HR Management & Compliance

Getting Senior Leadership to Truly Listen to HR

In a recent episode of HR Works Podcast, I discussed getting leaders to truly listen to HR professionals with expert guest Ed Muzio.

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Jim: Hello, everyone, and welcome to HR Works, the podcast for HR professionals. We really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to join us. I am the host of HR Works—Jim Davis—and the editor of the HR Daily Advisor. This podcast aims to put valuable tools and knowledge into the hands and ears of you, the HR professional. Those tools will arm you with the best methods and strategies for attracting, motivating, and retaining top talent.

We know that employers spend a lot of time and energy on the entire employee life cycle—from sourcing to onboarding, straight through retention, engagement, training, and so on—but HR plays another more strategic role, one that requires working closely with executives. Even with a main line to the C-suite, HR can often find that they have trouble getting through to the leaders on important matters.

Today, we are joined by a strategic HR expert, Ed Muzio. Ed’s mantra is higher output, lower stress, sustainable growth. He is also the author of a number of books, including his most recent, Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team, an Inc. Original publication, and that was published in 2018. Ed has also been featured in national and international media, including CBS News, Fox Business News, and the New York Post, and has contributed regularly to CBS, Monster.com, and the Huffington Post, among others.

Jim: Ed, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. We are really excited to have you here.

Muzio: Jim, thank you. It’s great to be here.

Jim: Why do so many of us in HR have a hard time making ourselves understood to senior leadership?

Muzio: You know, I think the answer has a lot to do with language and the language we use to talk about the work and the output it produces. Senior leadership, in my experience, and I do a lot of work with middle to senior leaders and executives; they’re focused on what they’re focused on, which is producing output for stakeholders, and a lot of times in HR, we have some language problems with that.

For example, here’s one that I talk about in my book Iterate. I like to say we have a deficit of language around managing. We have what I call managing with a capital ING, and that is if you have direct reports, you are managing them, with a capital ING. You’re setting goals. You’re helping them develop. You’re modeling policy. You’re dealing with issues. I think HR is very good about talking about those kinds of things and has a lot of good tools for that.

Often, you’re also doing what I would call change management, with a capital CHANGE, which is major shifts in structure or purpose for the whole organization, shepherding large groups of people through those shifts—again, an important thing to do, just like managing, and HR has some good tools and some good language.

But there’s a third part of the equation, and it’s what I call management with a capital MENT, and that is that anyone who’s in management, particularly true in middle and senior leadership, is part of a system of people who are together working to allocate and reallocate the resources of the organization in pursuit of its output, to keep adjusting it back on track toward the output we need it to produce.

We don’t have, a lot of times in HR, good language for that, and so we end up talking—whether it’s about tactical things like hiring and firing or whether it’s even about strategic things like talent strategy or succession planning—we end up using a lot of language that’s sort of internally focused, whereas what our clients care about and what they’re hearing about from the other people around their sort of metaphorical and physical leadership table is they’re hearing about their output. What am I doing? What are you doing to support their output?

I think when HR has a hard time drawing that line, when we don’t do a good job of saying, “Look, I’m here in support of your output, and here’s what I’m doing in support of your output,” I think we have a hard time honestly getting taken seriously by the people we’re trying to serve.

Jim: That’s very interesting. What kinds of questions should HR be asking of any business group?

Muzio: Well, to continue that theme of focusing on output, there are four that I have that I think, if you’re an HR person and you’re stepping into a new business group or you’re trying to rebuild or build a relationship with your current client group, I think they’re key.

The first one is just simply, “What are your planned outputs, and how do you forecast them?” Now, that’s a little like asking, “What are your goals?” I think everyone would tell you you should ask about that, but I like the language around planned outputs because it’s like, what are you actually going to produce in the next X number of months? And not only how do you measure them, but how do you forecast them? Meaning, how do you sit here today and look at where you expect to be in X number of months from now and decide whether you think you are likely to arrive at where you want to be?

