HR Management & Compliance

What Should HR Look for in Meetings with Upper Management?

In part one of this article series, I was discussing getting through to leadership as an HR professional with expert guest Ed Muzio. Today, I continue that discussion specifically about to what extent HR professionals should know business metrics and what they should listen for in meetings with upper management. To listen to the entire episode, click here.

Jim: I’ve introduced this podcast as an answer to the question, “How do you get HR managers to be heard by their CEOs?” And this is something people have been talking about for a long time. The answer is usually bring the CEOs and bring the leaders the kinds of things they care about. Bring them the metrics. Bring them the data that say, okay, it’s worth putting this amount of money into this program because it’s going to engage our employees better. Here’s why you want to engage them so you don’t lose a bunch of employees and have to spend all kinds of extra money training new people. Do you have any sense of, like, to what extent HR should involve itself in things like this—in objectives, graphs, and charts that are used to run the business?

Muzio: Well, I mean, there’s certainly nothing wrong with bringing good data on the things you’re proposing, but I mean, I think you asked a good question, which is you only understand the impacts if you start to understand what the group is measuring. And I think, now I’m a little bit of a weird guy because I have an engineering background, but I really believe that HR needs to be very involved in at least the high-level charts and graphs of the organization because that’s what’s running the business.

We talked a little bit a few minutes ago about measurable outcomes, measurable outputs, or measurable results. Certainly understanding that that is important, I really think HR, again, is uniquely positioned to take the next step and say, “Show me your graphs. Show me how you’re measuring these things, and then show me on your graph where you display what we might call the original version of the future, or the plan, or the objective, or how we thought things were going to go. And now, show me on your graph how you display your current understanding of the future, meaning your current forecast, and whether or not that’s different than the original forecast.”

Does your graph visually show variance? Because that’s the conversation we need to have in management. Your management team needs to look and say, “Hey, we’re on track or we’re not,” and if the graphs don’t show it, then we end up doing the common thing, which is saying, “So, Pete, how’s it going?” And then Pete kind of starts talking for a while, and it becomes unstructured and not useful.

If we’re on a limited number of graphs—not too many—and we’re doing that kind of double-future forecast where we’re saying we are or are not in the same place we were, that’s going to just feed a level of effectiveness into the management team, and it’s going to allow the HR person to coach that in, so you’re really bringing something that they need that they might not even know they need.

Jim: That’s also very interesting. When HR is in one of these meetings, when they’re observing a management meeting, what do you think they could look for?

Muzio: The meetings are—the management meetings in particular—one of the best places to observe the culture and the reality of how the organization runs. So, there are some things you can look for that are easy that I think most HR people know about that are important, like does the meeting have a written agenda? Do we follow the agenda? Does the meeting have a clear objective? Do we know why we’re there? Are the right people there? Are they participating? Are there good group dynamics? Are we following research-based models for group decision-making, or are we doing it by whoever speaks the loudest or the most or something? Those are all reasons to coach and things you can coach if there are issues there.

Beyond that and beyond the regularity that we talked about, I think you’re really looking for that future focus. You’re really looking for: Is this a meeting quantitatively that is talking about how the future now looks, and how it used to look, and what’s different about that, and what we’re going to do today to get ourselves on course or back on course? Or is it a meeting that’s talking about what’s already happened and that’s talking about what’s happening right now and that’s sort of a forum for people to kind of demonstrate their value?

Because if it’s the latter, if it’s a conversation about what’s going on and what’s already happened, that’s not useful to the organization. A little of that is fine and necessary, but if that meeting is not really all about what action in terms of resource allocation we are going to take now to keep us on track or get us back on track, then we’re missing something pretty major in management.

Jim: We were talking about silos before and unifying the message, and one way you can combat that might be to advocate for teamwork—more teamwork and more collaboration—but like we talked about, if things aren’t set up that way, that could be a lot of futility. Do you think that HR needs to do more to break down silos? And probably a good follow-up would be, how can they do that?

Muzio: I think that there is—futility is the right word, unfortunately. I think it’s a tricky area. I think the answer to this question sort of crosses with that original question about how we get HR to be taken sort of more seriously or be really well understood. We all know collaboration is important. We all know that when people get along better and when they move information better, they make better decisions, and we get better outcomes.

But just too often, it ends up sort of sounding like a motherhood and apple pie thing, where it’s like, there’s the reality, the cold, harsh reality, where we hold each person to their individual goals, and if I win, somebody else loses and that kind of thing. And then there’s this kind of idealized thing about how we all collaborate and we all help each other, and we’re putting our managers in a situation where they’re saying, “Yeah. You know, HR, you’re talking about collaboration. You’re talking about help. It sounds good, but it doesn’t match my reality.”

Now, if instead we in HR can coach the leaders and managers to, as you said, create that system, start to create that environment where the manager is saying, “Hey, look. We succeed or fail together.” I’m not saying that in a soft sort of feel-good way. I’m saying if I have three things I want this team to achieve, and if it doesn’t achieve all three, the team has failed, and therefore, the individuals on the team have failed.

I mean, I’ll kind of go over to the side a little bit for a second here, but it’s so easy to think about this if you think about the top of a very simple organization. Let’s say I have Ed Incorporated, and I’m going to develop and sell and produce a product. So, I have somebody in charge of development, somebody in charge of sales, and somebody in charge of production. If I develop it and sell a bunch of them but don’t produce it, I fail. The organization has failed. So, to what extent does it make sense to say, “Oh, my development person was successful, and my salesperson was successful. My production person failed.” Well, that’s fine, but we’re all unemployed. It’s over.

