategy tied to the company strategy:
“Executive team, I know we as a company are committed to tackling customer retention. I’ve been doing a deep analysis into our people and capacity planning to consider how we, from a people operations perspective, can help support this critical initiative. It seems clear that we need to do a targeted initiative and add some focused bandwidth on the customer success department.
An ideal solution would be to add additional headcount to the customer success team to create bandwidth relief. However, after collaborating with the CFO, it is clear we should exhaust all internal options before adding headcount.
Based on our latest engagement survey data, I’m confident there are two areas we should focus our efforts to improve customer churn without adding headcount.
● Role Clarity
○ I recommend collaborating with the VP of customer success to create refreshed roles and responsibilities for each of the roles inside of the department. Right now, the “scope creep” on the team is leading to inefficiencies that are solvable.
● Goal Alignment
○ We will be enabling the managers on the customer success team to ensure that the goals for the team are clear, motivating and achievable.
I believe these two initiatives are our best path to supporting the company in reducing churn.”
Communicating your strategy this way will make the HR strategy feel central to the business strategy, likely gain buy-in from the executive team as they immediately see how the HR strategy benefits them and the business, and enable you to roll out a meaningful project that will directly tie to business outcomes.
Speaking the language of the business is the critical first step, but you have to back it up with evidence. Next month, I’ll discuss how to leverage metrics and data to gain executive alignment and create a radical focus for your HR team.