How HR Can Earn Influence (and Impact Executive Success)

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Companies should offer HR a seat at the leadership table.

Unfortunately, though (as HR people know too well), that often doesn’t happen. Or, if it does, HR’s place at the table isn’t afforded the level of influence that it should have.

Instead, HR people are relegated to the realm of “touchy-feely” or “people-people.” They’re perceived to be disconnected from the world of measurable results, and, as a consequence, they’re disconnected from having an impact on the business. 

It shouldn’t be that way, in perception or in reality. In our executive coaching work, we’ve seen that HR can have a critical, positive impact on executive success – and on the success of the organization as a whole. When HR performs its role well, executive performance and company culture thrives. But in order to impact success, HR leaders need to have influence.

So, how can HR gain the influence necessary to impact executive and business success?

Here are a few thoughts.

1. Learn to speak the language of the business.

Influence of any kind is generally built on the basis of two traits: empathy and authority. To build these, HR people must be able to speak the language of the business. 

HR’s reputation as “touchy-feely” isn’t entirely without precedent. There are HR folks who view the strategic and tactical enaction of business and its accompanying vocabulary without interest. They’re not interested in product development or income statements; they’re interested in relationships, in helping people succeed, and in culture. Those are all good things, but it’s important for HR people to recognize that cultural things are symbiotic with business success, not independent of it. 

To establish influence, HR leaders must be able to speak in business terms. They must know the language that’s spoken at the corporate table and be able to use it to frame their initiatives and values. Without it, they’ll fail to demonstrate any kind of authority. They’ll struggle to earn respect. They certainly won’t wield the influence they’ll need to impact success.

2. Be immersed in business strategy.

In addition to speaking the language of the business, HR leaders must also be immersed in the strategy of the business. These points are related, but it’s worth breaking out strategy for the impact it can have on framing HR initiatives. 

Put simply, if HR people are able to frame their initiatives in the context of (or in support of) business strategy, they’ll be far more likely to get backing for them. Speaking about a cultural program’s impact on employee engagement is one thing; demonstrating how a decrease in employee attrition is contributing to a business’s expense reduction goal is another thing entirely, and one that’s more likely to resonate with corporate leadership.

When HR leaders live and breathe the language and strategy of a business, they’re able to position critical initiatives in a way that’s appealing to business leaders.

3. Be brave for the sake of the business culture.

Finally, HR leaders can build influence by being brave. This is the simplest instruction toward influence, and also the hardest. 

Executives need feedback – and they need people brave enough to give it to them. Giving feedback to executives isn’t easy, but it’s necessary in order to fight hubris and remove the blind spots that can impede organizational success.

Additionally, HR leaders must be brave in advocating for culture. At the end of the day, HR people are the holders of organizational culture. Culture is every bit as important as business strategy, but it tends to be far less prioritized in executive contexts. If HR doesn’t fight for it, who will? 

I know one HR leader who took over what had been a small, administrative role and began to bravely advocate for a larger, stronger team that would be critical in carrying out cultural initiatives. It happened slowly, but thanks to consistent advocacy and courage, organizational leaders began to recognize HR’s business value. His requests were honored over time; today the business has one of the strongest cultures I’ve seen, and the organization is thriving. 

Bravery is never easy, but it’s necessary.

Earn Influence. Impact Success.

HR people, the business world needs you. Build your impact by speaking the language of the business, immersing yourself in strategy, and being brave. You’re the holders of culture, and your influence helps businesses – and people – to thrive.

And, if support is needed via executive coaching, get in touch.

Tobin Lehman