Determining What Your CEO Cares About (And Adjusting Your Messaging Appropriately)

It’s no secret that there can be a significant disconnect between the CEO (and C-suite) and HR leaders in many organizations.

While HR is focused on ensuring s positive and supportive culture and boosting employee engagement, CEOs are much more focused on the bottom line and often have a hard time understanding and supporting HR initiatives that, to them, may lack evidence of real ROI impact.

In most organizations, human capital represents the greatest expense on the balance sheet. However, that big expense represents big opportunity for HR professionals that can get their messages aligned with areas of relevance for senior leaders.

It may be a blow, but it’s likely true: your CEO may not care about how satisfied employees are—she or he cares mostly about how that satisfaction translates into higher productivity and other demonstratable bottom-line impacts. Trying to sell “nice to do” initiatives, without data to back up their business relevance, is a good way to ensure that your messaging lacks resonance.

Understand What Matters Most

When is the last time you’ve had a look at your organization’s strategic plan? Do you know what your company’s strategic initiatives are? Do you know what metrics have been selected by the senior leadership team to monitor success?

If you aren’t familiar with your organization’s strategic plan or priorities, and don’t know what metrics keep senior leaders up at night, it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to develop and pitch initiatives that will receive C-suite approval. That lack of understanding is one big reason so many HR professionals (and other members of service departments) continue to lament their lack of involvement.

“As HR Director at Actualize Consulting, on a mission to focus on our people instead of the numbers, I encountered the expected CEO speak and lack of response to my ‘feel good’ language,” said Kerry Wekelo. “But, when the numbers started to speak, I got their attention.”

Creating Conversations to Build Connections

HR professionals should avoid sitting in their offices lamenting about their lack of connections or lack of understanding between them and the CEO and other C-suite executives. Instead, it’s important to reach out to make connections and build understanding. What are the specific areas of focus of the CEO and C-suite members?

“CEOs respond to numbers so speak their language to get them to pay attention and really hear what you’re saying,” Wekelo advises. “Save the ‘feel good’ language for your people and program implementation.” In addition, she suggests, “Keep your CEO informed about your programs and present results in number formats.”

Making the Business Case

Building a business case involves presenting reliable and valid support for whatever recommendations you may be making. This could include the following factors:

  • A financial analysis;
  • Case studies;
  • Research;
  • Trend reports; and
  • Benchmarks or internal data—e.g. the current cost of turnover and what a specific percentage reduction in turnover could represent in terms of cost savings or boosted productivity.

“The best way for HR to improve communication to better resonate with the CEO is to show them bottom-line statistics,” recommends Lois A. Krause, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, and a practice leader for HR compliance with KardasLarson, a Connecticut-based HR consulting firm. Krause recommends showing CEOs “case studies where production and profits went up when employees were involved in change and organizational growth” and tying HR programs “to the organizational goals and the bottom line.”

Anticipating CEO and C-suite leaders’ questions in advance, and doing your homework to have the answers they’ll be looking for, can go a long way toward positioning yourself as an HR pro who “gets it.” But what kinds of questions could you anticipate?

  • How much will that cost us (both in terms of staff time and monetary expenses)?
  • What bottom-line impacts will we see? (How much will we be able to save in terms of staff time, or gain in terms of productivity?)

Finally, Krause says, “Keep it short and to the point—a bulleted list is good.” CEOs and their C-suite colleagues are busy, so don’t waste their precious time with too much detail, especially detail not related to their specific areas of concern and interest.

“I maintain that CEOs actually do really care about how satisfied employees are for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that employee satisfaction ultimately affects the bottom line,” says Jeanne Miller Rodriguez, CEO of Pennico Publishing Company and a former deputy director for the California Department of Social Services. “Increased attrition, employee and customer complaints and lawsuits all affect productivity and morale which, in turn, has a negative impact on the organization.”

Framing your conversations based on bottom line impacts can put “real green reasons” behind HR-related recommendations.


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