So, we bring that into the other teams in other contexts, and we say, “Look, we’re not advocating for collaboration because collaboration is good. We’re saying we do complex work. We have to share resources, and we can’t get it all done without all of us, and so we succeed or fail together.” Again, I think HR is in a position to really be in the ear of leadership and help them to make that clear to their teams and to help their teams make it clear on down to their teams in a way that might not happen without us.

Jim: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s pretty well understood at this point that your teams are only going to be as good as the people that are in them, and there’s this concept of succession planning I think probably a lot of people get wrong. And then there’s high-potential development as approaches to creating better teams and making sure your teams have a continuity, should someone leave. How do you think HR is doing in their approach to those two things?

Muzio: Well, I mean, I get in trouble for my answer to this sometimes. We’re doing better than we were. I mean, you go back a couple decades, and there wasn’t that much of that, so we’ve identified the need, I think, and we’re more vocal about it. I think the problem that we have right now is that the approach we tend to use is sort of something that kind of gets stapled onto the side of the structure. We kind of nose around in, let’s say, the org chart, and we pick out some key positions and some key people, and we sort of lift those out and put them in a spreadsheet somewhere, and we say these are the ones we care the most about, and so let’s make sure those positions have someone identified, and let’s make sure those people get some extra development or whatever.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s probably really smart in most contexts to do that. But, the problem is when that boss leaves that key position, maybe he takes or she takes that key person along because that person only wants to work for that boss. Or maybe that person doesn’t want the new job op, or maybe—any number of things can happen. The problem is we’re not doing enough of it because you can’t do it separately and outside the organization.

What we need to have happen instead, and what I always advocate for, is part of that sort of we succeed or fail together message, part of that you have your goals, but we’re working together on my goals is saying to those managers, “Hey, look. You’re going to be making recommendations in our management meeting about what’s good or bad for my boss-level, higher-level goals, and to do that well, you need to understand the work of your peers. So, everyone get in the habit of having one-on-one meetings, talking to each other, and learning about each other’s work.”

In the short term, the reason you do that is because you become a better adviser to the team and to the team leader, so that’s how we set it up. But in the long term, the effect of that is now I’ve got my person A and person B, and they’ve done a better job of learning about each other’s work. So if I move up or move out, we have everybody on my team, person A, person B, everybody else, person C, and they all understand each other’s work, and they all have a history of working toward my boss, higher-level goals. So, any one of them can move up into my position, and on day 1 of their new job, their learning curve is their new peers, meaning the people their boss was up here with.

In the North American model, on day 1 of their new job, they have to hurry up and learn what their old peers were doing because now, they’re managing those people, and so you see very often a 3- to 6-month or more lag in productivity and performance in these new managers because they just don’t know what they’re doing yet because up until the day they got promoted, the message had been, you worry about your stuff, and let your peers worry about their stuff, and don’t put your nose where it isn’t wanted.

By doing it the other way, by doing this what I call upward-looking success and continuous lateral development, we create a system where management development is going on for everyone all the time, and that’s just much more thorough and complete than anything you can do in a spreadsheet. So, you really need both.

Jim: We hear a lot of talk about culture—company culture, organizational culture, people culture. We publish all kinds of articles about this. I mean, it’s clear it’s important. It’s important that people have the companies tend to their culture and they help create one that’s going to bring more people in and keep people there longer. What about consistent culture, specifically being consistent in your management culture?

Muzio: Absolutely. I mean, I sort of said it already a little bit, but this idea of we all need to manage the same way. My favorite definition of culture comes from Edgar Schein of MIT Sloan, who we think invented the term, and he basically said we, either the “we” in this building or the “we” who were here before us, had some problems in the past, and we learned how to solve those problems by evolving, through luck or skill, some behaviors. And now, the quote is that we teach each other those behaviors back and forth as the way to think, feel, perceive, and act around those challenges. So, what you have is a bunch of patterns from before that we carry forward because they worked, but there’s no guarantee that they were optimal back then, and there’s certainly no guarantee that things haven’t changed between then and now.

So, when you start talking about culture, what you’re really talking about is what behaviors we can intentionally practice today that will be visible to each other and that will be helpful to the organization so that we catch the front end of that cycle so that we start to learn behaviors today that get sticky and get adopted as the culture of tomorrow.

Back to this HR advising on output, the things I’m talking about around how to advise your management teams and your leadership teams as to how to run the team, as to how to make decisions, we didn’t talk much about that one, but there are certain models to make decisions as to what kind of graphical data to use, as to what makes a good meeting or a bad meeting and how often to have them and how not to cancel them when you’re out of town—all of these things become visible behaviors, and those visible behaviors turn into culture.

So, as soon as I say, “Hey, managers that work for me, I want you to run this way, too, and I want you to tell your managers that work for you to run this way, too,” I’m starting to say we’re going to practice these behaviors all together in the context of our current challenges so that the ones that work get sticky so that we’re evolving a culture of tomorrow that is better suited to the challenges we’re facing today and tomorrow as opposed to just carrying forward a culture because it’s the default, because it happened by accident some time ago and we don’t exactly know what to do with it.

That’s I think where culture and management intersect, and again, I said it a lot of times in this discussion, but I feel like HR is uniquely positioned to have that conversation with leadership, and that’s a conversation about behavior, and it’s a conversation about output. I think that’s a conversation that really gets you a seat at the table much more strongly than advocating for collaboration, for example, because it’s a good idea, even though you’re right about that.

Jim: Great. Well, this has all been really good. Thanks again for taking the time to join us today.

Muzio: Jim, thank you. It’s been great talking with you.

Jim: You’re most welcome. Listeners, we are always interested in suggestions you might have for what HR Works should cover next. Feel free to reach out to us on Twitter, @hrworkspodcast, or with any thoughts or concerns you have about the podcast in general or if you just want to say hi. Thank you for listening. This is Jim Davis with HR Works.

To listen to the entire episode, click here.

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