NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Leaders in HR may struggle to put their people-minded solutions into terms that win support from colleagues who focus solely on the bottom line. While the competitive talent market has pulled HR professionals into more conversations about business strategy and pushed them to collaborate with CEOs, CIOs and CFOs, they've only staked a claim to their own seats in the C-suite in recent years.
That conflict seemed to resonate for attendees of "How to Effectively Communicate with Your C-Suite," a presentation at the 2019 Disability Management Employer Coalition annual conference.
"I get a lot of 'noes,'" said one attendee, while others asked the speakers how to better share their solutions to complicated issues, like paid leave, with the CEO. The two C-suiters presenting, ReedGroup CEO Sandy Callahan and Chief Revenue Officer Kevin Curry, offered a few tactics to help HR pros — regardless of their titles — make stronger cases to the top brass.
Before the pitch
It's never a bad idea to have the CFO as an ally, Callahan and Curry said, both to give HR's proposed solutions greater credence and to triple check the numbers before the big pitch to the CEO. The CFO can be an invaluable confidant, but HR should not expect to win their support easily.
"In my experience, it's not a one-and-done," Curry said. "You never show up to your CFO and they say, 'Wow this is perfect.' But they are absolutely critical to get your business case signed off on."
Soliciting ideas and feedback from lots of people prior to the presentation will only strengthen the ultimate pitch — and it will help HR build a community of supporters who can vouch for the idea in the long term, Callahan said.
"They'll move on the idea when you've socialized it with the right constituency," she said, referring to C-suite leadership. For Curry, this workshopping phase is the ideal time for HR to align its idea with the organization's legal department, as well.
Before giving a presentation, Callahan and Curry recommended sharing the slides with the CEO and other stakeholders to give them time to review. With that in mind, HR pros should also expect their CEO to prepare questions and objections, Curry said.
"The CEO will ask you detailed questions because she wants to know you know your material," he said, "and [if you're unsure of something] you can always say, 'We'll get back to you.'"
During the presentation
HR professionals like to dig into the weeds — it's a requirement of the job. They should resist the temptation, however, to load up slides with lots of information, Callahan said. She urged attendees to think of their presentations like condensed elevator pitches and to lead with background information on whatever HR topic the presentation addresses.
"The higher up you go, the less knowledge they have," Callahan said. "Assume they don't have a baseline to operate from and give them three to five critical points. If you start there, half might know and half might need more time with it, but you have to have that level of understanding. Educating them is not an insult."
After the basics are covered, go right into the problem the proposal will solve for the organization, Callahan continued. While showcasing the solution's value, be careful not to attach a price tag to it too early on, Callahan said, as "putting numbers first can derail the conversation."
If tying a proposal's value to a specific number is difficult — as it can be in the world of HR — pinpoint a range instead, Callahan said.
"If you work too hard at a precise number, you're never gonna get there," she said. "Give them a high figure and a low figure." Reaching out to other HR leaders in the same industry to ask how they've assigned values to similar proposals can also help with this problem, Curry said.
"There's other folks to network with, and maybe they've been able to quantify it a bit — others in your industry who share your specific business case," he said.
It's at this point, too, that the allies HR established beforehand come in handy. When a question or concern from the CEO threatens to compromise HR's credibility during the pitch, HR can always invite the CFO — or whichever allies might be in attendance — to chime in with their expertise, Callahan said. Leaving space for all those questions the CEO might have prepared is another must, Curry and Callahan said, and it's easier to do with a short-but-sweet presentation.
When it's done (but not over yet)
It's rare to get any sort of sign-off at the initial pitch — let alone an enthusiastic "Yes!" Curry stressed that HR should not demand a decision from the CEO in that meeting. When the answer is "No," Callahan said that HR must view its efforts as part of an incremental change that might not come to fruition until later on.
"A 'no' is not a 'heck no.' If it's the right idea, just keep pushing it," she said. "Those closest to the work are normally the ones with the right answers."
Being tenacious and persistent is easier if HR can gather information about why a proposal didn't resonate. Engaging your CEO in an open conversation about it can enable HR to better hone its idea and be successful in the future, Curry said.
"There's always going to be competing priorities within a business," he said, "You want to start to get ready for presenting the next time — six months from now, a month before the next budgeting cycle. You want to know for sure, 'Is it an issue with the idea, or is it about the cycle?'"
CEOs also feel more invested in the idea if they're allowed to be part of the final plan, Callahan said. HR should invite them in and think about how they can participate.
"All of us as leaders have to take bad news well," she said, "and you have to roll your sleeves up and be part of the solutions."