That’s the forecasting. If you don’t understand that about the output your clients are producing, then you’re going to have a hard time talking with them about what matters to them because that’s what matters to them. So, that’s the first one. Should I go on?

Jim: Yeah, please do.

Muzio: Second one is sort of a boring one, I think, in some ways, and all of these, I should say, are things you can ask, or you can just observe for them, too, but I like to ask because I think it gives a good conversation about how the leaders and managers see their world. The second one is, how often and how regular are your management meetings? If we’ve got a situation where managers, as I said, are part of a system trying to continuously readjust the resources of the organization, if we don’t have them meeting regularly and often, if we have a situation where the boss goes out of town for 2 weeks so we don’t have any meetings for those weeks or something, it becomes very hard to get the work of the organization done.

In HR, you’re in a position to notice and influence that and say, “Look, when someone has a problem that needs to be escalated, it shouldn’t matter that the boss is overseas. There should still be a path. Otherwise, we’re burdening these people with figuring out how to manage the organization instead of actually managing it.” Again, we’re looking for regularity and frequency. That’s number two.

Number three is—and this is almost a bit of a trick question—but you can ask the person you’re working with, do your subordinates work on their goals or on your goals? And what you’re looking for there is we have this North American management mythology that says to give each person their goals, and turn them loose. But the problem with that is that’s what creates silos. Once we have person A with goals A and person B with goals B, they’re going to pursue their goals at the expense of and without reference to the others.

So, if I’m running a team of managers, and I want my team working together to support my higher-level goals, then what I tell them is, “Yeah, you each have your own goals, and you each have your own responsibilities. But at the same time, we succeed or fail together. This is a management team, and the charter of the team is my set of goals, which are the higher-level goals, and so you need to be working on achieving my goals.”

When we have a debate about what to do with a certain resource or how to approach something, the debate is never person A versus person B for their goals. The debate is always what’s better for the higher-level goals, and by just saying that, by just saying, “We succeed or fail together,” as I just did, the leaders and the managers can actually create that kind of environment. Again, as HR, we’re in a unique position to coach that into the organization.

Jim: That’s very interesting. I like the idea because when people are in silos, they just don’t necessarily—like even if you could zip both of their silos together, it just doesn’t work, and we run into this problem all the time because it’s not like piece A fits with piece B. It’s like piece A and then number seven—apples and oranges.

Muzio: Exactly.

Jim: Yeah. Anytime new leadership takes over, there’s always this, like, reformation, where people either split things back into silos or take silos and put them all together under one. It would be good to have that sense of unification from the beginning.

Muzio: Yeah. Well, and that’s part of that, what I call the North American management mythology, which is give them their goals, and turn them loose. It’s this very individualistic kind of person on a horse riding off into the sunset sort of picture of how things work, and it sounds beautiful, but it just doesn’t work.

That, by the way, leads directly into my fourth of my four questions, which is, how consistent is your management approach between people and levels? If I’m running a management team, I can be the best in the world at driving this level of collaboration, working to the higher-level goal. There’s some things we can do around making good group decisions—forecasting, like I was talking about. But I also need to say to my team, if they’re managers, “Hey, look. I run this management team this way. I expect you to run your management team this way, and I expect you to set this expectation downstream on any managers who work for you.”

Because, to your point, Jim, if we’re not all working that way, then collaboration becomes a good idea that doesn’t work because one part of the company’s run by a dictator, one’s run by a laissez-faire manager, and one’s run by somebody who’s trying to be collaborative, and as soon as we need to resource share, we’re just breaking our heads trying to figure it out. So, you have the responsibility as a manager to make sure that consistency is there.

And if you’re the HR person advising that leader or manager, again, you’re in a unique position to say, “Hey, look. It’s not enough to say turn them loose to their goals. You’re setting the culture. You’re the one setting the tone and the specifics about how things work, so be sure to be clear about that, and set the expectation correctly.”

In part two of this article series, we’ll continue the interview with Ed Muzio. Specifically, we’ll discuss to what extent HR should know business metrics and what they should really listen for in meetings with upper management.

To listen to the entire episode, click here.