The CEO Wish List: What the CEO Wants From HR


By Natalie Michael, CHRP

About two years ago, I started running CEO peer learning groups with MacKay CEO Forums.  Essentially, this involves chairing a meeting with up to 14 non-compete CEOs who come together to talk about their toughest business challenges.  I now run three CEO forums and work with approximately 50 CEOs as a forum chair and executive coach.

Through this experience I hear first-hand what CEOs want from and value in HR—as well as what they are not getting.  Interestingly, when it comes to crafting a CEO wish list regarding HR, five topics rise to top time and again.

Wish 1: Be a Culture Champion
The number one CEO “wish” is to have an HR team that can demystify and lead a culture change initiative, particularly when a new CEO comes on board.

When stale behaviour gets embedded into the culture the CEO is asking themselves some important questions:  What is the culture we want?  How do we change it?  Can we change it?

Most CEOs nowadays have taken seminars on culture change, and they understand that culture is important, yet they want and need a roadmap and tools for instilling the change they want.  Instead of typical mission and vision setting exercises, they are often looking for ways to embed key behaviours and values into the culture and across teams—as well as a realistic approach for shifting behaviours in long standing employees.

They also want their own high expectations managed, so that they don’t push so hard that they lose either people who make things happen or credibility with the board of directors.  As an HR leader, if you can provide the CEO with strategies and tools for changing the culture—and help them create a roadmap and ways to gauge the degree of culture change over time—it will be career gold for you.

Wish 2: Be a Facilitator for Challenging Conversations
In almost every CEO Forum, this hot button topic arises: how to facilitate a conversation with a critical employee who needs an attitude adjustment.  When facing these conversations, many CEOs often fees ill, and even a bit insecure about their ability to have it go over smoothly.

To help them through these critical conversations, CEOs are often looking for advice and guidance on how to craft the conversation in a way that preserves relationships and honours their own integrity and values. CEOs who have a top HR leader who doubles as a “coach” and confidante value it.

As an HR professional, if you can help guide them through these tough discussions, give them tools to prepare, and support them before, during, and after the conversation they will value your contribution and support immensely.

Wish 3: Strengthen Top Executive Teams
At least twice a year, every CEO is faced with the question, “What should we do for team building?”  While many CEOs have read Patrick Lencioni’s books, The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, and have incorporated topics like trust building and vulnerability into their team dialogues, they are now asking:  “What’s next?”

CEO’s need a constant stream of new and fresh ideas for team building that delivers solid results.  The team building really happens on two levels:  1) team integration and 2) fun.

Team integration is about getting the team on the same page and building trust through dialogue, while creating systems of accountability for behaviour and results.  Most CEOS these days know how to hold executives accountable for delivering business results, but holding them accountable for productive behaviours is more challenging.  If you can guide the CEO through team building activities like creating a team charter, identifying team values and behaviours—and fresh ideas for keeping those “behaviours” alive in the organization—it will add value to the CEO and increase your value as an HR leader.

The second dimension of executive team building is fun.  CEOs are often looking for unique and fun experiences to unite and let team members bond.  I have found CEOs will often take on such “party planning” themselves because they want it to be a positive and memorable experience, yet get irritated by the time commitment. Good ideas at their fingertips go a long way.

As an HR leader you don’t need to be party planner, but if you can stay on top of fun local events and team building opportunities it will save the CEO time and aggravation.  Hint:  Martini Madness at the Chateau Whistler is worth checking out, as is Backyard Farm in Osoyoos.

Wish 4: Approach HR Through a Business Lens
I have noticed that CEOs really value HR people who can be “one with the people,” keep their ear to the ground, and connect with staff, yet if this comes with a lack of credibility at the executive table, it is not enough.

For example, one CEO I know really values his HR leader’s ability to walk the floor and connect with employees at all levels, yet he gets frustrated by the HR’s leader inability to influence key HR discussions with their peers.  Simply put, the CEO thinks the HR leader is too “fluffy” in how they communicate about important HR initiatives.

CEOs want to talk about HR through a business lens, and for HR leaders to show that the HR priorities support the top business priorities and desired culture change.  Although they value “heart” in the HR function, CEOs also want assertiveness and a direct style.

HR executives who can fit the bill on both fronts have invested in developing their business acumen and cultivated a flexibility in style. If they are a natural “thinking type,” they have cultivated emotional intelligence, empathy, and compassion. Similarly, if they are a natural “feeling type,” they have developed their assertiveness, self-expression, and direct communication.

Wish 5:  Find Top Talent
When it comes time to hire a new executive, the CEO tends to move cautiously to make sure they do it right.  Most CEOs know that when they mess up an executive hire it causes them pain on a personal and professional level; it is also a huge time burn that can be very expensive.

Interestingly, though executive search firms are seen as valuable business partners during this process, HR is not usually mentioned as a key player in the executive hiring process.  To clarify, HR may be included in the process, yet they are not often viewed as a key strategic partner in the process as is the search firm.

So, what kind of support does the CEO want from HR here?  No surprise, it is candidate, generation and “fit” analysis, particularly on the culture side.  So, the basic “value add” for HR is to find a great executive search partner; the good “value add” happens when HR provides a selection toolkit for the internal search team, and the “excellent value add” is when HR can proactively generate executive talent sources.

Leading with HR
While not encompassing all that CEOs are looking for from HR, focusing on these five key “wishes” is a great way to prioritize for impact, steer your professional development and build your HR toolkit in a way that adds value to CEOs across multiple industries.

Natalie Michael is a CEO and Executive Coach with the Karmichael Group and a MacKay CEO Forums chair.  She coaches executives who want to extract more meaning from their work, refine their leadership style, and be more influential in challenging (and sometimes political) environments.

(PeopleTalk Summer 2015)

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